While its dizzying, glass-coated buildings dominate the skyline, much of Ho Chi Minh City’s vitality resides in its central districts. Here, thousands of tourists meander the colonial streets of Dong Khoi, gaze at Notre Dame Cathedral, and absorb the poignant history of The War Remnants Museum. While these are all worthwhile activities, the city’s unrelenting, insomniac tourist industry means the real HCMC often fades into the background.
As is the case with many cities, the best way to enrich your experience of Vietnamese culture is by heading off the beaten track. For those lucky enough to call one of Ho Chi Minh City’s 24 districts home, there are infinite lesser-travelled routes to discover; once you think you’ve discovered the best Caphe Phin spot for your morning brew or greenest park for an afternoon of sunbathing, you’ll find another just metres from your apartment.
While HCMC has a lot to offer tourists on the surface: from backpacker-friendly bars to gluttonous walking tours, there’s a hidden world beneath the crowds. By straying off the beaten, moped-laden track, you’ll discover the true stories and characters of Ho Chi Minh City: many of whom reside in the century-old alleyways.
Apartment-Block Heritage Sites
The architectural style of “Saigon Xưa” (old Saigon), is one characterised by crumbling colonial facades, wooden shutters, and Indo-Chinese iron balconies. Such buildings are what appears most in fleeting snapshots and Instagram stories - so, why bother visiting the city’s grey, concrete apartment blocks?
While they may look like a wedge of peeling plaster on the outside, these apartment buildings are hives of life: telling the pre and post-war Saigon stories through the Vietnamese families that once called them home. I use the past tense here because most of Saigon’s most characteristic apartment blocks are no longer residential: either marked for imminent demolition or becoming centres of commerce.
After one family rented out their apartment to a café business: turning their home into somewhere locals and ex-pats could sip Vietnamese coffee away from the cacophonous streets. This soon became a domino effect, with more and more tenants turning their homes into small businesses until entire apartment blocks became, illegally, a throng of boutiques, themed cafes and vintage clothing stores.
42 Nguyen Hue Street
While not so much off-the-beaten-track, spending an afternoon at the sprawling apartment building at 42 Nguyen Hue Street is one of the city’s most unique experiences. Built in the mid-1960s for American Military Officers, the apartment building retains its unkempt, post-war appearance, yet hides an entire shopping centre within its greying walls.
Despite notices of eviction for all the businesses regularly making Vietnamese news, the bohemian cafes, 80’s-themed boutiques, and minimalist sushi bars continue to thrive. Particularly popular among the city’s art students, the once-forgotten building offers Instagram-worthy shabby-chicness and enviable views of the city below.
Ton That Dam Apartment Complex
Through a tangle of alleyways just 10 minutes from 12 Nguyen Hue, you’ll find its older, more eccentric counterpart: the sprawling colonial masterpiece that is Ton That Dam. Dating back to the 1860s, this weathered edifice houses vegan eateries, café homages to old Saigon, and speakeasy-style drinking holes. It’s also home to the Zero Waste Saigon office: an admirable project helping to raise awareness of Vietnam’s perpetuation of single-use plastic.
What makes this place such a unique “hidden gem” is its popularity with the locals. On the ground floor, you’ll often find Mãn Tự vegan restaurant packed with businessmen on their lunch breaks, and saffron-robed Buddhist monks tucking into tofu.
Thi Nghe Canal: Ho Chi Minh City’s Environmental Triumph
Once known locally as the sludge-filled, “black water canal”, Thi Nghe has since become a scenic oasis: its tree-lined walkways dotted with temples overlooking crystal clear water. In 2003, HCMC embarked on a huge project to clean up the canal: reconnecting pipe systems, modernising houses, and dredging waste from the exhausted river floor.
Nearly 20 years on, the 8km stretch of rejuvenated land is a unique place to observe Saigonese life away from the craziness of downtown and embark on an unofficial temple crawl.
The best time to visit the banks of this waterway is undoubtedly the evening. With the fierce heat mellowed, the Saigonese have a spring in their step. The many outdoor gyms lining the banks of Thi Nghe fill with locals practising Tai Chi, dancing to salsa, or simply watching the play of fire on the water as the sun sets.
To discover the canal at its most lively, visit the meandering section in Phú Nhuận district: a tree-lined promenade featuring the terracotta Phổ Quang Pagoda. This area retains the charm of traditional life in HCMC, with families sprawled across the grass playing chess and drinking cups of Caphe Sua, but it also provides an insight into how the canal clean-up has benefited the community. Nowadays, locals have swapped pulling trash from the canal for operating small river tours from their wooden turtle boats: a venture that would’ve been impossible 20 years ago.
Saigon’s Urban Canvas
Known for its communist backbone, you’d be forgiven for expecting a lack of politically-charged street art in Vietnam’s metropolitan centre. However, HCMC is becoming a hub of vibrant expression, where forward-thinking movements are reflected in its urban canvas.
Both district 1 and the expat-filled Thao Dien ward of district 2 are becoming famous for their politically flavoured, kaleidoscopic murals. Those rejecting the city centre’s frenetic boulevards for its hidden alleyways are rewarded with a range of progressive art. From technicolour graffiti tucked in nooks, to a wall-wide mural of a girl sporting the traditional conical hat, these colourful hems are an off-the-beaten-track feast for the eyes.
Beyond wandering the winding alleys of district 1 in search of public artwork (which can quickly become thirsty work) there are other creative spaces to immerse yourself in.
Saigon OUTCAST, District 2
Starting life as three shipping containers on a patch of disused land, Saigon Outcast has become a haven for urban graffiti masters and budding street artists alike: alongside musicians, writers, and every creative in between. When it first opened in 2012, artists flocked from all over Ho Chi Minh to plaster every surface with vibrant graffiti, creating one of the most visually striking spots in the city.
Over the years, this venue has grown exponentially, and now hosts a bunch of unique cultural activities: from life-drawing classes and movie nights to a rock-climbing wall plastered artwork. Now one of the most popular venues in HCMC, OUTCAST describes itself as a safe space for “the weird, bold and beautiful people of the world with a focus on delivering events that bring the community together to enjoy food, beers and everything in-between”.
Tipsy Art Co-Working Art Space
Despite being located in District 1, this co-working space and gallery fusion are practically unknown to tourists: instead frequented by digital nomads, trendy content creators or those running their businesses remotely. However, what this venue is infamous for locally is its Tipsy Art Workshop, described on its blog as “a place for you to unleash your inner artist and create your own painting, while also enjoying a drink, music, and excellent company”.
Workshops cost 440,000 VND (about £15), last for 3.5 hours, and include 2 free drinks (either alcoholic or non-alcoholic). An experienced artist leads each class with instruction available in both Vietnamese and English. They’ll be there to guide you as you work on a painting you’ve pre-selected from their artistic menu: many of which depict colourful scenes from Vietnamese daily life.
Enrich Your Experience by Going off the Beaten Track
While Ho Chi Minh City has rightfully earned its place as a leading tourist destination, there’s more to this city than meets the eye. In this ever-shifting metropolis, hidden gems might be harder to find, but the journey taken to locate them will enrich your experience of this beautiful country. It’s in the residential areas and quieter corners that you’ll find the best food, most decadent coffee, and widest grins!