Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as many still refer to it is a large metropolis of approximately 10 million people. Originally Saigon was a name derived from a Khmer translation and adopted by the French in the 1800’s until 1976 when South Vietnam fell to the North. Much of the older population still refer to Saigon, however, younger people, people from the North, and many travelers use Ho Chi Minh City. There are two main areas most people will stay when traveling to Saigon, One is commonly referred to as the backpack area is a corridor between Bui Vien and Pham Ngu Lao Streets. Another is the Ben Thanh market area which is close to downtown proper. Both are in district 1 and which area you stay in is personal preference as both have their advantages.
The backpack area is a bit farther walking distance to most attractions but is an attraction onto itself. There you will find curio shops, many restaurants and street food, western venues, spas and massage, budget hotels, tour and bus companies, and almost anything else you can think of. The area is crowded, noisy, and busy with the late night life scene. If you are into action, this is the area for you, however, watch your pockets. Late night is also when some can become prey to very professional thieves. Use common sense.
Market / Downtown area
The Ben Thanh area has some budget but more medium to higher cost hotels. During the day it is busy with shoppers and visitors. After dark it begins to quiet down and between 9-10 pm becomes quiet. There are good restaurants and some street food but less than the backpack area. Spas and massage, ticketing agencies, and general businesses will be a bit more expensive in this area due to the location and overhead costs. After 10 pm you will find most things closed and only a few bars or restaurants open. The market area is closer as is walking distance to most attractions. It also is not a far walk to the backpack area for a change of pace. You will also be close to historic Dong Khoi street.
On arrival you will have to clear customs before picking up baggage. If you have prearranged a visa you can simply proceed to the immigration counters. If you arranged a Visa on Arrival, you will have to get in line with your letter ready. (you will find a link to a VOA service here) Do not be surprised if someone jumps the que as there is a VIP service available that most people arriving booked with tour companies and they will get first service. If you are lucky, you can be through in minutes, however, if arriving with many using VIP service, it can take up to an hour. Be aware of this if you have a connecting flight. Once you have picked up your bags, be sure to keep your baggage tags as you will have to produce them when exiting the airport to prove they are yours. Use an ATM or a local money changer on site to get a small amount of local currency before exiting, or find a place outside before arranging transport. If you are transferring to a domestic flight, the domestic terminal is about 100 meters to the right as you exit the International terminal. There is also a baggage storage area on the end of the international terminal on right of exit that can hold your bags if you choose to spend time exploring the Parkson Plaza mall across the large parking lot. Once outside you will be barraged by heat, noise, and confusion. If you feel overwhelmed by it all, just find a place where you can observe and take your time. DO NOT let yourself be rushed or herded into a taxi or car as the odd scammers will prey on your confusion. Just be observing a few minutes and allowing the chaos to make a little sense will calm you and help you make informed decisions. There are two methods of getting to the tourist area. The travel forums will tell you to take a specific taxi company, however, at the airport this is not necessary. The first is a taxi at a cost currently at about 150000 dong. (2016) You will find a Taxi marshal towards the left of exiting the terminal. He or She will be wearing a UNIFORM and will call a car forward. You need not worry the company as the marshal will give you a card with the taxi information on it and contact information to call if the driver tries to take advantage of you. The second way is to catch a number 109 or 152 local bus. The 152 is an older service and runs between 6 am and 6 pm or so with a fare of about 600 dong. The number 109 is a new service from 05:30 to 01:30 and will take you both downtown and to the backpack area with a fare of about 20000 dong. Both busses can be caught in the far lane towards the right as you exit the terminal. The trip to both areas can be between 20-45 minutes depending on traffic. The bus is often a bit faster during peak hours with heavy traffic.
Hotels in District 1 Ho Chi Minh City
Saigon is a large modern city and has hotels of all types. Most 2 star and above can be booked online with reviews available. A good site for Asia is http://Agoda.com another is www.booking.com where you will find reviews and maps showing location. Hotels in the downtown area are mostly listed and need not be addressed. If your choice is to stay in the backpack area, there is a range of hotels that you may not find anywhere online to book, however, reviews can be found by using a search engine or sites such as Trip Advisor. Be aware that there are fake reviews on such sites but you should be able to read through the lies. When you arrive in the backpack area, do not be surprised if someone approaches you offering a budget room in the area. Many of the small unlisted guesthouses will pay a small commission to someone that brings a customer. Many of these places are located in small alleyways away from a path that a person might walk in their search of accommodation. Often you can find a hidden gem of a room this way. Unless there is a national holiday or special event, one can often just find a hotel on arrival without the need of booking in advance. Do not be surprised if the hotel wants to keep your passport in their possession. There is a detailed explanation of why this happens here
The first and most common tour is simply a walking tour of the downtown area where most of the most famous attractions are located. Walking tour maps can be found in many local shops throughout the tourist area. The sights cam mostly be seen in a day so one might want to spend a morning visiting sights such as the Reunification Palace, War Museum, (a person should keep in mind who runs the show) Notre Dam cathedral, Opera house and Old Post Office. There as a very large and mosly overlooked attraction called the Dam Sen waterpark. If you want a seat in coach tour, this can be arranged by visiting a local tour office which I address next. A final option is to bus hop. You can easily reach Cho Lon (Chinatown) for an afternoon of chaotic shopping or simply enjoy the sights and snap photos through the window. You can find a very confusing bus map above. There is a new service where a person can do a hop on and off bus tour of Saigon. You will find information on such a tour here. Be sure also the check out the night market at Ben Thanh. You will find a lot of options for street style food and clothing sales. It is a fun way to spend an evening.
There are small tour offices everywhere in the tourist areas in Vietnam. Almost all of them are simply agents that can arrange a seat in coach tour for you and will book with the same tour providers making a commission in the process. You do not save any money trying to book the same tour yourself. All the tours provided are seat in coach tours and is a very inexpensive option to see local sights. Be aware that they will visit retail locations and other touristy stops but that is the price of getting an inexpensive trip. All will offer a number of options to the Mekong delta from simple bicycle trips for the day, visits to floating markets, and overnight in a homestay with other options. I personally prefer the overnight visits but try to find an area less touristy such as Tra Vinh, Vinh Long, or another a bit further away. The biggest floating Market is in Con Tho so you might want to consider an overnight in that city. A trip to Cu Chi is also available at all tour companies for a very reasonable price. Lastly, If you want a more private tour, you can arrange something with your hotel receptionist of prearrange one with a private tour provider. You will see more and perhaps visit less touristy areas, however, the cost is much higher. For those with kids, there is a large water theme park outside the city called Suoi Tien Waterpark.
Restaurants and street food in Ho Chi Minh City.
Finding good food in Saigon in a not an issue. There are sit down restaurants in all areas with many foreign foods such as Italian, Indian, Japanese, and Western venues. If you are in Vietnam and want to eat foreign foods, you can simply look at the travel forum reviews. What most people are interested in is street food.
A person has no need to go on a street food tour if they want authenticity…… As a matter of fact, in some cases, the street food is altered by local vendors to the requirements of the food tour operator making is more like “fusion” food. Street food is everywhere….. Even on busy downtown streets. One has to be aware that most street food venues may only be open a few hours a day at specific times. They will run out of product and simply shut down and go home. There are also specific typed of food at specific times of day. I will get to this in a moment. So….. Is street food safe? In the years I’ve been operating a hotel in Vietnam, I have never once had a customer come home with food poisoning or any other bug due to street from. I have on the other hand, had sent them home after eating in tourist restaurants and tourist areas. Perhaps the reason is that all street food vendors by their food fresh that morning and run a stock that same morning. The same is probably true with evening street food vendors. Sometimes a person might be suspect of the iced that is used for street side drinks, but mostly nowadays ice and most foods are safe for foreigners to ingest. From early morning until about 1030 or maximum allowed o’clock AM, you will find it a large number of different kinds of soup. In the morning will see a lease will have a bowl of soup or in the odd case, a piece of bread. Some of the soups available in the morning are, Bun Bo (beef noodle), Pho (different chicken or beef noodle) Hieu Tiu (mixed meats with mung bean or tapioca noodle) and Bo Kho (Star anise based soup/stir served with noodles or bread). At lunch time, most restaurants close in Vietnam, tourist areas being an exception. Even the Ban Me (sandwich) stands shut down. Sometimes you can find a Pho restaurant but mostly venues known as Com Dia which translates to rice plate. Behind a window you will see a dozen or more entrees to choose from. Often a person may choose a pork chop, fish, or chicken with rice which will include a vegetable, fried egg, and a small bowl of soup. Usually, that is all you will find for street food until 3 pm when all the rest will start to appear. It all starts with fruit smoothies for afternoon refreshment. At 4 pm and beyond is when the street food adventure begins. Even in the tourist area and downtown, you will find temporary tables set up selling everything from Banh Xeo (Vietnamese crepes) to all sorts of noodle dishes, seafood, grilled meats, and desserts. Have fun and try anything…. Much of it is very good and in my 18 years of Vietnam experience, have never been sick from eating at such places. One word of caution….. Most people that visit will have a day or two of frequent bowel movements, however, that is usually a short adjustment to the different foods and other things your body does not recognize.
Security and scams.
MOST of the scams can be addressed easily this way. Almost all scams and abusive people hang around areas where all the tourists go. Places such as the Reunification Palace or the Benh Thanh Market often have people with coconut drinks, clone taxis, cyclos or people who want to be “helpful” by offering a service. Be wary of these and walk a block or two away to find your cab. Odds are much smaller that you will be nabbed by one of these hucksters. In the downtown and backpack areas the most common problem is snatch and grabs. Waist packs and non secure purses are magnets to thieves cruising by on motorcycles. Keep all your valuables such as camera in front of you as you walk. Only carry what you need for the day or evening. Most hotels have either a safe or receptionist you can leave your valuables with. Let the Hotel hang on to your passport. Most snatch and grabs happen very early morning when people arrive by train or bus and after dark since most of these criminal are creatures of the night and ill sleep the day away. Lastly, be aware of some gambling and related scams by people in the treed park area paralleling Pham Ngu Lao st. You can read about them here. This story is a few years old but still happens.
Spa and massage in Ho Chi Minh City.
You will find spa and massage throughout all of the areas you will most likely visit. The Vietnamese style of massage is that of kneading muscles more than the Thai style of stretching. There are small spa centers everywhere that offer hair and nail service along with Facial and foot massage. You will also find many that offer full body massage. Most of the visible places where tourists go offer a real massage with none of the happy ending so many have heard about. Those kind of massages are usually a but outside the congestion and offered as VIP services often attached to hotels and such. A VIP service is pleasurable experience as you have a personal attendant help you with a Sauna, steam bath, a cleansing bath and massage, however, if you want to avoid situations that might not make you comfortable with “extra service”, it is hard to discern the difference between one that offers and one that does not. Beauty services are everywhere and a person can pamper themselves to their hearts content.
In the past few years, Vietnam and Saigon in Particular has come on strong in the medical related fields. It is easy to find reputable dentists for any procedure at on tenth of the cost in Western countries. As an example, we recently had a permanent bridge mad to replace one that we were not happy with. The Canadian cost was 3200 dollars. The new one we made is more than satisfactory and cost 150 dollars. A tooth cleaning costs about 10 dollars. Braces and other procedures that require adjustments are probably not best done here but teeth replacement and root canals are common procedures. There are new hospitals and clinics that specialize in procedures such as laser surgery on eyes, cosmetics and other procedures. The F-V hospital is one example. I have visited a couple and have been impressed with the service and modern equipment. More research can be done on the internet related to this issue.
You have a number of options available to continue to the nest destination. The first is to fly. Vietnam Airlines, Viet Jet, and Jetstar offer internal flights are relatively inexpensive and have regular service to most major tourist destinations. Overland travel is slower than the west so this is your best option if time is limited. There is also trains that run the entire length of the country. The trains currently mostly run at night and are a good way to travel if you are on a more restricted budget. A soft sleeper is a berth with 4 beds and is relatively comfortable. There is room for your luggage both under the beds and overhead if you have the upper bunk. A soft seat is ok for day travel but expect it to be noisy and crowded. It is about half the cost of flying. Tickets can be purchased in advance on Vietnam Railways online booking site or in person at the station located in District 3 not far from the tourist area and downtown. The train is convenient between major centers however, some cities are not serviced. Some think travel by train is a good way to see the country, but in Vietnam’s case it is not. Traveling by bus is another option. There is what is called an open tour bus service where tourist destinations are linked between tourist areas. The Sinh and Hanh café are old established companies. Others are Phuong Nam and Nam Phuong, Camel, FUTA Phuong Trang. The most convenient way to get to Mui Ne is by bus, and there is no train service to Dalat. Another option is traveling by private car in order to make the most of sightseeing.
I sincerely hope this addresses most of the questions you might have about Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). If you have any questions or would like additional information added, please comment below. Most pictures on this post are not mine and others deserve credit.