With a population approaching 8 million, and urban boulevards, streets and laneways crammed with a kinetic river of scooters, bikes and cars, the irresistible verve of Ho Chi Minh City can be hard to navigate. To get the best out of Vietnam's booming southern hub, tag along with a few savvy locals to really experience the city formerly known as Saigon.
Helmed by young English-speaking women wearing an ao dai, the elegant Vietnamese national dress, XO Tours zip around the city on two wheels day and night. Look forward to exploring more far flung areas of the city than on other tours – including the up and coming District 7 area – before settling down to the essential combination of grilled prawns, goat hot pot and ice-cold 333 ('Ba Ba Ba') beer in one of the city's raffish barbecue joints. XO also explore the evening street markets of Cholon, Ho Chi Minh City's Chinatown area. Keep your knees tucked in as your sassy motorbike driver negotiates the narrow alleys illuminated by diffuse light
Twilight departures leave from Cafe Zoom on the edge of Ho Chi Minh City's Pham Ngu Lao backpacker district, and street food, music and even Saigon rappers all feature on Vespa Adventures' hugely entertaining tours. Coursing through shimmering Vietnamese neon on the back of a vintage scooter could be the most fun you'll ever have, and essential stops include the city's best banh xeo (pancakes crammed with pork and prawns), cool music cafes secreted up several flights of rickety stairs, and Vietnamese rock and hip hop at Acoustic Bar. You'll know you're there when you see the upturned Volkswagen Beetle at the club's entrance
Saigon Street Eats
Run by Vu and Barbara, a friendly Vietnamese-Australian couple, Saigon Street Eats offer brilliant introductions to the world of Vietnamese cuisine. The country's best and freshest food is available on the street, and the city's labyrinthine markets are packed with local ingredients.
The morning Pho Trail walking tour kicks off with breakfast of pho, Vietnam's famed noodle soup, before adding robust ca phe (coffee) and snacks into the tasty mix later in the tour. After dark discovery of the city's grilled seafood stalls – including scallops, mussels and snails – is also on offer, and if you're not confident riding on the back of a motorbike, a taxi option can be arranged.
Sophie's Art Tour
Vietnamese history and culture unfolds on these superb art tours operated by expat local Sophie Hughes. Highlights include the eclectic colonial mash-up of French and Chinese architectural styles of Ho Chi Minh City's Fine Arts Museum, and the well-informed – but definitely not stuffy – tours also take in private collections and contemporary galleries like the vibrant San Art. Bold propaganda art echoes across recent decades from the time of the Vietnam War, and the leisurely tours are perfect at providing historical context around the massive changes the country has undergone.
For a thoroughly 21st-century view of Vietnam, travelling art buffs should head to the 3A Alternative Art Area. Just a short walk from the Mekong River, colourful street art fills now narrow laneways, and edgy galleries morph into hip bars and cafes after dark.