Ho Chi Minh City for Newbie Travellers
Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon, is Vietnam’s most populous city. An exciting place to visit, it is also one of the top tourist destinations in Asia. It is one of those places you have to keep coming back to because it has so much to offer.
Those who experience Ho Chi Minh City in all its splendour for the first time will understand why the French used to call it the “Pearl of the Orient.” Do a q quick tour of the city, and you will see the sophisticated boulevards, villas, and well-preserved building and structures that would remind you of the French Colonial times.
Ho Chi Minh City is a city of contrasts. It is a mix of tradition and modernity and a combination of the extraordinary and the familiar. It is chaotic and frenetic, with streets filled with noisy motorbikes, and yet a huge number of the locals seem unaffected, and live life in a simple, unhurried pace.
If you’re planning to visit Ho Chi Minh City for the first time, know that while it is certainly fun and exciting, it can also be intimidating and overwhelming to newbie travellers. There is beauty in the city’s organized chaos, but you can easily get lost in it. So to make you trip as convenient and as stress-free as possible, here are a few things you should know about Ho Chi Minh City.
You won’t need a Vietnamese visa, that is, if you’re staying for less than 15 days. If you are planning to stay in Ho Chi Minh City or Vietnam for a much longer time, you need to acquire one through personal appearance at the Vietnamese embassy or through the “Visa Upon Arrival” option. If going for the latter, make sure you fill in all the needed information on the pre-approval paper and then present the document at the airport so that you can pay for your visa.
When to go
Ho Chi Minh City has 2 seasons: dry and wet. The best time to travel would have to be during November to April when the there’s almost no rain and yet the air is a bit cooler. This way, you won’t have to deal with the incapacitating heat and humidity.
You can also opt to travel to Ho Chi Minh City during the Tet holiday. The date changes each year, but a lot of foreign visitors schedule their visits to coincide with the holiday. Most of the tourist attractions will be closed during Tet but witnessing the grand Flower Street Display as well as experience first-hand a very important traditional Vietnamese festival more than makes up for that.
Even if Ho Chi Minh City is a sprawling city, getting around it is not a problem because there are different modes of transportation available. There are buses, xeoms (motorbike taxis), public buses, and taxis.
Riding the xeom is a must-try experience. Rates are quite reasonable and can cost 40,000 VND and below for short distances and maybe around 70,000 VND if you venture a little bit farther. Just make sure you and the driver agree on the price before you hop on the bike.
If you’re planning to explore Ho Chi Minh’s different districts, the preferred mode of transportation is the taxi. There are a lot of taxi companies in the city but the most reliable ones are Mai Linh and Vinasun. A lot of tourists have been charged exorbitant fares by scrupulous taxi drivers so it is best that you pick these two reputable companies.
Ho Chi Minh City is a safe place to visit but that doesn’t mean that scams and petty crimes don’t exist. If you have heard about stories of tourists victimized in Ho Chi Minh, well, they are true. Theft and purse snatching are not uncommon there so keep watch of your belongings at all times. Never leave your bags, mobile devices, and other expensive gear unattended. Only bring a small amount of money with you when you explore the city.
Furthermore, beware of scammers. Do not fall prey to counterfeit tour operators and travel agencies. Do your research first before paying for a tour or airline tickets. Read online reviews and transact only with companies vetted by your fellow travellers.
Where to stay
Your choice of accommodations depends on your budget and the type of activities you’re interested in. Most tourists, however, prefer to stay in Districts 1 or 3, where the action is. If money is not an object, you can choose to stay at any of the city’s luxurious hotels like Le Meriden Saigon, The Reverie Saigon, and the very popular Rex Hotel.
But if you’re travelling on a modest budget, you’ll find clean, affordable rooms on Pham Ngulao, Bui Vien, and De Tham streets in District 1. This is the backpacker area so it is packed with tourists. It is also nearest to most tourist attractions. If you want to stay away from the noise, District 3 is a much better choice. Districts 2 and 7 are also great choices but both are quite far from the city centre.
The Saigon food scene is like no other. You can find affordable and insanely delicious food everywhere. The city’s streets are lined by lots of cafes and restaurants but the most delicious delicacies are the ones sold by street hawkers, local eateries, and vendors in local markets. Never ever leave the city without trying banh mi, pho, banhxeo, banhcuon, and banhkhot.
Also, regardless of what type of coffee you are accustomed to drinking at home, never miss the opportunity to try Vietnamese iced coffee. There are different preparations but if you have to pick two, choose caphesua da (iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk) and cap he den da (ice black coffee). Strong, refreshing, and flavourful, a tall glass of iced Vietnamese coffee is perfect after a day of exploration.
Ho Chi Minh City is awash with cultural attractions so you will never run out of things to do during your trip. For your first day, you can immediately head to the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Saigon Central Post Office and admire the buildings’ French Colonial architecture.
You can also visit the city’s two most important historical attractions, the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace. The museum houses documents, military equipment, and weapons that are a stark reminder of Vietnam’s war-torn history. Some of the displays in the museum are quite disturbing but the trip is truly worth it if you want to learn a thing or two about the city’s interesting history. Located near the museum, along the Le Duan Boulevard, is the Reunification Palace, one of the city’s most iconic landmarks. The Reunification Palace was once the official residence of the Nguyen Van Thieu. The palace’s capture on April 30, 1975 signified the fall of Saigon, or what most people know as the end of the 20-year Vietnam War.
Ho Chi Minh City is also home to a handful of beautiful pagodas and the most noteworthy are the Jade Emperor Pagoda, the Vinh Nghiem Pagoda, and the Thien Hau Pagoda. Please note, however, that when visiting religious monuments and other places of worship, you are expected to wear the appropriate attire. Keep your shoulder and knees covered at all times.
The eclectic nightlife is one of the best things about Ho Chi Minh City. There are tons of lively bars, clubs, and pubs – from the swankiest to the most affordable. If you fancy places that are hip and cool, you will love the city’s rooftop bars like the one at Duc Vuong Hotel on Bui Vienstreet.
For all-night partying, nothing beats the establishments that dot Pham Ngu Lao street. The crowd there is incredible, carefree, and totally unpretentious. A huge favourite among fun-loving tourists and locals, Pham Ngu Lao offers cheap food and drinks amidst a vibrant atmosphere.
Another remarkable thing about Pham Ngu Lao is that the street is peppered with spas and massage salons. The massage places are open until late at night or even into the wee hours of the morning, so you can get a massage after a whole night of partying. Massages are cheap in Ho Chi Minh City. You should spend no more than $8 for an hour of relaxing massage. Really affordable, isn’t it?
Ho Chi Minh City is a shopper’s haven. You can buy almost anything there – spices, cheap clothing and accessories, handicrafts, silk, stationery, and even the most exquisitely tailored suits.
For silk, antiques, and jewellery, head to Dong Khai and Le Thang Ton streets. For clothing, coffee, spices, and souvenirs, you can check out the very popular Ben Thanh Market in District 1. The vendors at Ben Thanh Market usually quote steeper prices for their wares so bargaining is necessary. Also, please be careful when paying for your purchases using Vietnamese dong notes. Some of the notes look very similar so it is easy to get confused.
But if you want where the locals shop, head to Binh Tay Market in Cho Lon, Saigon’s Chinatown. The variety of goods sold at this market is overwhelming, with hundreds of vendors selling whatever it is you can think of –fresh produce, traditional wear, knock-off clothing, and all kinds of fabrics. The prices here are way cheaper than what you’d find in Ben Thanh Market so if you’re looking for great finds at very affordable prices, allot at least a day for exploring Binh Tay Market.
Just like Hoi An, Saigon is also home to some of the best tailors in Vietnam. These professional tailors are known to produce custom suits and clothing that boast of top-notch tailoring and high-end materials. Tailored shirts can cost as low as $10 while suits start at $50.
Bio: Brendelyn Balaga is a web content writer and part-time events organizer. Having been bitten by the travel bug, she now writes full-time for Travezl.com.