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"Short stories and travel reports from my life adventures around the globe".

Travel Report: Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh.

Post Office Ho Chi Minh.

Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh.

May 2018.

Following my individual reports on Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum, it’s time to wrap up the best of the rest with my Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh.

Vietnam travel guide

I’ll never forget my arrival in HCM. It was absolutely belting down with rain. In fact, the streets had been temporarily transformed into urban rivers. One of the worst affected was Bui Vien Street, the city’s main backpacker district. My hotel was in a pedestrianised alley that ran off the street, which meant my taxi driver couldn’t take me all the way.

A rainy day on Bui Vien Street in Ho Chi Minh

Bui Vien Street, Ho Chi Minh.

Thus I had to jump out of the taxi and make my way to the hotel on foot. It took just a few minutes, but I was absolutely soaked by the time I tumbled through the front door into reception. I really liked that alleyway, known locally as Hem 84, as it proved surprisingly quiet. Despite the fact that it runs directly off the hustle and bustle of Bui Vien Street.

Hem 84 Bui Vien Street Ho Chi Minh

Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh.

Bui Vien itself had everything going on. From bars, restaurants, cafes and stores to guesthouses, pharmacies, banks, money exchange offices, massage parlours and cinemas. And yet, it never felt quite as overwhelming as say Khaosan Road in Bangkok or Beer Street in Siem Reap.

Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh.

Visit Ho Chi Minh Bui Vien Street.

Bui Vien Street, Ho Chi Minh.

It was nice to have such a huge range of restaurants on my doorstep. Over the course of my stay I had Italian, Lebanese and Indian. For dirt-cheap local cuisine, I stayed loyal to a restaurant called Phuong Cafe. They did a huge range of dishes, including meat and rice combos, pho, noodles, barbecue and spring rolls.

Phuong Cafe Bui Vien Street Ho Chi Minh

Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh.

The staff was no-nonsense and didn’t bother with English, but that was no problem thanks to the picture menu. Most plates went for just a dollar or two, which made it easy to order up a feast. While researching this article I’ve seen how COVID has all but decimated Bui Vien Street. Unfortunately, Phuong Cafe was just one of many casualties and is now permanently closed down.

Phuong Cafe Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh

RIP Phuong Cafe.

My favourite morning joint, Bookworm’s Coffee, was just off Bui Vien Street. Here I could get a cup of Yorkshire Tea (!) and ballpark renditions of an English/Scottish/Irish/American breakfast. The owners were famously charmless, as you can perhaps see for yourself, below. Nevertheless, it was a haven sorts for a traveler like me that needed something familiar in the morning.

Bookworm's Coffee Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh

Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh.

It certainly wasn’t fine dining at Bookworm’s Coffee. But the price was right and they had lots of little comforts, such as Heinz Ketchup and vinegar for my cheese-topped eggs on toast with sausages and baked beans. Sadly, it seems the place has really gone downhill in recent years. Just a glance at their recent TripAdvisor reviews makes for some grim reading.

Bookworm’s Coffee.

English breakfast at Bookworm's Coffee in Ho Chi Minh

Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh.

Had I been so inclined, I could’ve written a separate article about the food. But I didn’t quite have the photos, hence I will settle on sharing one of my favourite dinner spots. The Secret Garden Restaurant on Pasteur Street has a wonderful ambience, a rooftop garden joint with Buddhist art, wood furnishings and intimate lighting.

Secret Garden Restaurant Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh

The Secret Garden Restaurant.

Here, one can get some of the best, competitively-priced Vietnamese home cooking in the city For my main. I went for the outstanding braised pork with egg and gravy. Tangy and sweet, the soup was to die for, especially when you pour your bowl of white rice in and let it all soak.

Happy to hang around that night and enjoy the traditional Buddhist music, I also went for a chocolate latte and a slice of red bean cheesecake. Pleasingly, I see The Secret Garden is still going, though online reviews are patchy.

Dinner at The Secret Garden Restaurant Ho Chi Minh

Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh.

As I have hinted at in previous articles, Ho Chi Minh can be a difficult city to love. Its chaotic traffic scene is infuriating, while certain neighbourhoods are just too crowded and polluted. Generally, large chunks of the city lack character.

Crazy traffic Ho Chi MInh.

Ugh.

However, there are several delightful oases if one knows where to look. Take Tao Dan Park, for example, one of the city’s largest and most attractive green spaces. With thousands of trees, several ponds and an active bird community, the park provides a much-needed break from all the concrete and vehicle fumes.

Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh.

Tao Dan Park Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh

Tao Dan Park.

In the mornings the park is awash with HCM’s elderly community. This is where they come to dance, practice tai chi, play badminton and walk around chatting with their caged birds. When I swung by it was mid-afternoon and virtually deserted. Just a few people here and there enjoying the solitude on benches. One woman reading a newspaper, another sittin’ doin’ nothin’.

Locals hanging out at Tao Dan Park in Ho Chi Minh

Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh.

By another bench I got chatting to Tung, who told me he was a Vietnam War veteran. Softly spoken and kind-eyed, Tung offered his services as a guide. “I know this city like the back of hand” he told me somewhat sadly.

I’ve met countless scammers over the years during my various travels around the world. But it was my gut feeling that Tung was a good guy. With my schedule for the day already in place, I had to pass him up on his offer. I often wonder what kind of tour he’d have given me and what I might have learned. A bit of a HCM regret.

Vietnam War vet Ho Chi Minh.

Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh.

Before exiting the park, I checked out a few curiosities. In one corner, I found a modern sculpture garden showcasing the talents of several local artists. There was also a replica of Po Nagar, an ancient Cham Temple tower located in the Vietnamese province of Kauthara.

Tao Dan Park.

Tao Dan Park.

Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh.

Another peaceful spot is the lovely 100-meter long Book Street (Nguyen Van Binh). Stretching from Hai Ba Trung street to Notre Dame Cathedral, the road is home to bookstores, cafes and quirky arts and crafts stores.

Book Street Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh

Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh.

I was perhaps expecting to see plenty of English language titles. But actually the shops here cater largely to the domestic market. So for me the visit was all about soaking up the atmosphere rather than browsing.

Book Street Ho Chi Minh.

Book Street (Nguyen Van Binh).

There are several book exchanges on the road, in addition to the cosy Book Bus. You can find it parked next to a cutesy bus stop fitted with wooden benches and potted plants. It’s a highly Instagrammable spot that’s particularly popular with selfie-taking teens.

The blue Book Bus in Ho Chi Minh.

Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh.

Eventually, I took a load off at Book Street’s main cafe, the unimaginatively named Book Cafe. Thankfully the coffee doesn’t disappoint, though this is definitely one of HCM’s priciest spots for a latte and a muffin.

Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh.

The main cafe on Book Street Ho Chi Minh

Book Street (Nguyen Van Binh).

Just a minute or so from the cafe on foot, one cannot miss Saigon Central Post Office. One of Ho Chi Minh’s most beautiful buildings, it dates back to the city’s French colonial days.

It was designed by the renowned French architect Marie-Alfred Foulhoux, who melded a mix of influences, including classic French, Neo-baroque, Renaissance and Gothic. Personally, I love its canary yellow facade and the green shutters on the windows.

Saigon Central Post Office.

Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh.

Completed in 1891, the building was Foulhoux’s final work. He died the following year after “a brief illness” aged just 52. Amazingly, the structure still operates as the city’s main post office! And yes, you can just wander in for a look at the gorgeous interior.

The post office counters are at the back, set in front of a huge portrait of Ho Chi Minh. The rest of the hall is dominated by a giant souvenir counter. They sell postcards, stamps, fancy stationery and kitschy Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam souvenirs.

Saigon Central Post Office Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh Vietnam

Saigon Central Post Office.

Look out for the lovely vaulted ceiling and original floor tiles. You’ll also see some stunning 19th century wooden phone booths that are still operational!

Above them sits a pair of handsome, handprinted maps of Vietnam. One depicts the city of Saigon and its surrounding countryside circa 1892. The other, pictured above, shows the postal route between southern Vietnam and Cambodia.

Saigon Central Post Office.

Saigon Central Post Office Ho Chi Minh

Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh.

I couldn’t move on from Saigon Central Post Office without mentioning the incredible life’s work of Mr. Duong Van Ngo. This amazing man worked at the post office in various capacities for over 42 years. He sorted mail, worked at the counter and made deliveries. He later learned both French and English in order to deal with foreign correspondence.

Duong Van Ngo Saigon Central Post Office

Duong Van Ngo, a Ho Chi Minh legend.

Photo courtesy of Dang Tung Duong.

In 1990 he had the chance to retire. But instead, Mr Ngo dedicated himself to being a public letter writer. And so he continued to work in the office composing letters for people who couldn’t write. As his fame grew, people simply wanted to have a letter written by the great Duong Van Ngo. Sadly, the post office forced him to retire in 2021. He is now 90 years old. 

Duong Van Ngo Vietnamese public letter writer

Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh.

Photo courtesy of Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier.

As I’ve stated before, it’s worth coming to Ho Chi Minh simply to see their unmissable Vietnam War sights. Having dove deep into this history with my visits to Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum, I was keen to add another key spot. And so I paid a visit to the understated but highly significant Cha Tam Church (St Francis Xavier Parish Church).

St Francis Xavier Church Cool Spots

Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh.

Dating back to 1902, this gothic style church sprang up to serve the Catholic parishioners of HCM’s Chinese community. Cha Tam is the Vietnamese name of Pierre d’Assou, the Macau-born priest who funded the church’s construction and subsequently became its first vicar. Fittingly, you can find the man’s gravestone right outside the front door.

Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh.

Francois Xavier Tam Assou grave Ho Chi Minh

Cha Tam Church.

A further curiosity, just in front of the gravestone, is this memorial to 117 Vietnamese Martyrs. It refers to the individuals canonised by Pope John Paul II on June the 19th 1988.

117 Martyrs Memorial Ho Chi Minh.

Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh.

Cha Tam’s juiciest bit of history lies inside, where a plaque on one of the pews marks the events of November the 1st and 2nd, 1963. On the 1st, President Ngo Dinh Diem fled Independence Palace when he got wind of the military coup underway led by General Duong Van Minh.

As the story goes, Diem and his brother Nhu escaped to a house near the church. The next morning they left the building to go and pray at the church, but were discovered by Minh’s soldiers. The soldiers assassinated both of them in the back of a tank en route to the Vietnamese Joint General Staff Headquarters.

Inside Cha Tam Church in Ho Chi Minh

Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh.

With such history, I was expecting the church to be busier. But it was eerily quiet and indeed the only person I saw was a woman sleeping under a tree next to her bicycle loaded with cleaning materials. The church is free to enter but keeps odd hours, so make sure to time your visit between 07:00-12:00, 14:00-16:00 and 19:00-21:00.

Cha Tam Church.

An afternoon nap in Ho Chi Minh.

Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh.

Visit any Vietnamese city and there’s going to be a big ol’ market to check out. Ho Chi Minh’s grandest collection of stalls lives at Ben Thanh Market, built in 1859. Today’s complex is a rebuilt version of the original market, which was destroyed in a fire in 1870.

Ben Thanh Market.

Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh.

As an Asian travel veteran, I must admit I was suffering somewhat from market fatigue. Moreover, this one was full of aggressive touts who don’t give you a second to process what you’re looking at. As a result, I made do with a cursory circuit and decided to buy my t-shirts elsewhere.

Ben Thanh Market Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh

Ben Thanh Market.

I’m really glad I held off until I got to Saigon Kitsch. In this trendy French-owned store, there are some really inventive Vietnam/Ho Chi Minh centric souvenirs. Yes, you’ll end up paying more than at the markets. But bear in mind the quality is much better and you get what you pay for.

Saigon Kitsch Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh

Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh.

They offer a vast range of propaganda prints, while I found myself tempted by their Saigon themed Monopoly. I also had a huge soft spot for their range of products based on the Mr. Men and Little Miss books by the English children’s author Roger Hargreaves. Those books were a staple of my younger years, so I couldn’t resist picking up a Mr. Banh Mi mouse mat. It set me back $7.

Mr Banh Mi mouse mat Ho Chi Minh

Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh.

And yeah, Saigon Kitsch had me covered for t-shirts. Indeed I came away with a handful that day, including this cool “I need coffee” piece ($20). It’s a really fun store, and this is coming from someone who is not into shopping.

Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh.

Saigon Kitsch Ho Chi Minh.

Saigon Kitsch.

Finally, I’ll always remember Ho Chi Minh for its unexpected hotel shenanigans. I was quite fond of Phuong Van Hotel, the alleyway joint mentioned at the beginning of this article.

My room was tiny but it had a big bed, an ensuite bathroom and a cosy retro design that included 1960s tiles and a large wooden work desk. But on my second day in the city, I woke up to the news that it had to close down immediately due to an “ownership dispute”.

Phuong Van Hotel Ho Chi Minh nostalgia

Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh.

Seriously, I had to pack up my stuff straight away and move into someone’s house next door! It was a ridiculous arrangement that saw me have to walk through the family living room each time I needed to access my room. I managed one night there before deciding to treat myself to a fancy hotel for the last few nights.

Lotus Boutique Hotel Ho Chi Minh.

Cool Spots Around Ho Chi Minh.

And that’s what I did, by relocating to the lovely Lotus Boutique Hotel. There, my deluxe room came with cable TV, air con, a safe, a reasonably priced minibar and a delicious bathtub that I sank into each night with a cold beer. The rate also included a complimentary buffet breakfast and access to the rooftop pool. I would recommend the place but sadly COVID has claimed it, along with so many others. R.I.P.

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33 Comments

  • qprgary

    Did you do the tunnels at cu chi ? fascinating. Had a great time in the city but can’t get past calling it Saigon, probably an age thing.

    February 12, 2022 - 2:15 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I didn’t get to the tunnels unfortunately, but heard great things. This was right at the end of my trip so it was a little rushed. 2-3 days to explore the city and I did manage a day trip to The Mekong Delta. Will publish that one on Tuesday. Thanks for reading Gary. Up the Rs today!

      February 12, 2022 - 2:22 pm Reply
  • kagould17

    This post is a real love affair with HCM, Leighton. Many people like the places they visit, but do not love them, as they seldom go off the beaten tourist paths to see the real place, warts and all. Thanks for taking us along. Happy weekend. Allan

    February 12, 2022 - 2:44 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Appreciate that Allan, thanks. I think HCM is a fantastic place to visit when you put everything together. But I think a lot of people (myself almost included) would be put off with how uncompromising and charmless large swathes of the city is.

      February 12, 2022 - 9:49 pm Reply
  • Memo

    Love your “Cool Spots” posts. They are always so upbeat. A great way to start my day. I would have loved the park. Looked like a great place to read as well as to explore. We’ve seen public letter writer’s all over the world. Seems like a perfect job to retire to. I want some of the braised pork and egg. Keep taking pictures of your best foods. And I have to say, that was the perfect t-shirt. I’m afraid I would need an Oscar the Grouch.

    February 12, 2022 - 3:12 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for that Memo, I really enjoy these posts too. Somehow I feel less pressure to get all the deep historic info down and I can make the tone much breezier as we flit from spot to spot. I can picture you in an Oscar the Grouch t-shirt. I really need to send you an email soon. We have just gotten to London for a two week stay and have a heavy week of exploring coming up. Have even taken a week off work in order to enjoy to the max. Speak soon old friend.

      February 12, 2022 - 9:56 pm Reply
  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    Reminds me of our arrival in Colombo – streets turned into fast flowing rivers in minutes, and the two of us sheltering with about 40 others in the doorway to a public toilet. These things, like your hotel shenanigans, give us our offbeat travel memories. And of course our travel stories.

    February 12, 2022 - 5:45 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for checking in, sounds like you’ve had a similar sodden arrival experience. Not great fun at the time, but amusing and nostalgic in retrospect.

      February 12, 2022 - 5:53 pm Reply
  • salsaworldtraveler

    You found really interesting places that most tourists never see. Too bad about the letter writer who had to retire last year. I would have loved a hand-written letter on my behalf. Staying at a hotel when it was shut down is a real nightmare. I guess a refund was out of the question.

    February 12, 2022 - 5:50 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      As far as I know everyone in that hotel got shipped off to nearby hotels or free rooms in family/friends houses. What a situation!

      February 12, 2022 - 5:55 pm Reply
  • Little Miss Traveller

    Some beautiful buildings Leighton. I particularly like the Post Office and along Book Street Leighton. I’ll remember these spots for when we eventually make it there.

    February 12, 2022 - 6:29 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for checking this roundup piece Marion. I think when you look at these city highlights like this it makes HCM look a lot more attractive than it really is ha ha. Or as a whole at least.

      February 12, 2022 - 7:21 pm Reply
  • Monkey's Tale

    Well maybe we didn’t give HCM a chance. You found some great spots. The park reminds me of the park around Temple of Heaven in Beijing where older people would do many activities in the morning. I love the story of the letter writer. What a cute old man! And of course the post office is gorgeous. Glad you introduced me to the ‘cool’ spots. Maggie

    February 12, 2022 - 10:06 pm Reply
  • Leighton

    Thanks Maggie, I’m glad this article showed you a brighter side of HCM. I know exactly what you mean about Tao Dan Park’s Temple of Heaven qualities.

    February 12, 2022 - 11:50 pm Reply
  • Lyssy In The City

    You really saw quite the variety! Now this post is making me hungry, oh how the tables have turned 😃

    February 13, 2022 - 7:36 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Lyssy! Definitely think you’d love the food in Vietnam. And they do international fusion so well too.

      February 13, 2022 - 8:39 pm Reply
  • Rebecca

    It’s great to see that there’s a lot to do in HCM. Especially when big, capital cities get a bad rep for being boring and not reflective of the country’s culture, it’s all the more important to give these places a chance to see what they can offer. As you’ve shown us, HCM’s French colonial influence through its architecture and coffee culture are indicative that, indeed, there is history and culture to the big city. Thanks for taking us along!

    February 13, 2022 - 9:47 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Rebecca, I thought you might appreciate the little injections of French influence found across Ho Chi Minh.

      February 13, 2022 - 9:48 pm Reply
      • Rebecca

        Absolutely, merci! 😉

        February 13, 2022 - 9:49 pm
  • WanderingCanadians

    Sounds like you stayed in a pretty central location. It’s always nice to be by a range of restaurants and to have some different options to taste test. I continue to be impressed by the interesting people you’ve met during your travels.

    February 13, 2022 - 11:59 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I’m often left in awe of the characters I’ve met over the years. Definitely one of the great joys of travel, thanks for reading!

      February 14, 2022 - 7:16 am Reply
  • grandmisadventures

    You really have the best collection of great spots. I am adding to my list of places to see in bounds with these posts 🙂

    February 14, 2022 - 5:41 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for dropping by Meg! I think HCM is well worth a visit despite being perhaps my least favourite city in Vietnam.

      February 14, 2022 - 5:50 pm Reply
  • Alison

    Sad to hear that many places have now closed down. I found Saigon the busiest place I’ve ever been, I’m not sure I would go back, although my husband would. I love Mr Bahn Mi so funny. A fancy hotel after hostels is always a treat. My backpacking days are well and truly over!

    February 14, 2022 - 8:18 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I hear you on the accommodation Alison, I think our days of slumming it are probably behind us (for the most part). It is sad how many livelihoods COVID has destroyed. Over the past year or so I’ve had to go back to nearly a dozen articles and do updates on closures. Thanks for stopping by!

      February 14, 2022 - 8:21 pm Reply
      • Alison

        It’s happening all over the world isnt it. I saw somewhere you are in London, don’t you find the UK super expensive. Have fun exploring London anyway 🙂

        February 14, 2022 - 8:39 pm
      • Leighton

        Alison, it is horribly expensive here. But we’ve had an amazing day packed full of (mostly) historic free spots. Six more days of exploring to do, Sladja is super excited. Our bank account less so 😉

        February 14, 2022 - 8:45 pm
      • Alison

        Crumbs I can imagine
        Did you go to the Garden in the Sky ..amazing views and you don’t have to book that one. Not to be confused with the Sky Garden. Both in Fenchurch Street.

        February 15, 2022 - 12:36 pm
      • Leighton

        We did The Sky Garden on Monday and luckily had clear skies. Which is more than I can say for today’s weather horror show. We actually got some views of the garden you were referring to from the top of the garden above the main terrace.

        February 18, 2022 - 11:03 pm
  • wetanddustyroads

    Love the view of Bui Vien Street – motorcycles galore! The park looks like a nice (quieter) place to just stroll around – so much greenery. I wish you had taken more photos of your food, because it really looks delicious! Sometimes, it’s just better to put your hand a little bit deeper into your pocket and pay the money for a great stay in a comfortable hotel … not always, but definitely sometimes 😉.

    February 16, 2022 - 4:06 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for catching up Corna. Ho Chi Minh wasn’t so bad, despite my general apathy at the time. And yes, looking back, that hotel did me a favour by closing down!

      February 16, 2022 - 4:39 pm Reply
  • rkrontheroad

    Nice compilation! The park looked like a spot I would enjoy, as well as the book street. My favorite photo though is the alley with the motorcycles.

    February 16, 2022 - 8:30 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Ruth! The motorcycle shot is a fun one to look back on, but oh lord what a menace all those bikes were.

      February 16, 2022 - 8:35 pm Reply

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