Short Breaks Travel

4 very different ways to make the most of a trip to Ho Chi Minh

By: Leanda Rathmell

Want to dig a little deeper? Scrap your misconceptions of guided tours; they don’t always have to involve boring history lessons or trailing after a flag. Here are four fun and quirky tours to maximise your time and indulge your interests in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Trails & Tales provides a good first taste of Ho Chi Minh
Trails & Tales provides a good first taste of Ho Chi Minh

#1 For the novice

Those tackling this frenetic city for the first time will benefit greatly from Trails & Tales, a crash course on Ho Chi Minh City, still known as Saigon to the locals. Understanding the events that have shaped this metropolis gives critical context to appreciating its beauty, and this walking tour – led by gifted storyteller and history buff Adam Priestly – keeps kids and adults mesmerised. Adam’s vivid narrative explains the history, folklore and cultural idiosyncrasies of Saigon, with stops including historical and architectural landmarks, from the Reunification Palace to the French colonial Notre-Dame Cathedral, Saigon Opera House and the 68-storey Bitexco Financial tower. Along the way, Adam equips you with helpful tips to manoeuver through the streets of Saigon, from the motorbike mayhem to bargain-hunting and street food favourites. There’s no set charge for the tour, though do thank Adam with a tip for helping you establish your bearings in this mad city.

Duration: 3 hours Cost: Tip basis

Learn about the history of Vietnam's art in Ho Chi Minh
Learn about the history of Vietnam’s art in Ho Chi Minh

# 2 For the artist

Why not explore Ho Chi Minh’s history through the eyes of artists? From colonialism to independence and communism to globalisation, Sophie’s Art Tour gives the stage to artists that studied, fought, witnessed and documented major changes in 20th- and 21st-century Vietnam. Devised by art historian Sophie Hughes, the morning outing visits museums, galleries, private collections and contemporary art spaces across HCMC to expose the tumultuous story and key epochs in the development of Vietnamese art. From spellbinding propaganda, battlefield sketches and combat art riddled with influence from the West through to China and Japan, through to the growing contemporary art scene, never has a history lesson been more colourful.

Duration: 4 hours Cost: US$55

Ho Chi Minh: Experience the real flavour of Vietnam
Experience the real flavour of Vietnam

#3 For the foodie

Expand your palate beyond the usual pho and banh mi favourites and let a local show you the real flavour of Ho Chi Minh. Traverse the city on the back of a motorbike, weave through wet markets and duck into alleyway haunts for the best local fare with XO Tours. While most visitors limit their time to District 1, these charismatic ladies cover some serious ground. The evening takes you to five distinctly unique districts rarely charted on tourist maps, with sightseeing pit stops along the way. Highlights include bun bo hue (a richer and spicier alternative to pho), nhu de nuong chao (char-grilled goat meat wrapped in betel leaf) and so diep nuong mo hanh (grilled scallops with spring onions and peanuts), all washed down with free-flowing Saigon Beer. The more daring tour-goers can sample unconventional eats such as hot vit lon (fertilised duck egg) in tamarind sauce or ech nurong (grilled frog), fondly referred to as “jumping chicken”.

Duration: 4.5 hours Cost: US$75

Ho Chi Minh: Solve a murder mystery with an unconventional tour
Solve a murder mystery with an unconventional tour

#4 For the detective

Solve a murder mystery in this unconventional tour of HCMC’s infamous Chinatown district. A real slice of Old Saigon, Cholon dates back to the 17th century and dominates the Western Bank. It’s distinctive character is preserved throughout the pagodas, markets, workshops and interlacing residential alleys. Urban Tales is a self-guided tour that offers a unique way to immerse yourself in the thick of this neighbourhood; it’s tour spiked with adrenaline and adventure, as you race the clock to solve “The Strange Case of Dr Lam”. The investigation starts promptly at 8.30am, when you’re collected from your hotel by vintage car and dropped directly at the crime scene to collect clues. Armed with a notepad, compass, map and phone, you’re then sent on your way in search of the culprit. You have to spot clues, decode secret messages, interrogate witnesses and navigate your way through back alleys; then, once you’ve caught the crook and handed him over to the police, a rewarding dim sum lunch awaits!

Duration: Around 5 to 6 hours Cost: From US$44 (car transfer and lunch optional)

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This article first appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.