Text and photos by Prime Sarmiento


I spent one weekend traveling to Ho Chi Minh city – which I believe is the perfect getaway place for this Asia-based solo female traveler. I love the mix of old and new, modernity and mysticism in this Southeast Asian city.I also love that there are lots of affordable accommodations in the city and that they have an online presence, hence booking a Ho Chi Minh City hotel is such a breeze for this busy frequent traveler.

There's something brash about Ho Chi Minh city. As Vietnam's business center, it may not as be as fast paced as some of the world's key financial centers including New York, London and, closer to home, Hong Kong. Yet, no one can mask its ambition as an emerging economy – busy traffic, the tall buildings and shopping malls that crowd District 1, the hundreds of motorbikes plying the streets, the growing number of international schools catering to corporate expats.


But Ho Chi Minh City has not lost its old world charm , that so-called Oriental mystique that can be gleaned from its wide elegant boulevards, French colonial buildings, museums, markets, temples and galleries.


If you are a woman traveling alone who can only spare a couple of days in this southern Vietnamese city, here are some things that you can do to have a relaxing weekend:


1. Explore the city via a cyclo


The best way to travel around Ho Chi Minh city is to take a tour via the cyclo. The cyclo is a a three wheeled bicycle with a carriage (a “bucket seat”) at the front for the passenger to sit in while a a guy pedals you around the city.


There are so many cyclo drivers who will pitch you a tour of the city but save yourself the hassle of bargaining and just sign up for a cyclo tour with a travel agency (a half day tour costs less than $20 per person).


The cyclo tour will not only give you a first hand experience of the crazy traffic in Ho Chi Minh city (believe me, this is typical in most booming Southeast Asian cities) but also give you a chance to enjoy – and take photos of – of some of Ho Chi Minh City's most known landmarks.

These include the Reunification Palace, the Opera House, the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Post Office (also known as the Saigon Central Post Office – I absolutely adore for its lovely Gothic structure and for being a beautiful reminder of a time when letter writing was an art).


2. Enjoy a leisurely afternoon with a cup of Vietnamese coffee


Vietnam is one of the world's biggest exporters of coffee, and just about anywhere – street stalls, cafes, malls, hotels – you can find Vietnamese and travelers alike partaking of this caffeine fix.


Brewed Vietnamese coffee is strong and dark and is usually served with a dollop of sweet condensed milk and is locally known as ca phe sua (which means “coffee with milk”) You can have it hot or with ice. I had one for breakfast but I think it's too sweet so I always order black coffee and mix it with a packet of stevia.


The cafe culture is well and alive here. There are no Starbucks, but there are fine cafes that will give these giant coffee chains a run for their money. I hang out either at Highlands Coffee – a homegrown coffee chain or spend my afternoons reading and writing in my journal at L' Unsine – a hip cafe slash boutique located above the Art Arcade in Dong Khoi street. L'Unsine serves coffee, sandwiches, cheese platter (like!) and yummy pastries too (love love love the moist red velvet cupcake).


3. Have some pho and savor tasty Vietnamese food


The Vietnamese diaspora has made Vietnamese food popular. So if you want a taste of Vietnam, get yourself some bowls of pho (light beef broth flavored with ginger and coriander, often served with noodles and bean sprouts), spring rolls , bahn mi (a baguette sandwich) and porridge.


I stayed in the backpacking district of Pham Ngu Lao, and while I'm no vegan, I enjoy eating at Saigon Vegan – which offer lighter, healthier (and vegan) Vietnamese food options.



4. Take a tour of Cu Chi Tunnels and learn about the Vietnam War


While I'm not interested in war stories (I'm not keen on reading Graham Greene's “The Quiet American” nor watching any movie about Vietnam War), it will be difficult for anyone traveling to Ho Chi Minh City to remain ignorant of the country's past (the city, after all, is named after a nationalist revolutionary leader). Besides, how can we remain pacifist if we are not aware of the horrors of war?


The Cu Chi tunnels were part of a vast network of tunnels around the country that were used by the Viet Cong to plan (and win) their military campaign. The tunnels were used by guerrillas as hiding spots during combat; as communication and supply routes; as storage rooms for food, medicine and weapons; and as living quarters to let them rest and fight another day.


The Cu Chi Tunnel is now a popular tourist destination and a war memorial park. Some of the tunnels have been enlarged so that curious tourists (with larger body frames than the typically lean Vietnamese) can enter the tunnel and see for themselves how the Vietcong guerillas used this as an escape route.



There are several travel agencies in the city that offer a day tour to Cu Chi tunnels. The tour starts with a brief lecture of how Cu Chi Tunnels were used and ends with tourists being served a meal consisting of boiled cassava dipped in brown sugar and a warm pot of brewed green tea. It's a simple meal like this that once that once nourished the Vietcong guerillas.


If you just want to stay at the city center, you can just visit the War Remnants Museum which displays old military equipment and other related items from the Vietnam War (including a F5A fighter and a UH1-Huey helicopter displayed in its courtyard).

The museum also has an extensive photo exhibit depicting the horrors of Vietnam War (including disturbing portraits of victims of chemical warfare) taken by renown war photojournalists.



5. Watch a ceremony at the Cao Dai Temple


Cao Dai is a Vietnamese religious movement which combines the teachings of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Catholicism and its pantheon of saints include Jesus Christ, Buddha, Muhammad, Confucius and Sun Yat-sen . It has about six million followers worldwide.


The Grand Temple (the Holy See) is located near the Cambodian border – about a two hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City. Like most travelers, I booked a day tour package* to Cao Dai as it's difficult to go there on my own.


The temple's architectural style reflects the religion's eclectic influences. Its structure resembles a typical Roman Catholic cathedral with its two square towers, but while most Christian churches are usually painted with more monochromatic colors, the Cao Dai temple has a more festive facade – blue, yellow and pink.

The temple's  interiors are filled with dragon-encrusted columns (which you can see in most Taoist and Buddhist temples) while its high ceiling is painted with images of fluffy clouds. The most important symbol, the Divine Eye, representing God, were painted in the temple's walls.


A visit to Cao Dai temple is a popular day tour for people traveling in Ho Chi Minh City and the adherents of the Cao Dai allow tourists to watch their ceremonies as long as they keep quiet, remove their shoes before entering the temple and respectful of the Cao Dai faith.


6. Find some inner peace in a shala


Yoga is quite popular among both expats and locals here and several shalas offer yoga and meditation classes to those who want to stretch and destress. Any yogini won't have a hard time finding a shala in Ho Chi Minh city.


But like most yoginis, it's not the shala that matters but the teaching style of the yoga teacher. In my quest to find a shala (thanks to Google), I discovered the class of Mila Sanders a.k.a Shanti Devi. he Filipina expat is a certified teacher of several yoga disciplines (Yin, Anusara, Sivananda) and a Reiki grand master.


More than just an hour of asanas, her yoga class also include meditation and a brief discussion on yoga principles and how you can apply it tour daily life. When I went to her yoga class, we were discussing ahimsa (non- violence). In fact this is one thing that I like in any yoga class – discussion on yoga philosophy as there's more ti this ancient spiritual practice than just a way to be physically fit (sadly, most yoga classes in fitness chains treat yoga this way),


If you're traveling to Ho Chi Minh city and want to attend one of Shanti Devi's yoga classes (or get some Reiki attunement), you can view her teaching schedule at www.shantideviyoga.com.



7.  Shop, shop, shop


Although it's still a far cry from Bangkok's mega shopping experience, Ho Chi Mihn city has something to offer for the shopaholic in you. Head to Ben Thanh market and practice your bargaining skills as you purchase souvenirs – t-shirts, bags, keychains, lacquerware, three-in-one coffee packets.

For some artwork, go visit the galleries in Dong Khoi or buy some designer duds at L'Unsine. Or grab some bags of coffee from Highlands Coffee and give them to your coffee loving friends.




Some precautions:


*Language barrier: Most tour guides and vendors in tourist areas can speak English. But language barrier can still be a problem as english is not widely-spoken here


*Safety: I had a safe journey in Ho Chi Minh City. That said, I urge women travelers, especially those traveling alone, to be more careful with their handbags as there are reported incidents of bag snatching. Use your common sense and avoid walking in dark alleys alone.


*Crazy Traffic:  Be careful when crossing the street as this is a city of a thousand of motorbikes.




Have you been to Ho Chi Minh City? Do you like traveling there? Please post your impressions/recommendations on Ho Chi Minh City in the comments section. 



 Ho Chi Minh Discovery in Ho Chi Minh City


1. Traveling to Ho Chi Minh City for the first time can be daunting even for someone as travel savvy as yours truly. This is why I decided to book day tours via   Urban Adventures*.   It's fast, easy, value for money and as great way to explore a dynamic metropolis.






2. Want to know more how to travel alone as a woman?   The Art of Solo Travel: A Girls’ Guide*  by Stephanie Lee is ideal for the woman traveling alone for the first time but has no idea how to go about it.  The guide answers all the questions that you have on traveling alone as a woman – from saving money for your travels, to advice on relationships and health on the road and even advice on how to deal with dream crushers.  Get it now and start crafting your own journeys!