Often, unless you are blessed with an endless budget, backpackers find little time for cities. They seem expensive, crowded and they don’t have a beach in sight (usually). For the most part when visiting cities, we use them as tick box to get around the ‘top things to do’ in the space of a few days so that you can be packed up and out of there on to your next destination. Saigon itself offers some good box tickers including the Cu Chi Tunnels, Ben Thanh Market and the War Museum among others, but if you’re looking for some alternative activities that enable you to soak up what the city is actually all about and day-to-day life here, then I suggest you try one (or all) of these!
1. Try out your swing at Him lam golf range
… or just drink some beers and try to hit the ball (which is what I usually do). Glen is a golfer back home so when we discovered this beautiful golf range overlooking the city and river, he just had to go. We’ve been 3 times since and not one time have we worn appropriate clothing or shoes – yes you’ll be the only westerners, and most likely the only people not in golfing gear, but everyone’s too busy practicing their own swing to notice. This is where I’d say you get to mix with the wealthy locals and enjoy the the beautiful sunset over the Saigon skyline. Standard purchase is 170k which gets you 100 balls then an additional 50k per golf club you borrow and beers are 30-40k! If you’re looking for a bit of fun, and feeling the need to whack a ball with a beautiful backdrop, this is the alternative activity for you.
It’s just outside District 1 in an area called Binh Tanh and walkable from Bui Vien but a grab taxi or bike would cost you less than $2!
2. go to a vietnamese beer club
On the flip side, if you want to see how the working class locals like to get down on (every) night of the week then get yourself to a beer club. The deal is you usually pay a flat fee of around 220-250k, depending on when you go, for all you can drink beer/cider and all you can eat buffet. Now this isn’t like your usual free-flow deals where you have to catch their attention to order another drink which takes 5 minutes to arrive to make sure you never get your money’s worth. This is the real deal, meaning our glasses didn’t even get half empty once, the waiters are constantly tipping your beer out of the can into your glass and refreshing your ice every time you take a sip – you literally lose count of how much you’ve had to drink and you never run dry. The buffet is also full of delicious local food but also enough fried rice, fried chicken and prawn crackers to satisfy any fussy eater.
Disclaimer – the music is all Vietnamese pop, the strobes are enough to send anyone over (I’m only 23 and love a night out as much as the next young person but this was crazy) and it’s very loud. It’s not a night where you plan to chat to your mates, it’s a chance to see how the locals let their hair down and all for less than $9. We went to the X-Pose beer club in District 6 with a Vietnamese friend and we got the impression that they don’t get many westerners there cause we were centre of attention most of the night for photos and drink-clinking but it was all good fun. It cost us 120k in a grab taxi from D1 which we split between 4 of us and it took about 30 minutes but there are beer clubs closer to the centre, I just can’t say they will be as cheap!
3. take a road trip to the black virgin mountain
I wrote all about this road trip in three posts and a highlight reel on LoveTwoWander’s Instagram here so head over there to get the full low-down on how to get there, everything you’ll need and some cool photos of it all! In short, it’s approximately a 240km round trip if you take the highway there and the country roads back which takes around 3 hours per leg. It’s a full day out and if you go by motorbike, you will get a numb bum but it can be cured by regular stretching stops. I’d say if you’re confident on a bike, have a spare day and like a challenging climb (it’s literally climbing up boulders for over an hour to reach the viewpoint) then you should definitely head to this mountain. We did it on a Sunday so left at 4am as we knew it would be busy with locals but if you do it on a weekday, it will be quieter. I’d recommend this if you like being the only westerners around, as you certainly will be here, and if you like doing things against the ordinary tourist grain.
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Sat at the edge of the world with my best friend 🌏 ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ This view was totally worth the 8 pints of water we each lost in sweat on the climb up 💦 Head over to my highlights to re-live our hike up the black virgin mountain and how you can do it in a day trip from HCMC! ✌🏼 it’s completely worth it, DM me if you have any Qs 🌈
4. ride out to district 2 (thao dien) and see how the expats live…
We live in the craziness that is District 1 as when we arrived we weren’t sure where we would want to work/if we would be working in a particular place and so we thought we’d go central. Having been here 5 months now and having seen a lot more of the city, we both say if we were staying longer we’d probably live in one of the more expat-y areas. Thao Dien is one of them. I like to describe it as ‘expat town’, although locals do live there there is an undeniable western presence and the whole place feels a lot like a little town. I can imagine if you lived there, you’d have little reason to leave as it has most things you’d want day-to-day. Glen’s parents recently visited and are mad about property so we took them for a drive around Thao Dien to show them some of the crazy mansion-like houses that are so different to the apartment blocks of D1. It’s also nice to experience a break away from the madness and have a wander around the smaller streets and little cafes. There’s also a pretty good selection of bars so always a reason to visit a place! We like Bier Ecke and Biacraft in particular.
…Breath some fresh air & see how the rich expats live in district 7
District 7 is about a 20-25 minute drive out of District 1 but it will bring you huge open quiet roads (great for if you’ve just bought a bike and want to get confident on the roads minus the traffic), a nice walk along the river and lovely quiet cafes. If you’re only in HCMC for a few days then you probably wouldn’t be craving a break from the madness just yet; but if you’re the kind of person that likes to take in all aspects of a place to really experience then I’d say add a morning in District 7 to your list. A lot of people come away from HCMC saying it’s crazy, they didn’t enjoy it and they wouldn’t rush back, but these are often the people that see and stay on Bui Vien and do nothing else – of course you’re going to think it’s crazy!
5. Go to a park before 8am or after 6pm
This is when the locals like to exercise in the park gym, do yoga, play games, sit with their friends and relax, practice dance groups and so much more. It’s their way of avoiding the hottest part of the day when the humidity and pollution feels like it’s blocking your air ways! The closest park to Bui Vien is the 23/9 park, just across the road, or a 5 minute walk away is Tao Dan park (one of our favourites), both are full of activity during dawn and dusk. If you’ve been in Vietnam a little while you’ll have noticed the game ‘Da Cau’ (aka Jianzi), similar looking to a badminton shuttlecock but heavier and played with the feet by kicking it either to a partner or in a group. It was one of the first things Glen and I bought when we got here, as we wanted to learn to play like the locals… so far, we are up to 3 passes as a record – its harder than it looks! But definitely get one of these (they are sold everywhere) and give it a go!
6. Find a spot you like, look for a cafe and take the world in below
If we want to look over the life below, we usually go to the cafe tower on Nguyen Hue (pictured below). You have nine floors of choice, with the best city views being at the top, but the best people watching views being on the second or third floors. This building is on a waiting list to be demolished so sadly will only be around until they can find somewhere to house the families currently living there. Until that day comes, we get to enjoy the view from an array of cafes in one of my favourite buildings.
*If you’re a blogger or just want to catch up on some internet time in a nice environment, check out my other blog post on my favourite cafe’s in District 1 to work in*
7. Have a pool day
If you’ve been inland for a while or you can survive too long without getting some sun on your body by a pool, then head to Van Thanh Park on the outskirts of District 1 for a delightfully cheap pool day. Entry is 70k during the week and 80k on weekends, permitting you to spend all day by the pool if you wish with free use umbrellas, sun loungers, toilets and changing rooms. They also sell beers and soft drinks for very reasonable prices too. It’s set back from all the traffic in a big park with lakes and restaurants, so the craziness of Saigon is left at the entrance and it’s really peaceful. Around 15 minutes by moto taxi from Bui Vien!
If you want to try any of these or are looking for anything in particular in Saigon, drop me a message. I’m always keen to help out where I can to help people get the most out of this crazy city so you can leave Saigon with a good impression.