Saigon is busy. The energy and the atmosphere of the city, especially the centre, is electric. Bustling with people, bikes and cars. No matter what time of day it is, there is always something going on.
Most tourists that visit Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it is also known, spend their time in the tourist-centric heart of the city. District One comes complete with backpackers, hotels, bars, cafes, markets, and well-known sights such as the Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral, and the Reunification Palace.
Unbeknown to the majority of people travelling through, Saigon is actually made up of 24 districts, each with their own function and personality. To find out more I joined the XO Tours team for their Saigon by Night motorbike tour. XO Tours is a locally run Vietnamese company whose motorbike drivers are exclusively women. As a female travelling alone this was an attractive part of the offering.
I was met at my hostel in District One by Tam, my driver for the evening. XO drivers are easily spotted because they wear blue and white traditional Vietnamese Ao Dai with white XO Tours helmets.
Not a motorbike owner myself, when I first arrived in the city the thought of taking a bike taxi was not that appealing. At first glance, the traffic is intimidating with hundreds of bikes weaving in and out all over the roads and the pavements. You begin to wonder how the few cars there are don’t have moped shaped dents in them. But on closer inspection, all the cars and taxis are fairly modern and well looked after with no dents. And all the mopeds, although sometimes older, don’t seem to beat up. What at first looks like an impending multi-vehicle pile-up, is actually organised chaos, with pedestrians, cars and thousands of motorbikes and bicycles moving in turn. All being mindful of each other while also trying to get where they need to be.
Riding on the back of Tam’s bike I felt safe and secure, she was a confident rider and knew her way around the streets of Saigon. It was an amazing feeling to zoom down the highway among local Vietnamese commuters as the sun set for the evening.
Our first stop was District 5 – China Town. We met Sang, our tour guide and the other guests on the tour for an introduction before exploring. We walked through fascinating markets selling live chickens and all sorts of meat and veg, laid out on tarpaulins on the floor, with people riding mopeds through the middle of it all. The surrounding streets were lined with shops selling decorative lanterns, wedding decorations and flowers. We stopped at a street food stall to watch them make broken rice and pork, a local delicacy. A top tip from Sang was to buy your street food from a stall joined to a restaurant because they are often more hygienic.
Next stop District 8 for dinner at a huge outdoor restaurant. Here locals choose their meat from the counter and BBQ together at the tables. We sat down in the low relaxed seating to enjoy some of the local food and a glass of refreshing sugar cane juice.
On to District 7 which is the new district where expats and well-off Vietnamese live. It is a world away from the hectic streets of District One, very quiet, with modern buildings, no overhead power lines, and very few bikes.
Our last stop was District 4, Sang told us this is where you can find the best seafood in Saigon. We stopped for some dessert at a street cart. The atmosphere was great with lots of people sitting around eating and drinking beer.
The XO bike tour was fantastic, with friendly, funny, and knowledgeable English speaking guides and drivers. Ideal for solo travellers or groups of friends wanting to see more of Saigon from a locals point of view. Surrounded by local people going about their evening, it felt like you were out for dinner with friends rather than on a tour.
Top Tips for Seeing Saigon
- For getting around the city download the Grab app (similar to Uber) on your phone for cheap taxis, cars and bikes.
- If you pick up a bike taxi on the street make sure to check the price as they can over charge you. Be clear with them how much they are expecting you to pay. Sometimes when they say 150 they mean $150, or 1.5 million Dong. Not 150 Dong, which is a big difference.
- Walking around is the best way to see the main sights. You can stop and get street food, or fresh fruit drinks from stalls as you go. It is really easy to walk through whole of District One, just be careful crossing the road as mopeds and bikes can come from anywhere. Plus, when you have a terrible sense of direction (like me) and absolutely no internal compass you can walk the same 2 square kilometres for hours and be totally content. Walking the same street but in the opposite direction complete convinced you are in a new part of town.
To find out more about XO Tours visit their website: https://xotours.vn/