Saigon is the largest city in Vietnam and is considered the financial hub. However even though it’s Vietnam’s most modern city, you will be amazed at how ‘old fashioned’ it seems. People actually do wear those conical hats on a daily basis!
You’ll find people scattered all over the sidewalks in the morning eating their breakfast of soup and coffee and you certainly won’t find McDonalds or other big western chains. This is the reason I moved to Saigon — for these cultural scenes; something that is really dying out as Southeast Asia evolves to integrate into the modern world. This guide will hopefully get you off the tourist trail a bit and experience some of the fantastic culture for yourself!
Saigon is organized by districts. Since the city is in a constant state of growth, the districts aren’t organised in a logical fashion; they fit together like puzzle pieces. The main financial and tourism district is District 1. District 1 contains the main ‘backpacker’ area as well as the main tourist attractions and tourist markets. Other districts of interest are District 5 – the home of the large Chinese population in Saigon. District 2 and Phu Mi Hung District are the two areas that cater to the expat crowd. Phu Mi Hung District is a planned ‘city’ with wide streets and many western-type apartment complexes, malls, grocery stores, and cinemas.
One of the great things about Saigon is that you can really travel on any budget. Budget accommodation is found in the backpacker area around Phu Mi Hung and Bui Vien streets. Just show up with your pack, walk down the little alleys in this area and you will quickly find a myriad of budget options. Hostels and guest houses cast about US$7-$15 a night. Don’t forget that you should always try to negotiate the price!
Mid-range accommodation can be found also in District 1 around Le Than Ton street and Thai Van Lung Street. There are a number of hotels in this area. In addition, there are many rooms for rent that you can rent out for a week to a month. These rooms will cost about $30 to $60 per night for hotel and about $100 a week for a room for rent. Once again — negotiate!
Upper range accommodation can be found all over District 1. You can choose standard hotel chains such as Park Hyatt, Sheraton, and Sofitel; however there are also more upscale historical choices such as the Rex Hotel, and Hotel Majestic to name a few. These hotels have survived the war and were the home to many journalists and writers and have significant historical importance. These will all cost you about US$120-$200.
Name: Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City
Place: Located in Southern Vietnam surrounded by the Saigon river, 60 km from the South China Sea
Population: Including surrounding areas – nearly 9 million people
Known for: War, conical hats, pho, and motorbikes
Temperatures: Tropical climate, 75% humidity and average temperature of 28 °C (82 °F)
Airports: International: Tan Son Nhat. Taxi ride from the airport to center of town will cost less than US$6
Price of a pint: US$1-2
Price of a dorm bed: US$7-$15 a night
Price of public transport: About 40 dong (bus).
You can find a wide variety of food choices in Saigon ranging from Vietnamese to French to American, to Mediterranean!
Vietnam is known for pho, a type of noodle soup with a flavorful beef or chicken broth base. Everywhere you go you’ll see the locals sitting outside on little plastic chairs eating pho. If you are adventurous, then I suggest you eat like the locals on the pavement ! If you are looking for a more sanitary experience, then stop into one of the many Pho 24’s — a fast-food pho restaurant. They have menus in English and you sit at a proper size table and slurp soup inside, with air conditioning! If you don’t want a sidewalk experience or a fast-food experience then go to Pho Hoa, 260C Pasteur Street. It’s a great local place that has ‘indoor seating’, fans, and plenty of beer; plus you’ll be surrounded by locals!
The spring rolls here are a culinary delight, they come in a number of varieties and you should try them all! You can do that at one of the many Wrap and Roll restaurants; a restaurant chain specializing in all types of spring rolls. They have menus in English and prices are cheap.
There are plenty of great Vietnamese restaurants throughout the city ranging from budget to mid-range prices. One of my favorites is Hoa Tuc. It is opposite the Park Hyatt hotel, housed in the back courtyard of a former Opium Refinery. Don’t be afraid to go down alleyways as often the best restaurants are located there. A favorite alleyway restaurant is a Mediterranean restaurant named Warda — complete with shisha pipes and Turkish decor. Also in that alley is a great Vietnamese restaurant called An.
You can also find all kinds of other ethnic food. If you want sushi, head to Le Than Thon street. If you want French food then go to the Refinery or Le Jardin; both have outdoor seating and a fabulous French atmosphere. You can even find an American hamburger in Saigon at one of the many pubs!
Finally, if you want ambience then do some riverside dining, in District 2 for a change of scenery. The Deck is an upscale restaurant with seating along the Saigon River where you can watch the big boats go by carrying cargo to and from the Mekong. It’s a great chance to get away from the hectic city.
One of my favorite things to have daily is a Ca Phe Sua Da – meaning iced coffee with milk. It’s a refreshing, cheap, and strong drink! Vietnamese coffee is actually quite good and if you are here, then you must try some. The other drink in Saigon is beer and don’t be surprised if it’s served with ice. There are a few local beers such as Saigon, and 333. You can also find a ‘Fresh Beer'(keg beer) at many roadside bars in the backpacker area. Sit, sip beer, and watch the motorbike world go by.
Saigon used to be called the “city of bicycles” and now it’s called the “capital of motorbikes”: there are approximately five million motorbikes. This is normally the first thing tourists notice about Saigon — it appears extremely chaotic.
When arriving at the airport, simply get a taxi from the airport to District 1 (city center). It will cost no more than 100,000 Dong — which is US$6. Don’t negotiate — just get in a taxi and tell them to turn on the meter. You can use taxis to get around Saigon for reasonable prices. Always ask them to turn on the meter and everything goes rather smoothly. In my opinion the best taxi companies are Vina Sun and Malinh.
The other option for transportation is a Xe Om — a motorbike taxi. You negotiate the fare before you get on, they provide a helmet, and off you go into the craziness of Saigon traffic. Most trips anywhere in town should be less than US$3; so barter the best you can and then hop on!
There are a few free attractions in Saigon, but honestly even the ones you have to pay for are all really cheap! One of the best thing you can do for ‘free’ is to see the markets. The two main markets worth seeing are Ben Thanh Market in District 1 and Binh Tay market in District 5. Ben Thanh market has many souvenir-type shops as well as things for locals like fabric, shoes, fruit, veges, flowers, and kitchenware. Every night the streets outside Ben Thanh Market turn into a night market. There are things to buy and many temporary outdoor restaurants to choose from. Binh Tay market is also a huge, crowded maze of stalls containing more everyday items for the locals and less touristsy stuff. It’s a good market to take pictures at, as everyone there is a bit more laid back.
Another fun free thing to do is to simply go and sit in a Vietnamese coffee house. The coffee house culture here is quite fascinating — it’s where people go to hang out with friends, have a coffee and watch the world go by. They always have table service and a big list of coffees, fruit juices and smoothies.
You can also get a great cultural experience by getting up early (around 6AM) and walking out to the nearby park where you’ll see all of the locals out doing their morning exercises. This consists of Tai Chi, badminton, walking, running, stretching, and gossiping. I recommend the park behind the Reunification Palace — it’s one of the largest and you’ll be entertained for an hour until everyone goes home at 7AM to start their work day.
Finally, one of the best, free adventures is to simply cross the street or sit somewhere at a main intersection (in front of Ben Thanh Market for example) and watch the traffic operate in its controlled chaos. Crossing the street in Saigon is the best adventure travel there is!
The main attractions are the Reunification Palace, the War Remnants museum, and the History Museum. You can also take a cyclo ride through District 1. These are all cheap attractions and can all be done in one day.
Consider getting out of District 1 for a bit and take a cyclo ride through the back alleys of District 5 and along the river in District 8 for a mere US$12. It’s a great way to do sight-seeing in the city as you get to experience the streets at a comfortable, safe pace.
You can also go to the zoo. I don’t recommend the zoo for the animals, but instead for the grounds — the flowers are lovely and it will cost you less than a dollar to get in and see the grounds.
There aren’t many festivals in Saigon. However if you find yourself here in late January/early February then you can experience the Tet holiday. This is normally a week-long holiday, and the city is buzzes in anticipation. If you come during this time, check the tours and attractions schedule carefully to determine what exactly is open at this time. Many of the shops and attractions will close for the holiday.
If you find yourself here around December 25th, they also do a nice job decorating the city for the Christmas and Calendar New Year Holidays.
Where to next?
There are three main nearby getaways out of Saigon. All are pretty easy and cheap to get to. The Cu Chi Tunnels is a large underground network of tunnels that the Vietnamese used and lived in during the war. You can visit the Cu Chi Tunnels in half a day or add on the Cao Dai temple and make it a full-day excursion from Saigon. The cost for an open tour is 130,000 dong or US$8.
Saigon is also the starting point into the Mekong Delta. On these day tours you will see the floating markets and factories along the Mekong transferring goods from boat to boat, and going deep into the Delta. One-day trips start at 160,000 Dong or US$10, including lunch and all transportation.
If you are looking for some relief from the city and want to go to the beach — then I suggest a two-day trip out to Mui Ne Beach. This beach is near the town of Phan Thiet — about a four-hour bus ride from Saigon. The area is known for its kite surfing, big sand dunes, and its fishing village. A bus ticket to Mui Ne will cost 100,000 Dong or US$6. Once you arrive there is a variety of different accommodation to suit all budgets.
Prices were quoted from Sinh Cafe, a respectable tourist operator for independent travelers in Vietnam. Their office is located in the backpacker district.
You can use all of the standard guidebooks such as Lonely Planet and Rough Guides. The Travelfish Saigon guide is a downloadable PDF researched and written by a local resident. If you are looking for something upscale, you can also get the Luxe guide to Saigon which lists the more luxurious (i.e. expensive) side of Saigon. Another alternative that isn’t a guidebook, are the English magazines Asia Life and The Word. They have a ton of great information about what’s happening in and around Saigon and are found free at any bar/restaurant in District 1.
After Saigon — your next stops may be traveling north up to Nha Trang, Hoi An, and Hanoi or you can easily go west into Cambodia. There are well-established backpacker routes for both.
Sponsored by: Travelfish.org
Today’s episode is sponsored by Southeast Asian travel website Travelfish.org. Travelfish.org helps independent travellers get off the beaten track in Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
It’s the only site of its kind that sends real, live researchers anonymously to hotels and destinations to review them. The site offers downloadable guides to individual destinations across the region, a huge range of feature stories about how to travel on a budget in Southeast Asia, as well as a popular message board. Their Saigon guide was was written by a local and is now in its second edition.