Ho Chi Minh City

View of Ho Chi Minh City from Bitexco tower
People's Committee Hall

Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnamese: Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh), commonly known as Saigon (Vietnamese: Sài Gòn) or by the abbreviations HCMC or HCM, is the largest city in Vietnam and the former capital of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam).

Understand

Following the fall of Saigon in 1975, Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. However the old Saigon name is still used by both Vietnamese and foreigners, especially when referring to the most central part of the city to which most tourists flock.

Though Vietnam has been united since the conclusion of the Vietnam War, cultural differences arising from the division of Vietnam can be seen to this day. To this day, locals in Ho Chi Minh City tend to be more business-minded and less ideological than those in Hanoi in the north. In addition, Southerners also tend to be more hospitable towards Western visitors than Northerners. The Vietnam War remains a sensitive topic, and it is advisable not to bring it up in discussions with locals. Do not assume that all Vietnamese think alike, as many Southerners are still bitter about having lost against the North.

Get in

By plane

Tan Son Nhat (Tân Sơn Nhất) (IATA: SGN) is Vietnam's largest international airport. There are two terminals: the shiny, pleasant international terminal which took over all international flights from 2007, and the old but functional domestic terminal 200 m away. The airport is conveniently located about 8 km from the heart of the city. The international terminal used to offer duty-free shopping after you landed, but that ended in early 2010 – purchase such items at the airport from which you are departing to visit Vietnam. Both terminals have limited food offerings at high prices once you pass immigration on your outbound journey.

Immigration and currency

Immigration protocols at the airport are very streamlined. It is no longer necessary for most passengers to fill in any immigration or customs declaration cards. (The latter may be necessary if you are intending to stay in Vietnam for a long period, or carrying unusual goods.) The baggage carousels are one level down from the immigration booths. You will need to have your checked-in and hand-carry luggage X-rayed before you leave the restricted area.

After you clear customs, you will find currency exchange booths to your right. The currency of Vietnam is the dong. Currency exchange rates at the airport are competitive, and it is preferable to change money here than at the backpackers area in the city which tends to have less favourable rates. Ask first if there's a commission, because this will add to the cost of changing money and nullify any rate advantage. There is an ATM machine on the right side near the currency exchange booths. The withdrawal fee is 20,000 dong. Maximum withdrawal is 6,000,000 dong at one time.

Getting to city centre

Bus

The No. 109 airport bus links the international airport and city centre (Pham Ngu Lao St). This bus runs from 5:30am to 1:30am of the following day, with a frequency of 15 – 20 minutes/trip, and the travelling time of the trip is about 45 minutes. Passengers travelling from Tan Son Nhat International Airport can take a bus at Column 15 (International Terminal) or Column 18 (Domestic Terminal). The fare for the service is VND20,000 ($0.9) for journeys over 5km and VND12,000 ($0.54) for those under 5km. Bus 109 has various advantages such as a low floor and wide doors which help passengers with bulky luggage, the elderly, the disabled and pregnant women easily get in and out of the bus; large luggage spaces; and information of upcoming stops is displayed and announced in English and Vietnamese.

The No. 152 airport bus is the cheapest and safest way for backpackers heading to Pham Ngu Lao St from the airport. At least some of these buses are now air-conditioned. (Ignore taxi drivers who tell you that there are no more airport buses.) For 6,000 dong per person plus a 4,000 dong fee for bags, the bus will drop you off at the east end of the Pham Ngu Lao area (at the bus terminal on the southwest side of the Ben Thanh Market roundabout). There is limited space for luggage so this may not be suitable if you have large suitcases. Upon exiting the international airport terminal, turn right and you should see the bus waiting on the road opposite Burger King. There is no sign indicating where the bus stop is, but if you ask a uniformed taxi warden he or she will point it out to you. If not, walk down to the domestic terminal, which is about a three-minute walk away. Try to have exact change or you will be given coins in return. These are legal tender in Vietnam, but many places do not accept them. The bus is only available until 18:00.

Taxi

You can use Uber to get you where you want to go and as long as you enter your destination in the app, you and the driver don't even have to exchange one word. This is the best option since it is cheaper than taking normal taxis.

Caution: some travellers have reported that taxi scams at the airport are rife. To avoid being scammed, read the information here as well as in the "Get around" section.

International terminal

There are three options for getting a taxi from the airport to the city centre (District 1):

The metered taxi fare from the airport to the city centre is about 140,000 dong, plus a toll of 10,000 dong. When traffic is lighter (usually only between 22:00- 06:00 or on a hot Sunday afternoon), the ride to the city centre takes as little as 15 minutes. More typically, however, taxis creep along in near-standstill traffic for up to an hour.

Domestic terminal

At the domestic terminal, a company called Sasco has the airport taxi concession and is the only company allowed to pick up passengers directly adjacent to the building. Their cars are the first you will see by the kerb as you exit customs. However, less expensive rival taxis can usually be found usually in abundance 100 m out in the car park. They have uniformed taxi wardens who will try to capture your business as you approach.

Taxi companies
Mai Linh Taxi
Vinasun Taxi
Saigon Tourist Taxi

Taxi rates are very reasonable in HCMC as long as you use a reputable company and the meter is used. Mai Linh (mostly white with green lettering, though sometimes green or silver) ☎ +84 8 3838 3838 (or 08 3838 3838 if dialling from a local telephone) and Vinasun (white with green and red lettering) ☎ +84 8 3827 2727 have the largest fleets in the city and are generally honest and reliable, with meters that start automatically after the taxis have moved about five metres. At the airport, Mai Linh taxi wardens wear green shirts with green ties, and Vinasun wardens dark green shirts with maroon ties. These wardens can radio taxis for you.

Be cautious of taxis from dubious companies with names that resemble the reputable companies mentioned above. Some of these include Mei Linh or Mai Lin instead of Mai Linh, and Vinamet, Vinason or Vinasum instead of Vinasun. It has been reported that such companies charge outrageous fares to unsuspecting passengers, sometimes by using meters that run faster or by manually increasing the fare when passengers are not looking. There have also been instances of taxi drivers from such companies driving off with passengers' belongings still in the boot.

Other taxi companies with smaller fleets that have been reported as reliable include Festive Taxi, Happy Taxi, Hoang Long (yellow top and green sides), Petro Vietnam (silver and green), Petrolimex (white, blue and orange), Savico (blue), Taxi Future (silver with orange lettering) and Vinataxi (bright yellow). Historically, Savico and Vinataxi have been the cheapest by about 10%, though they generally have older and more threadbare cars; while Hoang Long and Taxi Future are perhaps 10% higher than the average.

Taxis that some travellers have suggested avoiding include the following:

Other tips for avoiding scams
Car rental and private chauffeured services

Budget Car Rental offers English-speaking drivers and new model vehicles. A trip to the city costs a fixed price of 140,000 dong.

A pick-up from the airport by a chauffeured car can be arranged online from Your Local Booking,Book A Car Vietnam,or at booths in the airport terminal building from companies such as Saigon Tourist, Sasco,Hanoi Transfer Service ,Vietnam Transfer Service, Ho Chi Minh airport transfer.

By bus

If you take a bus into Ho Chi Minh City, you will end up at one of the following bus stations:

From these stations, public buses in around the city will cost you about 6,000 to 7,000 dong per journey.

Most private tour company buses drop passengers off on Pham Ngu Lao just west of De Tham, providing easy access to accommodation options in the backpacker area. Of course, this means that you'll have at least 40 people shopping for the same rooms, which can be daunting as the nearby spots get snapped up. Patience will reward those who dig deeper into the tiny alleys, which have a life of their own.

As you hop out of the bus, taxi drivers will surround you with questions like "Where you go?". You might be confused about your location in the city and consequently some taxi drivers will try to take advantage. You'll most likely already be in Pham Ngu Lao and when you tell taxi driver to head to the same place, he'll just zigzag around a few blocks to inflate the fare.

Several companies provide bus travel from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, at approximately USD12 per person. Visas to Vietnam cannot be obtained at the border, so have one before you arrive (see "Cope" below). Capital Tours operates a popular bus route from the Capital Guest House in Phnom Penh that takes passengers to the border. After securing visas, passengers board a partner Vietnamese bus to continue their travel to HCMC.

By train

Ga Sài Gòn Saigon Train Station is on Cach Mang Thang Tam (CMT8) northwest of the city centre, and is a short taxi or public bus ride away from the main hotel districts. The ticket office at the train station has limited English proficiency. Recommended to purchase from the official train ticket office located at 275C Pham Ngu Lao, Pham Ngu Lao Ward, District 1. Other options include travel agencies, also located in Pham Ngu Lao.

There are five daily departures from Hanoi along the "Reunification line". Although several of the trains are called "express", all journeys take about 30 to 35 hours. The fastest train is SE3 departing from Hanoi at 23:00 and arriving at 05:00 two days later. However, SE5 departing at 15:45 and arriving at 04:40 has higher-quality tourist carriages run by the private company Livitrans attached to it. Ticket prices are from 1,008,000–1,547,000 dong for standard carriages and double that for tourist carriages.

Get around

By taxi and rental car

Taxis are the most comfortable way of getting around, and very modest in price compared to other major cities in the world. Rates fluctuate over time depending on the cost of fuel. Expect to pay around 15,000-20,000 dong per kilometre. Taxis are numerous and it's usually not hard to flag one down anywhere in the city centre from early morning until about 01:00, though finding one in the rain or during workday rush hours can be difficult.

Taxi rates are not regulated by the city government, so each company sets its own fare structure which changes from time to time. You cannot choose a taxi at random and expect a standard fare; it is a caveat emptor market with a fringe of opportunistic drivers to overcharge foreigners. Fortunately, the market is fairly competitive and 80% of taxis are operated by reasonably honest companies with similar rates. The market of these companies is more than 90% local, so their policies are designed to win the trust of HCMC residents. In general, the only taxi companies you should use are Mai Linh and Vinasun, as the risk of getting ripped of is much higher with the other companies.

Dishonest taxi drivers may start driving without starting their meters, then demand a high fare or try to negotiate for a fixed price at a location where it's difficult for you to hire another cab. Therefore, make sure your taxi driver agrees to use the meter, and turns it on before you get in. As mentioned above, some taxi companies such as Mai Linh and Vinasun have meters in their taxis that start automatically once the vehicle starts moving.

Drivers generally speak limited English and do not speak any other foreign languages, so it's wise to write the name and address of your destination, preferably in Vietnamese, to show the taxi driver. Your hotel staff can assist. It also helps to carry one of your hotel's business cards so you can return to the hotel without too much fuss. Carry small change and notes for paying fares, since drivers are often short of change. Taxis are mostly Toyota Vios sedans (up to four passengers) and Toyota Innova minivans (up to six passengers), which are assembled in Vietnam and inexpensive to buy. Fares are almost always the same regardless of car model, although anything larger than an Innova generally costs more. Some older cars might lack working air conditioners.

Taxi drivers are likely to drive too fast when given the chance. Ho Chi Minh City has a unique traffic pattern in which cars and buses drive in the centre lanes on two-way streets, or the left lanes on one-way streets, while the outside or right lanes are reserved for motorcycles. During weekday rush hours, the car lanes often barely move for blocks on end, while the motorcycle lanes move a bit faster. Taxi drivers vary in their tendency to squeeze into the motorcycle lane and jump ahead of other cars. In theory, they can be fined for doing so. Rush-hour traffic in the city has become so bad that you might consider just planning not to go anywhere between the hours of 07:00-8:30 and 16:30-18:00.

For trips outside of the city or for the convenience of having a private vehicle for the day, hiring a car with a driver for the day is a good option. Many of the taxi companies such as Mai Linh and Vinasun offer these services.

By speedboat

Getting to Vung Tau by hydrofoil is normally a good way to see the commercial maritime areas as the boat speeds down the Saigon River to the sea; however, as of 21 January, 2015, service has been suspended indefinitely after a boat sank. Price if service resumes: USD10/1 ticket/ 1 adult and USD5/child (age 6-11, height under 1.4 m). Duration: 75 min. Departs from Bach Dang pier in Saigon, District 1, not far from the Majestic hotel (100 m). Arrives in Cầu Đá Port, Ben Cau Da, Ha Long St, Vung Tau.

There are 3 lines (Petro Express, Greenlines, Vina Express) running this route with the same ticket price of USD10 one way. If you are planning to visit Vung Tao be sure to consult a Vietnamese calendar. Tickets often sell out over holidays.

By motorbike

Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City

Motorbike taxis (xe ôm, literally hug-vehicle) are plentiful (get used to hearing "you want moto?" everywhere), cheap, and are generally quite safe. All riders are now required to wear helmets, a rule that is strongly enforced. Make sure the driver supplies you with a helmet. If he doesn't, find another one, as you'll be the one stung for the fine.

Agree on a price before you set off. Short hops around town shouldn't be more than 20,000 dong, if you go between districts this increases and all the way to the airport around 70,000 dong. Drivers are generally quite friendly and will go slower upon request. They're also not adverse to a bear hug if you're really struggling to hold on to the motorbike. Many of the moto drivers, especially in District 1, speak some English and like many Vietnamese will repay you in a flood of smiles, and probably point out all the sights, if you make a little effort to get to know them.

You can rent your own motorbike in many places, especially around the backpacker area (Pham Ngu Lao) in District 1. 110,000 dong should get you a decent 100-110cc bike. Two main categories of motorbike are available for rent: scooters (automatic transmission); and four-speed motorbikes, the gears of which you change with your left foot. The ubiquitous Honda Super Cub is a common 4-speed bike that has a semi-automatic gearbox, i.e., no clutch, so relatively easy to drive. Other models may be fully manual and therefore you must also operate the clutch using your left hand. This takes a lot of skill and it's all too easy to over-rev and pull a wheelie or stall the engine. If you end up with such a bike then practice releasing the clutch gently before hitting the roads. Rental agents tend to steer foreigners toward scooters if available, on the (plausible) assumption that they don't know how to ride motorbikes that have manual gears. Motorcycles of 175 cc and above are only legal to ride if you make a connection with a Vietnamese motorcycle club.

Driving in Saigon is best left to experienced drivers. The traffic is intense and has its own rhythms and logic. However, if you're up for an adventure, it's best to keep a few things in mind: drivers with limited experience should consider renting an automatic bike (usually a bit more expensive), as at busy crossroads there is not time for worrying about how to change gears. Beware of thieves: always keep your motorbike in sight or parked with an attendant. Most restaurants have guards/parking attendants out front who will issue you a numbered tag and take care of your motorbike. Independent parking lots are scattered around the pavements, alleys and basements of the city. Look for rows of neatly-parked motorbikes or signs that say giu xe.

If you are here during the rainy season, make sure to buy a poncho or a raincoat before you start. They are available for as little as 10,000 dong. It rains daily for around 1–2 hours between 16:00-20:00 during Jul-Aug in Saigon. However, the traffic doesn't stop, it just becomes more chaotic. If you are hesitant or have not driven in such conditions before, it might be prudent to park and wait.

Riding long distance in the countryside can also be harrowing depending on the route you take. Major roads between cities tend to be narrow despite being major, and full of tour buses hellbent on speed, passing slow trucks where maybe they shouldn't, and leaving not much room at the edge for motorbikes.

Most places you would want to stop have parking attendants who will issue you a numbered tag and watch over your bike. Sometimes these parking operations are overseen by the establishment you are visiting, and sometimes they are free-lance operations set up in places where a lot of people go. You will usually see rows of bikes lined up parked. Depending on circumstances, you might park the bike yourself, or just put it in neutral and let the staff position it. In all but rare cases you keep the key. Parking is sometimes free at restaurants and cafes (look for "giu xe mien phi"). Elsewhere, fees range from 2,000 to 5,000 dong.

Traffic police in the cities pull over lots of locals, for reasons that are hard to discern, but conventional wisdom has it that they rarely bother foreigners due to the language barrier. Obeying the traffic laws is nevertheless advisable, especially if you have failed to obtain a Vietnamese licence. Cities like Ho Chi Minh have several one way streets, and it is too easy to just steer into them unknowingly as there are limited signs warning you. If you break the law, the police are sure to pull you over and fine you. They will also threaten confiscating your bike. The quoted price for fine is negotiable, and being apologetic and friendly can get you back on road quickly, with a few dollars less in your pockets. It is less likely that they will bully or harass you.

By cyclo

A ride on a cyclo through HCMC is a great way to see the city the way the locals do. Cyclos resemble a backwards tricycle, with the passenger(s) sitting in front and the driver peddling at the rear. The sights, sounds and smells are a large part of the excitement of the city, and are best experienced at the relaxed pace of a cyclo. A word of warning: be careful with cameras, purses and watches while cyclo riding as these items are easily stolen by drive-by motorbike thieves.

For many reasons, not least the government's insistence on restricting cyclos on busy urban streets, this form of transportation is dying. But at around 36,000 dong per hour and given their leisurely pace, they are a good choice for taking in the city. Be sure to bargain hard with the cyclo driver beforehand. Some drivers have been known to try to change an agreed price at journey's end. Another ruse is to stop unbidden at places where the driver earns a commission. To avoid these problems, make sure all are clear on price and destination at departure.

By bus

Bus station

Bright green public buses serve 150 routes throughout the city. You can find maps of the bus system at the large Ben Thanh bus station across the street from Ben Thanh Market in District 1. Go into the waiting room to the desk in the middle. The buses are cheap, safe and not too crowded. Many are modern and comfortable, with such amenities as air conditioning, music, and even television. Finding the right line can be a challenge if you don't speak Vietnamese, but with the help of maps and your hotel staff you can get where you want easily. If you cannot find your way, ask the locals nicely, they will try their best to help. At the biggest bus stations you can read bus destinations at every single stop (useful, for example, if you need to get to Cholon).

The buses are efficient and fast. Most are staffed by two employees: the driver and a conductor. The driver keeps the bus moving while the fare collector interacts with the passengers. Locals claim, plausibly, that buses are even faster than taxis. The reason is that buses have an informal right of way on the streets of HCMC; when another vehicle sees a bus coming, that vehicle gets out of the way. Taxis know that they are supposed to back down from confrontations with buses. Buses are also cheaper, 4,000-8,000 dong per ride, and safer than many of the alternatives. The biggest problem is that when you get off the bus, you become a pedestrian (see below).

For those who aren't staying in HCMC very long, or want to save some time, the Vietnam Transfer Service will take you to the famous places in Ho Chi Minh City. Price is from 15,000-75,000 dong, including the tour guide and the information in English.

On foot

Traffic is made up of a staggering number of motorbikes and, since import duty was reduced upon Vietnam's joining of the WTO, an increasing number of private cars. However its exceptionally rare to see a motorbike of more than 150 cc, and the traffic rarely gets above 20–30 km/hr in central areas.

Crossing the road in Saigon can be a nightmare. It is always scary. If ever in doubt, Saigon's "Tourist Security" officers (guys in green uniforms) will happily help you across. A quicker way of getting across is to simply follow the lead of a local crossing the street.

The true trick to crossing the road is to stay aware, and walk slowly and confidently. The motorbike riders are exceptionally good and will simply move to avoid you, just don't make any sudden erratic moves. Just look for a gap or seam in the traffic, and begin a slow, but steady movement. If you hear a beep coming your way it's likely a motorbike rider is about to enter your personal space. Be alert and prepared to stop putting your foot forward until he passes.

Adherence to traffic signals in Saigon is terrible. Drivers tend to use "best judgment". Just remember though that vehicles can always turn right at any time (regardless of lights). Motorbikes often drive in the wrong direction to take a short cut from point A to point B even against the traffic flow. Crossing roads therefore maybe a challenge for Westerners used to traffic laws and traffic lights.

The traffic police occupy themselves with random roadside checks and do not bother the motorcyclists who are running red lights or driving on the pavements. The police recently announced a crackdown on pedestrians. This does not mean that they will hassle you. The most likely meaning of the crackdown is that you will be held responsible if you are involved in an accident.

Maps

You will receive a free VN Trip Map from Vietnamese women wearing the traditional ao dai dress as you are leaving Tan Son Nhat Airport. Most hotels will provide a free tourist map of District 1 although these tend to be advertising-centric. The Sheraton has one of the best of these and will provide one if you ask at reception. In District 1, 'Bookazine' at #28 Dong Khoi (between Ngo Duc Ke and Ho Huan Nghiep) have larger city maps if you plan to venture beyond District 1. The one published by Du Lich & Giao Thong has a street index on the back. Fahasa Books also carries a full range of maps. They have two large stores in District 1: 185 Dong Khoi, just down from Le Thanh Ton, and 40 Nguyen Hue, just down from Mac Thi Buoi. MySherpa Travel have also published tourist maps of central District 1 with all shops and points of interest marked. Outlets in Saigon include Gaya, Dolce Casa, Annam Fine Foods, T&V Tailor, Galley Deli and a number of hotels.

Talk

As in most other parts of Vietnam, the main language is Vietnamese. The local dialect is the southern, which differs somewhat from the northern dialect spoken in Hanoi, though speakers of both dialects are usually able to comprehend each other. English is spoken by most of the younger well-educated upper class. Educated senior citizens are usually able to speak French, though generally speaking, English is far more useful these days.

Ho Chi Minh City is also home to a sizeable ethnic Chinese community, mostly around Chinatown and many of them are bilingual in Cantonese and Vietnamese. Many of them also speak Mandarin.

A few useful phrases:

See

Historical sites

Reunification Palace
The tank that ended the war, outside the Reunification Palace

Religious sites

Incense, Thien Hau Pagoda

There are several Chinese temples in Cholon, the Chinatown district of old Saigon. Only a few are listed here.

Other

Bitexco Financial Tower
View from Bitexco Financial Tower

Ethnic Neighbourhoods

Do

Learn

Buy

Vietnamese arts and crafts, or mass-produced resin knock-offs thereof, are sold by dozens of shops around the central tourist district. The best, most expensive items can be mostly found on Dong Khoi or the immediate side streets. The goods tend to get progressively simpler and cheaper as you move west toward Ben Thanh Market (though the best wood-carving shop is a stall on the back side of Ben Thanh). A few shops have authentic woven silk textiles from Sapa and the north. Lacquered paintings, plates, bowls, etc., are quite striking and unique to Vietnam. Vietnamese propaganda posters can be very impressive and offer a taste of history. It is very useful to have local currency when buying. Banks and formal exchanges will provide you with a decent rate, especially when compared with agencies like Statravel on Vui Ban St which will offer much lower rates. Goldsmith shops will also change money at decent rates, though as always it is better to know the going rate than to trust to luck.

There are two good guide books for shoppers in Ho Chi Minh City: the Luxe City Guide and the MySherpa Guide which also includes a map with shops cross-referenced.

Artworks

Books and newspapers

Clothing

Vietnamese silk is excellent quality. Buying a suit can be fun and relatively cheap, but do your research first, and remember that you get what you pay for. Labour costs are not what make suits expensive. Tailors frequently use fabrics whose quality is exaggerated, for example the common claim of wool being "Italian/English Super 180". Cheap local suits don't compare to just having an USD80 H & M suit altered by a tailor. Any suit should contain 0% polyester. Any tailor should have multiple fittings, preferably three (with the third just being a check-up that probably won't require further alteration).

Electronics

Visiting the local electronics district on and around Huynh Thuc Khang is quite a sight, where anything and everything is repaired, and nothing wasted. It's about a 15 min ride on Bus 2 from District 1. Loudspeaker repairs and remakes, transformer and armature winding by hand. Think of any component and you may find it here, including 1968 helicopter parts. Some people bring older solid state and valve gear here to be repaired economically. Most electronics equipment in Vietnam originates here, so it's going to be a lot cheaper here than elsewhere.

While some of the country's cheapest electronics can be found here, most shops sell counterfeit items. Things such as dodgy iPods are easy to spot when compared to the genuine item, but things like camera batteries are more difficult to assess. If you are thinking about buying extra memory for your digital camera, e.g., be warned that most of the memory will be fake. These cards can be low quality and one has to ask if it is worth risking irreplaceable holiday snaps. Worse, knock-off batteries sold here have been known to explode. Nevertheless, if you know what you are doing, you can pick up some bargains here.

Markets

Ben Tanh Market
Afternoon siesta, near Ben Thanh Market

Supermarkets

Eat

Typical Vietnamese Pho

You're spoiled for choice in Saigon, which offers the country's largest variety of Vietnamese and international food. Bargains are getting harder to find, however, and restaurant prices have been rising at up to 30% per year due to a combination of higher food prices, rising wages, and soaring real estate costs. Land in the city centre now sells for around USD16,000 per square metre, so even a modest-sized restaurant sits on real estate worth more than USD1 million. Authentic local food at bargain prices is one of the glories of Vietnam, but it's getting harder to find in Saigon as the city becomes ever more upscale and cosmopolitan.

The local food shows influences from French colonial times. Bakeries have fresh and excellent baguettes, which they will fill with cheese (typically of the "La Vache Qui Rit" or "Laughing Cow" brand), potted meat, ham, and onions, or any combination thereof, cheaply. Beef is used in various dishes - whether in any of the many variations of pho, or in a regional specialty such as "bun bo hue" or Hue beef soup. Be sure to try, aside from pho, dishes such as the above-mentioned Hue beef soup, or "banh xeo". Vietnamese omelettes, consisting of a delicious filling of your choice (various options included bamboo shoots and enoki mushrooms, along with meat, prawns, or both) in a crispy outer crepe-like casing.

Local food at bargain prices is very easy to find in Saigon. Banh mi thit (pork sandwiches) can cost as little as 10,000-15,000 dong. Com tam, a plate of rice with grilled pork (or with different meats) and a bit of vegetables for 18,000 dong.

Budget

Food stalls are scattered all over the city, but there's a fair collection in the Ben Thanh market (see Buy). For local fast food, try the ubiquitous Pho 24 chain (though it can be more the twice the price of local fare). Additionally, foreign fast food franchises Lotteria and KFC are established in the city, with McDonald's just recently opening as well.

The setback of eating street food or food prepared in holes-in-the-walls in any town or city in Vietnam is dodgy hygiene. Street hawkers are not only cooks but they are also cashiers. They touch money and often flip over the notes with their fingers moistened with their saliva. If a bun or baguette is dropped in the pavement, it is picked up to be mixed with the rest. A hawker may cough or sneeze and while preparing food, cover their mouth with their bare hands then resume what they were just doing. Food may have unwanted items such as hairs. Utensils may be washed from the same portable ice-cream container washing basin, without detergent. Debris on spoons are just wiped off from the water on that small dish. Drinking glasses may just be dunked two or three times and ready for the next user.

At holes-in-the-wall, if there is shortage of counter space, contained food is placed on the floor. Floors are mostly wet and muddy. Utensils are washed on the floor itself. Waiters tossed used chopsticks and other dishes like bowls and if they don't get in the tub, they fall to the floor to be picked up later. Vegetables and meat parts are also cut in the floor and if they fell off, they are picked up again. Big quantities of vegetables are placed in plastic buckets and cleaned in the toilet tap. The plastic buckets may have been used as bathing or toilet flushing pail. And when they are not used, they may be stacked together and stored in the toilet.

However, street food and holes-in-the-wall food are flavourful, fascinating, exotic, ingeniously contrived, and cheap with all the elements of the nutrition pyramid and all the flavours: sweet; sour; salty & hot are well represented.

Mid-range

Splurge

Halal Food

Drink

Cafés

Vietnam is the world's second largest exporter of coffee after Brazil, and cà phê is very popular among the Vietnamese. It's a paradise for coffee-loving visitors. The local style is strong and sweet; key words to remember are: sữa (sweetened condensed milk), đá (ice), and nóng (hot, pronounced "nowm"). Cà phê đá is strong, sweet iced coffee; and cà phê sữa đá is the same with condensed milk. Cà phê (sữa) nóng is brewed fresh on your table brewed in a little metal apparatus placed over a cup; just lift it off when it has cooled enough to touch (and hence drink). Prices range from 10,000 to 20,000 dong for coffee in the local style.

Since ice might or might not be made with purified water, strictly cautious visitors should avoid it, though long-term residents consume ice from reputable cafes and restaurants all the time.

Espresso, cappuccino, and American-style filter coffee are now also widely available in the tourist district, usually at 2-8 times the price of the local style. You will be able to differentiate the better places if they use UHT milk as opposed to condensed milk.

Bars and clubs

Saigon has plenty of places to drink, although to a certain degree Vietnamese and foreigners hang out in different places. This is slowly changing as Westerners become more familiar with the ways of the East (and vice versa). Places with live music usually have no cover charge, but impose somewhat elevated drink prices (typically 55,000-85,000 dong for beer, spirits, and cocktails.) Many places close around midnight or 01:00. Some places remain open later: Go2 Bar in Pham Ngu Lao, popular with backpackers/budget crowd; Apocalypse Now on Thi Sach St, packed with people from all walks of life (you can find anything in this place regardless of your preferences (prostitutes straight/gay, drugs or just a place to dance the night away); ZanZBar on Dong Du St will appeal to the regular bar crowd and closing time changes daily depending on the number of people in the bar). There are other late night clubs which cater almost exclusively to the young Vietnamese crowd. Anywhere in the city you can find Vietnamese bottled beer places that will stay open until 03:00-04:00. Several bars in Phu My Hung stay open until 02:00-03:00.

Not to be missed are the pavement bars which get very busy with locals and travellers alike, about halfway down Biu Vien. They sell bottles of Saigon beer for 10,000 dong. Sit on the tiny plastic chairs and enjoy the friendly atmosphere. These are perhaps the best places to drink as a backpacker, as they are very cheap and also great places to meet people, and not just other tourists.

Where you can drink with locals

Ho Chi Minh City at night


Where you can drink with tourists

Sleep

Most hotels do not allow you to bring back a local female companion to stay overnight. However it's best to confirm guest policy as plenty of non-international chain hotels allow guests.

Budget

Street vendor in backpackers district

The main backpacker hangout is Pham Ngu Lao in District 1, just a short walk (10-15 min) from Ben Thanh Market. The lanes and alleys in the area between Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien are jammed with 5-10 room mini-hotels offering prices around USD15 per room (air-con with hot shower and cable TV). There is no difference in price between single or double occupancy so if you are travelling alone you might want to try finding a dorm bed for around USD6 (but there are not many of them around.) Keep heading southwest away from the backpacker hustle closer Ng Thai Hoc, you'll likely find that as the alleys get smaller the rooms get quieter and owners more friendly. The area swarms with touts and other nuisances. The area is not the safest, and it'd be wise not to run around carrying something like an expensive DSLR camera, thereby making yourself a target for thieves.

Mid-range

The area around De Tham is close to the Ben Thanh market and is the backpacker area of the city.

Many of Saigon's historical hotels are in the hands of Saigontourist, the former state monopoly. Thanks to recent competition, service and facilities are adequate, although not quite up to modern standards; but if you want to experience a little colonial atmosphere, these are far and away the best choice.

Splurge

Stay safe

In general, Ho Chi Minh City is a safe city, with violent crimes such as armed robbery being relatively rare. The most common crimes faced by tourists are pickpocketing and snatch theft from motorbikes.

Scam artists operate on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. A person will strike up a friendly conversation claiming they've either seen you at the airport or some other tourist place where they work. Usually they'll be with other family members who will join the conversation very naturally and once they find out where you're from they'll mention that another family member is moving to a city in your country. You will be invited over for food at their house to help console a worried grandmother or to give advise to their family member. Once you arrive at the house however the family member is not there, or the grandmother has suddenly fallen ill and had to go to the hospital. You'll be presented with various business opportunities, legal or not, or asked for financial support for the suddenly sick grandmother.

Hotel scams are very common, even in the mid-range price level ~USD20-70. The hotel will remind you that you should place your valuables in the room safe or the hotel safe. Lock up everything that is more or less valuable.

Don't hold up expensive things near the street or leave them out on the table while you're having a meal, especially in District 1, especially around the backpacker area. Petty theft is a big problem, and a lot of times it's done by people on motorbikes. It's easy to prevent by not giving thieves the opportunity.

Don't buy coconut more than ~USD2, real-price is ~USD0.5. If you are forced, call police: +84 8 3829 7643, +84 8 38299835

Also, the prostitutes on Bui Vien and Ton That Tung will try to rob you. Usually, they'll approach guys just acting like they're up to normal prostitute business, but they're really trying to pickpocket you.

Connect

Central Post Office

The telephone code of Ho Chi Minh City is 08. Many (but not all) land line phone numbers in Vietnam have the prefix 3.

Free Wi-Fi access is provided at nearly all hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and cafés. You can find open access points that don't require a password throughout the area around Pham Ngu Lao/Vu Bien and Ben Thanh Market.

It is also possible to buy a SIM card with unlimited internet access for a month directly at the airport for about 300,000 dong.

Cope

Medical services

Immigration office

Police station

If you need to lodge complaint, for example about a stolen object, go to a police station. For a stolen item, you need to report to a station near the theft. It can be tricky as small stations will probably not have an officer with very good English language skills. If possible, go with a Vietnamese speaker.

Consulates and representative offices

Go next

When going to the airport, specify clearly which terminal you want to go to. International flights leave from the newer international terminal (go straight). Domestic flights (to Da Nang, Hanoi, Nha Trang, and so on) are from the domestic terminal (turn left). If you get dropped off at the wrong terminal, you'll have to dash to the correct terminal via a pedestrian walkway link 600 m away. This is not recommended, especially if you're already late for boarding.

When entering the airport, taxi drivers will add an airport entry fee of 5,000 dong to your total metered fare. This is not to be confused with the airport departure tax, which should have been included in the price of your airline ticket.

If you're booking a bus around the Pham Ngu Lao area, you probably want to consider buying the tickets right at the bus company instead of one of the booking agencies. The FUTA bus line has an office at the corner Pham Ngu Lao / De Tham (orange-green building) and you get the tickets for around two-thirds the price compared to booking in an agency.

Avoid booking trips through your hotel as you'll pay a significant surcharge to join the same trips which can be booked at the plethora of travel agents throughout the city.

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Wednesday, March 23, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.