Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam (formerly Saigon) is home to some 6 million people, most of whom you will see at some point during your stay as they whiz around town on their motorbikes. The city’s Tan Son Nhat Airport lies 7km north west of the city centre and is the most popular arrival point in Vietnam for international travellers. As well as long haul arrivals there are many flights to HCMC from within Asia, especially from Bangkok and Hong Kong.
When to Visit HCMC
Ho Chi Minh City weather has just two seasons and experiences a tropical climate with hot, humid conditions all year round.The rainy season (May to November) is the best time to avoid for tourism purposes though the showers tend to be short and sudden rather than prolonged. The dry season (December to April) tends to be a little cooler though average annual temperatures still hover around the 28ºC mark. Typhoons are common between July and November.
Below are two graphs showing the average monthly temperature and rainfall throughout the year.
Ho Chi Minh City Airport
Arriving in Asia can be quite a culture shock for travellers who haven’t visited the region before. However, on arriving at Ho Chi Minh City Airport for the first time I was pleasantly surprised at how modern the airport terminal is and how the ground vehicles all looked new and efficient. This country was not going to be as poor as I’d anticipated.
A Vietnam Visa is required so we had arranged ours in London before flying to HCMC. However, it is also necessary to fill in an arrivals-departure card. On some incoming flights this card is distributed onboard otherwise you’ll need to get hold of one in the arrivals lounge before joining the queue to pass through immigration.
The immigration officers are all dressed in full military uniform with their green caps lying on the desk as you approach. They are quite meticulous in checking your paperwork so make sure you’ve filled in the arrival-departure card correctly. If everything is in order they’ll stamp your passport and you can then proceed to collect your luggage. Any mistakes and they’ll send you back to correct them. Strangely your luggage will then be x-rayed before you pass through to the public arrivals area. I’ve never had my luggage x-rayed on entering a country before.
To our surprise (and relief) this public arrivals area is empty as non-travellers aren’t allowed inside (a flashback to arriving in Kathmandhu a few years back terrified me!). This gives you time to exchange money at the foreign exchange desk where the official rate was $1US = 15,900 Dong (in fact this was the rate everywhere including the hotel reception). Another excellent service allows you to book a taxi into the city from an official taxi desk. This couldn’t be easier. You tell them where you want to go, they charge you 80,000 Dong ($5US) and someone takes you to a waiting taxi outside. No hassle at all.
If you want something even cheaper there’s an airport bus which runs into the city every 15 minutes from outside the international and domestic departure lounges.
HCMC Airport Transfers
Getting from Ho Chi Minh City Airport into the city couldn’t be easier thanks to the official taxi service operating from a desk straight ahead of you as you enter the arrivals area. Simply pay for a ticket at the desk and you’ll be lead to a waiting taxi outside.
Most hotels will send a driver to collect you if you contact them in advance. This offers peace of mind during a long haul flight knowing that life will be easy on arrival. On our last visit the promised driver wasn’t there so we used the above taxi service for a mere $5US rather than the $14US quoted by the hotel. If you’re looking for a cheaper option there’s a regular airport bus into the city.
Where to Stay in Ho Chi Minh City
In spite of the city’s size it’s fairly straightforward deciding which part of the city to stay in. Travellers will most likely go to one of two areas: Dong Khoi which has mid-range accommodation or Pham Ngu Lao where you’ll find most of the budget accommodation in HCMC. There are Ho Chi Minh City Hotels to suit the requirements of all visitors ranging from backpacker hostels to 5-star hotels.
Getting Around in HCMC
Finding Ho Chi Minh City Transport is never a problem as it seems to be the occupation of a large proportion of the male population. We’ve already covered HCMC airport transfers so here are a few tips on getting around the city when walking gets too much for you.
Cyclo drivers won’t be happy seeing you walking around when they could be cycling you around town so they’ll be offering their services wherever you go. These men are extremely good natured and a rejection is normally met with a smile. If you do decide to go in a cyclo just be sure to agree a price in advance, it’s unlikely to cost more than about 30,000 Dong ($2US) between any of the main HCMC sights and usually less.
Many of these drivers speak good English having worked in administrative jobs with the Americans but after the fall of South Vietnam they became an underclass who were never able to return to professional posts. The Municipal Government of HCMC has already set restrictions on where these cyclos can go so don’t assume you’re being ripped off if you end up taking a road that doesn’t seem logical (you’ve agreed a price already remember). In fact there is a plan to get rid of this traditional form of Ho Chi Minh City transport entirely which would be a major loss to HCMC so go in one at least once, it might be your last chance.
You’ll see metered taxis all over the place and these are also an incredibly cheap transport option. We took a taxi from the Spring Hotel in the Dong Khoi district out to the Chinese district of Cholon which is about 5km away through fairly heavy traffic. The driver didn’t speak any English though he was very helpful in ensuring that he took us to the correct pagoda that we’d showed him on the map. The price was a mere 50,000 Dong ($3US) as shown on the meter.
Coming back from Binh Tay Market market in Cholon we jumped in another taxi that took us back to the Ben Thanh market along the squalid banks of the Saigon River where we saw the poorest living conditions of anywhere in Vietnam. The fare was again about the same as on the outward journey. No problem. One thing to avoid when using public transport is being paranoid. Some travellers seem intent on bargaining for everything and saving a dollar here and there. It’s not worth it as everything is so cheap. Even if you are overcharged on a cyclo or in a taxi you’re looking at a few cents, nothing more. Having said that we never felt overcharges and found people in HCMC very honest and friendly people.
Just as the cyclo riders will offer to give you a ride every time you see them so will men standing by their motorbike at the roadside. Again this is a cheap way to get around but when you see the chaos on the roads you may not be too keen to give it a try. Certainly this is the most dangerous of the Ho Chi Minh City transport options in the city.
You’ll see city bus services operating all over the place but realistically there’s no need to use them when the cyclos and taxis are so easily accessible and cheap. You’ll have no idea where to get off buses and the driver is unlikely to be able to help you, they’re usually overcrowded and very much for the use of locals.
Tourist Attractions in HCMC
To visit the main tourist attractions you will need at least two full days. The main Ho Chi Minh City Attractions include the Hotel de Ville, the Reunification Palace, the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City, the War Remnants Museum, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Jade Emperor Pagoda. If you’re quite adventurous it’s also worthwhile taking a taxi to the Chinese district of Cholon where you can visit a number of busy pagodas and and street markets. Not many tourists head out this way so you may feel a little out of place but it’s worth doing just to observe life on the streets and provided you use your common sense there’s no reason to worry about heading off the beaten track.
Most of these main sights are within easy walking distance but if you want Ho Chi Minh City transport taxis are a great option as they’re metred and cheap. An alternative is to take a cyclo which is quite an experience in the crazy traffic and well worth doing before the local government bans them all.
As you walk the streets you might be surprised at the amount of wealth around as top name international hotels and designer shops selling Rolex and Lacoste, etc. rub shoulders with street sellers offering little more than cigarettes and chewing gum.
When shopping in HCMC you can pick up some bargains if you’re interested in good quality branded products. In Ben Thanh Market you’ll find good quality Ralph Lauren polo shirts and Billabong type t-shirts very cheaply as well as excellent North Face rucksacks for a fraction of the price paid in the west. Many of the factories making these products are on the outskirts of HCMC. Nowhere else in Vietnam sells such quality branded goods as here, in fact I bought a bag in Hanoi which a week later I noticed was branded as “The North” (not “The North Face”). Ben Thanh is one of a number of markets in HCMC which is well worth a visit.
Eating and Drinking in HCMC
On a recent visit we flew from London with Cathay Pacific to HCMC via Hong Kong. The jetlag was fairly severe so after a short sleep we headed out in search of something to eat in the early evening. On first impression there seemed a wide range of restaurants and places to eat in HCMC ranging from basic joints (boiling pots of noodles on the pavement) to fancy Vietnamese and French eateries. There are so many street cafes that it seems unlikely that anyone actually cooks at home. In general you’ll find a wide range of restaurants in HCMC serving a great selection of dishes at bargain prices as well as upmarket joints offering fine International cuisine.
Although any restaurants frequented by tourists are likely to have menus in English, it’s a good idea to print out a list of the names of Vietnamese food. This was a great source of fun for the locals when we tried to order dishes in Vietneamese and certainly endeared us to many waiters and waitresses. The level of English spoken always seemed just about sufficient for the job that the person was doing though at times it’s very difficult to understand people who are speaking quite well because their accent is very strong.
Shopping in HCMC
Ho Chi Minh City shopping opportunities are widespread thanks to a variety of city markets selling everything the locals need and enough for the souvenir hunting tourist. You’ll also come across some impressive upmarket stores near the fancy hotels in the Dong Khoi district which are reminiscent of a western city high street.
Your first stop should be the Ben Thanh Market where you’ll be able to pick up souvenir T-shirts and excellent quality branded goods. Ralph Lauren polo shirts were going for around $5US and seemed of comparable quality to the real thing (many such brands are made in factories outside HCMC).
Quicksilver, Billabong and other Aussie surf T-shirts were on offer for a similar price and again the quality seemed excellent. North face rucksacks were also on sale for a fraction of their price in the west.
One evening we got talking to a couple of girls who told us they worked on the market then by chance the following day we ran into them on their stall which was a shirt stall. They were very nice and spoke English quite well so we ended up replacing most of our T-shirts from their stall. Look them up while you’re there. You enter from the front of the market opposite the Tran Nguyen Hai statue in the middle of the road, it’s Gate II entrance. Their stall is called Anh Xuan and its number according to their business card is “Kiosque 18-20-22-24”. Be prepared for a shopping frenzy.
Outside the Ben Thanh Market there are all sorts of stalls at night when traffic cannot access the streets at the side as well as open air cafes serving up a fine range of Vietnames food. A great area to pass a few hours. As you walk along DL Le Loi (into the Dong Khoi area) there are a number of street stalls offering Nike and other branded gear as well as some good clothes shops selling more copied brands very cheaply. Similar stuff was on sale down in the Pham Ngu Lao backpackers area but tended to be significantly more expensive than around the Ben Thanh Market. Other items to look out for are ceramics, ethnic fabrics and lacquered bamboo.
Another market worth a look is the Dan Sinh Market which is a war surplus market dealing in reproduction and fake war souvenirs. Best sellers here are Zippos with war motifs and second hand flak jackets. Binh Tay Market in Cholon is interesting for a wander around though most trade is wholesale whilst the An Dong Market also in Cholon is four stories high and stocks designer labels on the first floor. This is a good place for lunch at one of the small restaurants in the basement.
There are plenty Ho Chi Minh City tailors around who will make you a dress or a suit in a couple of days but if you’re continuing north from here you’d be better off waiting until you get to Hoi An which is where hunderds of tailors compete for your business on every street of this small town.
Don’t be afraid to haggle when shopping in Ho Chi Minh City but don’t expect massive discounts. Sellers tend to quote an initial price only slightly higher than what they expect to get for their goods so the margin for bargaining is quite small.
Tours From HCMC
There are Ho Chi Minh City tours of the main sights within the city area but there isn’t really any need to take these as you can see most of the main sights on foot or by hiring a cyclo for a short time. In fact travelling around HCMC by coach would be a waste as you’d spend so much time in traffic jams whilst missing out on the ambience of old Saigon.
Once you’ve seen the main sights you’ll want to consider some Ho Chi Minh City Tours. The most popular is a half day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels where you can see part of the 200km network of tunnels which the Viet Cong used during the American War. You can make this a full day tour by including a visit to the Cao Dai Temple in Tay Ninh on the Cambodian border. This is the home of Caodaism, a Vietnamese religion which is a combination of other major religions. Mekong Delta Tours are also popular though it’s best to go for longer than one day.
Cu Chi Tunnels Tours:
On the full day tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels from Ho Chi Minh City you will leave around 8am for the 3 hour coach journey to Tay Ninh near the Cambodian border. The journey is only about 100km but progress is slow with heavy traffic in the city and poor roads out in the rural areas.
At midday tourists are welcome to watch a service at the Great Temple which is the chief place of worship of the Vietnamese religion of Caodaism which combines aspects of all the world’s other major religions. After lunch the coach heads back towards HCMC via the Cu Chi Tunnels where you can see part of the 200km network of tunnels which the Viet Cong (VC) used during the War.
These tunnels allowed VC controlled enclaves to communicate with one another whilst American and South Vietnamese troops controlled the land and air above during daylight hours. Surprise attacks were also amounted inside the US military base at Dong Du from the tunnels with the culprits disappearing underground without trace. This is a fascinating visit in which you can crawl through one of the tunnels, see some of the traps set up for jungle warfare and fire a rifle if you wish.
There is an option to take a half day tour which just goes to the Cu Chi Tunnels.
Mekong Delta Tours:
For extended Ho Chi Minh City tours the Mekong Delta is the best choice. Can Tho lies some 4 hours away from Ho Chi Minh City by road and is the natural starting point for a visit to this region which produces about half of Vietnam’s total agricultural output.
The reason for its fertility is that silt builds up here from the upper Mekong River resulting in a rich and lush area dominated by rice fields. Life in the Mekong Delta revolves around the river and all the villages are accessible by water rather than by road. It is fascinating for the visitor to experience the sights and sounds of the many floating markets in the Mekong Delta where rice, and many unrecognisable tropical fruits and fresh fish are traded. Several companies offer Mekong Delta tours of varying lengths from one to five days. One day isn’t long enough to do the region justice so we’d recommend one overnight at the very least. Ideally you should spend three or four days here then continue your journey on into Cambodia.
Ho Ch Minh City is Vietnam’s reputedly worst city for street crime but don’t be paranoid. Our hotel porter warned us to be careful everytime we left the hotel yet we never felt threatened and didn’t see any incidents. It seems that the most common crimes are the same as in any large urban area frequented by tourists: bag snatching, pickpocketing and property theft from bars and restaurants. Actual physical harm seems to be unheard of. Just be careful and you’ll be fine.
Traffic is a nightmare all over Ho Chi Minh City and the worst place must be the roundabout outside the Ben Thanh Market. Your lasting memory of this city will be the sheer quantity of motorbikes on the roads and guess what … they never stop at a pedestrian crossing! Watch how the locals cross the road before you even attempt it. It’s simply a question of keeping moving slowly forward without making any sudden rash movements, this way any motorbikes will go around you.