With a population of 13 million, Ho Chi Minh City is Southeast Asia’s emerging mega-city. Can writer Joshua Zukas cover all 24 districts in just 24 hours on a 50-year-old motorbike?
I push down on the kickstart for what feels like the 20th time, but nothing happens. I try again, and the bike spits back some muffled spluttering but little else. There are four generations gawping at me, including a toddler sitting on the frail lap of his great-grandfather. Both their expressions say the same thing: “You can do it!” I finally kick life into the bike, a moment that’s met with energetic clapping and thumbs up from the crowd.
My loveable turquoise 1972 Honda Cub and I are buried down an alleyway in District 11, a residential corner of Ho Chi Minh City’s bulging Chinatown. My belly is filled with black chicken soup, har gao and siu mai – delicacies you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the country. It’s approaching midnight, and I’m halfway through an unthinkable challenge: to explore all of Ho Chi Minh City’s 24 districts in just 24 hours.
“It’s impossible,” said Nguyen Thi Kieu Ngan, founder of The Honda Cub Exchange and owner of this bike, earlier in the day. “But I look forward to seeing you try.” She’s probably right, I thought to myself. Ho Chi Minh City is over 100km long at its widest point and also Vietnam’s biggest city by population. And the bike is 15 years older than me.
Nevertheless, most would agree it’s still the best way to get around the city. The distances are too great for non-motorised transport, while cumbersome cars struggle with the tight alleys and makeshift bridges. The motorbike is king of this concrete jungle, and I couldn’t ask for a more iconic companion than a Honda Cub, the model that started the country’s motorbike addiction over half a century ago, when South Vietnam was still a country, and Saigon its capital (the name changed after reunification in 1975). Today, there are upwards of seven million registered motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh City, according to the Department of Transport.
Still, 24 districts in 24 hours is quite a challenge. The plan involves starting midday in the centre and finishing at the same time on day two at the Honda Cub Exchange in District 9, on the city’s easternmost end. This approach covers most of the city on the first day, capturing all of the southern, eastern and central districts. Barring obstacles, this means 16 districts before bed, leaving eight for the following morning, when I’ll get up early and head as far north as I can before looping back and heading east.
But first, a confession. I’ve been coming to Ho Chi Minh City for over a decade but it’s never captured my heart. Hanoi captivates with its 1,000-year history. Hue delights with its traditional and laid-back lifestyle. And if I want something modern, Danang is cleaner, less congested and boasts a beach. How can Ho Chi Minh City compete? My hope is that this mission will shed light on a city that I haven’t given enough attention to.
Getting a grip on diverse landscapes
The adventure begins at midday with a visit to Gustave Eiffel’s Mong Bridge (Cau Mong) in District 4. The French engineer is better known for the Long Bien Bridge in Hanoi (or, indeed, the Eiffel Tower), but this first stop frames the tension between the centre’s colonial past and glitzy future. Dilapidated French houses sit beside modern towers south of the bridge, while views north reveal the modern Bitexco Financial Tower overshadowing the colonial State Bank Building – an emblematic scene of the urban development to come.
District 4 looms large in the city’s history as the location of Dragon Wharf, an important commercial port during colonial times. These days it’s calm, having been eclipsed decades ago by modern counterparts farther from the centre. A large 19th-century administrative building now houses the Ho Chi Minh Museum (1 Nguyen Tat Thanh), and is enveloped by quiet grassy lawns that contrast with the city’s urban melee.
My trusty Cub beckons, its retro curves popping confidently in the sunlight as if to tell me its raring to go. From here it’s a long journey south, but the Cub powers through District 7, one of the city’s Korean quarters with barbecue restaurants and bingsu cafés, and Nha Be, a rural district with more green than grey.
By 2pm my bike and I are at the ferry crossing to Can Gio, Ho Chi Minh City’s largest and southernmost district that evokes the Mekong Delta provinces like Ben Tre and Vinh Long. Disembarking on the other side, the cramped city centre feels a world away. Thirst pushes me to hunt out a cold coconut – a quintessential Mekong Delta refreshment – with a view back to the city across the water. I get the view, but not the coconut, and instead meet a gaggle of children keen to play with the Cub. The lack of coconut cafés suggests that few visitors make it this far.
On the ferry back I get chatting to 51-year-old Nguyen Duc Tho, a resident of Nha Be who surprises me by saying that he’s seen little advancement in this part of the city over the past few decades. “Nha Be needs a good port – it’s the only way for the district to develop,” he offers, perched on his motorbike and talking at me throughout the 20-minute journey. He’s gesticulating passionately, with a gold chain and several large rings on his chubby fingers. “Can Gio, on the other hand, should focus on tourism.” He’s referring to the Can Gio Mangrove, a UNESCO-recognised biosphere reserve at the extreme end of the district, home to king cobras, crocodiles and pelicans.
Stage 2: Getting under the skin of Chinatown
Speeding back to the city and heading slightly west, I clip the rural district of Binh Chanh and drive through the outskirts of Chinatown in District 8 before delving into its heart: District 5. This is Ho Chi Minh City’s best-known Chinese enclave, where shophouses line the streets and a smattering of French colonial houses evoke Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Chinese characters are written everywhere, indicating that this is a good place to hunt out the Chinese food for which Ho Chi Minh City is famed. At 4pm this lands me at To Ky (36 Go Cong), which has been serving up hu tieu sa te (noodles with deer meat in a sweet peanut sauce) for over 60 years.
As I hungrily slurp up the sweet noodles, the 68-year-old owner, To Tin Hao, limps into the restaurant. He’s gentle-faced and delighted to see me enjoying a recipe that he learnt from his father. Born in Vietnam to Chinese parents, To is comfortable in both Vietnamese and Mandarin. “There’s been so much change, mainly to do with infrastructure,” he says, talking of the decades of development he’s seen since his childhood.
During early colonial times, this area was known as Cholon and it operated as a distinct city. It wasn’t until the 1930s that Cholon combined with Saigon to form a single city, Saigon-Cholon, and it was here that To was born. Cholon was officially dropped from the city name in 1956. “The big roads mean that we are so much more connected to the rest of the city,” To adds. These days, the roads To is referring to make it impossible to know where District 1 (central Saigon) stops and District 5 (central Cholon) begins.
After finishing the last noodle, I head west through District 6 passing the recently refurbished Binh Tay Market (57a Thap Muoi), one of many large dry goods market buildings in Chinatown.
Stage 3: Balancing tradition and modernity
By sticking to the back alleys, I arrive in neighbouring Binh Tan in no time. This is a new part of the city that’s rejected the grit, grime and traffic of Chinatown in favour of order and cleanliness. At 6pm the sun is beginning to set, and it’s a gentle drive through spacious tree-lined streets that feel like they belong in one of Vietnam’s newer cities. The Cub purrs triumphantly as I accelerate out of each corner, relishing the lack of congestion and higher speeds. The Saigonese associate Binh Tan with the sparkling Aeon Mall (1, Road 17A) so I make a beeline for the Japanese commercial centre before looping back around towards the centre.
In Tan Phu, I make a stop at the skyscraper pagoda of Phap Van (16 Le Thuc Hoach) where hundreds of worshippers prepare for the Hungry Ghost Festival, which begins in a week. The religious scene is in satisfying contrast to the commercial bustle of Aeon Mall, and provides a window into the attitude of the city: eager to modernise, but not at the expense of tradition. I continue east to Tan Binh, dominated by the city’s overloaded airport before dropping down into Phu Nhuan, which has witnessed an increase in innovative cafés in recent years. I settle on Gian Giao Café (141 Hoang Van Thu) for that elusive coconut, attracted by the creative use of corrugated plastic roofing, red scaffolding and lush green plants.
Stage 4: The city that never sleeps
It’s 9pm and I’m hungry. Phu Nhuan touches both central Saigon and the northern part of Chinatown. Keen to explore these last few Chinese neighbourhoods, I head along the lively canal of District 3, humming with chattering locals at bars and cafés. I then drop into District 10 and pass the elegantly lit Quoc Tu Pagoda (224 Ba Thang Hai), built in 1963, before tucking into another Chinese meal at Duong Thanh (64 Phan Xich Long) in District 11.
At 11pm Ho Chi Minh City is still buzzing, flaunting its reputation as the only city in Vietnam that never sleeps. I do sleep, however, and after almost 12 hours of driving I need it more than ever. Satisfied with visiting 16 out of the 24 districts, I head back to District 1, deposit my bike, and head to Firkin (20 Mac Thi Buoi) for a well-deserved cocktail. There, Australian co-founder Andy O’Brien, who’s been living in Ho Chi Minh City for a decade, talks to me about how he’s seen the city develop. “Ten years ago, there were very few options to go out,” he explains, casually dressed in shorts and a baseball cap. “But I’ve seen an explosion of restaurants and bars, particularly in the last three or four years. It’s a different game now.” He’s right that there was a myriad of bars for me to choose from, but with smooth beats emanating from the speakers and gentle lighting allowing my eyes some rest, Firkin is the ideal spot for a much-needed nightcap.
Stage 5: Expats in the east
I’m up at 6am the next day, the sun is shining and I’m itching to get going. The Cub is too, apparently, as it starts with a welcoming growl after the first kick. I head north to Binh Thanh, one of Ho Chi Minh City’s most underrated districts. The neighbourhood is leafy and local with children playing in the street and mothers doing their morning shopping. I need a jolt to get through the next few hours, so I park myself at a café that doubles as a plant shop (79/20 Pham Viet Chanh). I order a ca phe sua da (coffee with ice and condensed milk) and allow the caffeine and sugar to work their magic.
Coffee was introduced to the country during the French colonial period, but the Vietnamese have since made it their own, and café culture is as strong here as it is in Italy or Australia. Surrounded by vegetation with a reel of local scenes unfolding before my eyes, it’s difficult to tear myself away, but the promise of a delicious breakfast helps. I feel like bun thit nuong (grilled pork with noodles) and head to 12c Ngo Tat To, but it’s closed so opt for com tam (grilled pork with broken rice) at 43 Nguyen Van Lac instead.
I move onto District 2 to explore Ho Chi Minh City’s enclave of Western expats: Thao Dien. With potholed roads and empty plots, the neighbourhood is awkward to drive through and feels unfinished. But with spacious villas and swimming pools, the uncluttered residential appeal is understandable. I’m big on eating fresh tropical fruit in the morning so I head to L’Herbanyste (215E4 Nguyen Van Huong) for a smoothie bowl and meet co-founder Adrien de Calvairac. “It’s like day and night,” he says in a thick French accent, reflecting on Thao Dien’s past. “When I arrived [in 2003], there were just a few houses to rent and nothing else. No bars. No shops. No supermarkets.”
As I leave L’Herbanyste, it starts to drizzle, evolving quickly into one of the city’s infamous rain storms, making driving hazardous. At 9am I ground myself in Dolphy Café (28 Thao Dien), order my second coffee of the morning – a cappuccino – and wait for the downpour to stop. It doesn’t, dashing my hopes of a northern loop through the four green residential districts of Cu Chi, Hoc Mon, District 12 and Go Vap. I’m disappointed, but find solace knowing that getting stuck by the rain is also a quintessential Saigon experience.
After two hours, it finally lets up, leaving me an hour for the last two districts. I visit the One Pillar Pagoda (100 Dang Van Bi) in Thu Duc, a 1950s replica of the iconic 1,000-year-old structure in Hanoi, before dropping off my Cub at The Honda Cub Exchange in District 9, the largest and least developed numbered district, by midday.
Sitting in a cab heading back to District 1 allows me to reflect on my journey. After a whirlwind 24 hours, has my appreciation for the city increased? I think it has, but not for the expected reasons. You might find grander architecture, superior cuisine and urban charm elsewhere in Vietnam, but nowhere can surprise like Ho Chi Minh City.
Despite my meticulous plan (that ultimately failed), the secret to enjoying the city is probably not to have one. There are no dull districts and few dull moments, which means diverse experiences with an easygoing population to grease the wheels. I’m disappointed not to have completed the mission, but 20 out of 24 ain’t bad. In fact, I’m already thinking about my trip back to discover the final four.
Fly to Saigon with Hong Kong Airlines and start your bike tour challenge! Click here