Afternoon siesta, near Ben Thanh Market
Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnamese: Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh), commonly known as Saigon, is the largest city in Vietnam and the former capital of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam).
The people of Saigon are hard-working.
This is a very busy city.
Tan Son Nhat (IATA code SGN) is Vietnam's largest international gateway and somewhat grotty, but it's small and easily navigable. Immigration here is notoriously strict and can be time-consuming, but if your papers are in order you should be fine. You can exchange money here, but you're probably better off paying for your first trip in dollars and exchanging in the city. Taxis for the trip to the center take 30 minutes and cost US$3-5; make sure the driver uses the meter. An airport bus has also recently started running.
Note that a departure tax of US$14 must be paid in cash (dollars or dong) when leaving.
Taxis are the most comfortable way of getting around, and quite cheap at 12000 dong for the first 2 kilometers, plus 6000 dong per additional kilometer. It's easy and safe to flag a taxi anywhere, anytime in Saigon.
However, not all taxis are created equal. The newer cars are more likely to have a working air conditioner, and be aware that the larger mini-SUV-type taxis charge a higher rate.
Small change and bills come in handy when dealing with cabs.
It is important to be aware that taxi drivers get commission for taking people to certain hotels so when arriving at the airport be sure you are very clear about which hotel you want to get taken to. If this hotel doesn't pay commission this may be harder than expected.
It is important to note when going to the airport via taxi, the drivers will often try and rip you off from a tax that is charged when entering the airport. Becareful of meters that have fares that increase very quickly.
Motorbikes (xe ôm) are plentiful, cheap and can be either safe or dangerous. Absolutely agree on a price before you set off; short hops around town shouldn't be more than 10000 dong, and all the way to the airport around 30000. And if your stomach is a tight hard knot, don't hesitate to ask your ride to drive a little slower...
You can rent your own motorbike in many places, the easiest to locate around the backpacker area (Pham Ngu Lao) in district 1. Prices will range from $3-$7/day. $4 should get you a solid 100-110cc bike. Driving in large Vietnamese cities is for experienced drivers - the traffic is intense, and has its own rhythms and logic. Beware of thieves, always keep your motorbike in sight or parked with an attendant.
For many reasons, not least because of government attempts to restrict cyclos on busy urban streets, cyclos are disappearing. They are not only a tourist mode of transport, many poorer families use cyclos to transport themselves and goods throughout the city. For visitors, cyclos are somewhat slow (and can be a good way for taking in the city), and at least in the backpacker or areas heavily populated by tourists, drivers often try to overcharge. Bargain beforehand. But figure on US$2 per hour.
Saigon recently made a big investment in public transit, and bright green, brand new busses are everywhere. Route information can be found at the tourist information office and it's cheaper and safer than many of the alternatives. The biggest problem is that when you get off the bus, you become a pedestrian (see below).
Saigon streets, sidewalks, and outdoor markets are owned by the motorbikes, and not yet geared towards pedestrian traffic (there are sidewalk clearing campaigns underway in both Saigon and Hanoi). Even though traffic is not as dense and chaotic as, say, Bangkok traffic, it's pretty scary for the average tourist. It consists mainly of motorcycles, (sometimes with up to five people including small children perched on them) and drivers tend to drive offensively (as opposed to defensively). Traffic flows in a continuous, noisy stream, and traffic signals appear to be largely *advisory*. Crossing roads is therefore a challenge for westerners used to traffic lights. The trick is to follow the Vietnamese - step confidently out into the road and cross at a slow but steady pace. Trust that the traffic will flow miraculously around you, and it will.
The traffic police occupy themselves with random roadside checks and do not bother the motorcyclists that are running red lights or driving on the sidewalks. 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.
The tank that ended the war, Reunification Hall
- Reunification Hall, 106 Nguyen Du St. Formerly South Vietnam's Presidential Palace, this is a restored five-floor time warp to the Sixties left largely untouched from the day before Saigon fell to the North. On April 30, 1975, the war ended when tank 843, now parked outside, crashed through the gate. You can also visit the war rooms in the basement and view a propaganda film recounting how the South Vietnamese lackeys and American imperialists succumbed to Ho Chi Minh's indomitable revolutionary forces. Entry 15,000 dong; open daily 0730-1130, 1300-1600.
- War Remnants Museum, 28 Vo Van Tan St. Formerly known as the Exhibition House of American War Crimes, this is a disturbing exhibit of man's cruelty during the Vietnam (American) War. In addition to halls full of gruesome photographs, exhibits include a real guillotine, a simulated "tiger cage" prison and jars of deformed fetuses blamed on Agent Orange. The museum, currently a rather confused assemblage of warehouses, will shortly be moved to new purpose-built premises under construction next door; however, the comic relief provided by a display on the evils of American rock music has sadly disappeared. Entry 10,000 dong; open daily 0730-1145, 1330-1730.
- City Hall, end of Nguyen Hue St. Originally called the Hôtel de Ville and now formally rebranded the People's Committee Hall, is a striking cream and yellow French colonial building beautifully floodlit at night. No entry, but the statue of Uncle Ho in front is a very popular place for photos.
- Museum of Vietnamese History, at the top of Le Duan St (just inside the gates of the zoo). The museum has a fine collection of Vietnamese antiquities, but unfortunately they are accompanied by signage which is both in poor English and full of risible Marxist distortions. Read up on Vietnamese history first or you will have no idea what you are looking at. Outside, the Botanical Gardens are very nice and a good place for a cheap lunch away from the crowds. If you care about animal welfare, avoid the zoo.
- Notre Dame Cathedral, a French-built Catholic cathedral in the city centre (Dong Khoi, district 1) next to the Post Office. Free entry.
If you're in Saigon on a Sunday night, buy, borrow, or rent a two-wheeled vehicle so you can join the throngs for di choi. It's basically a party on wheels, where everyone just rides through the streets of downtown until the wee hours.
If the heat starts to get you down, head to one of the cities water parks for a bit of splashing around to cool off. There are a number of water parks in Saigon. Close to the city centre is Dam Sen Water Park in District 11. Saigon Water Park is just north of the city in the Thu Duc District. The others are Water World in District 9, Ocean Water Park in District 7 and Dai The Gioi Water Park in District 5.
- Ben Thanh Market, west end of Le Loi. Probably Saigon's largest market, offering a wide spread of, well, pretty much everything from Ho Chi Minh T-shirts to cosmetics, diapers, pickled plums and live ducks. Popular with tourists, so prepare to haggle.
- Night market (which is just outside of Ben Thanh market). After 5pm everyday when Ben Thanh market is closed then you will see another market where you can enjoy many kinds of different food and drink. You also can go round to do your shopping as well .
- Tax Department Store, corner of Le Loi and Nguyen Hue. Formerly the Russian Market, this is now a rather sterile department store of sorts filled with stalls selling touristy kitsch, although the selections get better as you ascend the levels. There's a good supermarket on level 2.
- Saigon Square corner of Hai Ba Trung and Nguyen Du, open from 9am to 7pm. Some of the stores in Russian market has been moved here. This place is very popular for hip, young people. You can find cheap watch, DVD, T-shirt, jeans, short, slipper...There is a nice supper market in the middle of the square.
You're spoiled for choice in Saigon, which offers the country's largest variety of Vietnamese and international food.
Food stalls are scattered all over the streets of Saigon, but there's a fair collection in the Ben Thanh market (see Buy).
Along Pham Ngu Lao there are many budget westernised options. venturing a bit further into the side alleys can uncover some better options than on the main streets.
- Lemongrass, 4 Nguyen Thiep St. A reliable if mildly touristy Vietnamese restaurant. Most dishes are in US$3-4 range, although some seafood items are expensive; try the weekly specials.
- Quan An Ngon, 138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia St. A large but busy Vietnamese restaurant featuring the best regional specialities from around the country in the US$2-3 range. Set in an atmospheric old French villa that's handy for Reunification Palace too. Has been enthusiastically recommended by The New York Times.
- Quan Nuong, 29-31 Ton That Thiep. On the third floor of the building (keep going till you reach the roof, there is a restaurant in between the bottom floor ice cream parlor and this restaurant), this BBQ restaurant is dangerously delicious. Try the bacon wrapped salmon & the beef wrapped cheese skewers. Try it all. You grill it yourself at your table. Around $3-5 per person. Come with your fighting mits on a Friday or Saturday night, everyone for themselves when it comes to grabbing a table. Go downstairs to the first floor after for some ice cream delights at Fanny's.
- Tân Nam, 60-62 Dong Du, Q.1. A few doors down from Sheraton Saigon. The ground floor is open-air, the upper floor is air-con. Rather expensive and mediocre food, around $10 per person but they will park your motorcycle while you eat, and wander around the waterfront.
A cup of immensely strong black Vietnamese coffee (sweetened with sugar or condensed milk), cà phê sữa nóng, in a traditional Vietnamese cafe is an absolute must when in Saigon. The coffee is actually brewed in a little metal apparatus placed on your cup, just lift it off when it has cooled off enough to touch (and hence drink).
During the summer months, the combination of high humidity and temperature may tempt tourists to try iced Vietnamese coffee (sweetened with sugar and/or condensed milk), cà phê sữa đá. All travel books recommend that you avoid beverages containing ice since the ice is created from local, impure water sources.
- Trung Nguyen, . The Vietnamese version of Starbucks, but with much better coffee. Figure on 10000 dong for a basic cuppa, although there are plenty of variations including the infamous weasel coffee (cà phê chồn), made from coffee beans collected from the excrement of a civet. Some convenient outlets:
- East side of Nguyen Hue right before City Hall
- Corner of Thu Khoa Huan and Ly Tu Trong
- Givral Cafe, Dong Khoi (opp. Continental Hotel). More in the French tradition, with fresh pastries, collared waiters and elaborate portions of ice cream. Well located, but much pricier at D20000++ for the simplest cup.
- Sozo maintains two locations in Saigon, including one in Pham Ngu Lao. Prices are reasonable, and free wi-fi is offered. All proceeds benefit needy Vietnamese families.
Bars and clubs
Saigon has plenty of places to drink, although it must be noted that to a certain degree Vietnamese and foreigners hang out in their own places; this is slowly changing as westerners become more familiar with the ways of the East.
- Apocalypse Now, 2C Thi Sach. Legendary and still packed on weekends, although aside from a few movie references it's not all that much to look at. Stays open late.
- Allez Boo, Corner Pham Ngu Lao, De Tham. The definitive backpacker bar. Full to the brim with the just-off-the-boat/plane/bus crowd, but none the worse for it. Always busy and sometimes a good night out. Not cheap for the area, but guaranteeed to be open and busy as it is part owned by Saigon Tourist. Stick to beer (which is cheap and available in large sizes), the mixed drinks are expensive and surprisingly weak.
- Bottom Line, Ly Thu Trung. Cubby hole for the lost and lonely. Good sports coverage, and pleasant attractive staff. Food is okay.
- Eden, Oddly balanced place on De Tham street. Often busy, full of sporties, revellers, local westerners and others. Dark and deep and reasonably priced for the backpacker main drag.
- Go2 Go2 Go2, De Tham, Allez Boo's sister bar. Cheesey decor and chart music, but always jammed with backpackers on the asian circuit and numerous white dreads with acoustic guitars. Has wifi.
- Ice Blue, Dong Khoi. Downtown English pub, complete with darts board and warm beer (if you want it that way!). Friendly, but shuts at twelve...
- Juice, Claims to be Saigon's first juice bar (of course it wasn't, there were many local places before...but it may've been the first western managed one). Food slipped recently, but still a nice place to hang out. Has wifi.
- Lush, Ly Tu Trong. Vietnam's first, half-way decent night club. Hugely expensive, but musically about as good as it gets in this part of the world. Mixed crowd (vietnamese, tourists and expats), billiards, pretty good food, but no dance floor! Lots of billiards/pool tables out back.
- No. Five, Ly Thu Trung. Business bar. Spacious, fair selection of grub and alcohol, friendly staff and a pleasant if somewhat antiseptic atmosphere... Very good for after hours networking, not so good as a late night hangout. Nice and spacious though. Difficult albeit excellent billiards tables. Very nice toilets, which makes a change in this town!
- Oblivion, Bui Vien. Late night basic venue with a twist; the twist being it's probably the most characterful place in PNL. Claims to be Saigon's premier music bar and it's hard to argue... Assuming, that is, you have a taste for non-chart buzzy British guitar and obscure dark US/European stuff. You have to ask for happy pop, though if you're spending enough it'll sometimes get an outing. Supposed to be opening a "dance floor" this winter, believe it when I see it!
- Saigon Pho, This little hole in the wall is only a stone's throw from Allez Boo, but a world away in terms of clientele. Much more expaty. Open late.
- Saigon Saigon, Caravelle Hotel 9F, 12-13 Lam Son Sq. A pleasant bar for a nightcap with good views; get here early if you want to avoid the execrable house band though.
- Shadow Bar, Mac Thi Bui. Shhh, this is an expat bar...don't tell anyone! After work hang out for the corporate fly boys. Good place to wind down, or wind up.
- Level 23, Sheraton Saigon 23F. The latest in Saigon's ***** hotel drinking scene, with separate bar and nightclub, and great views over the city. A little soulless though, and very pricy with most drinks 80,000 VND +.
- Heart Of Darkness , 17b Le Thanh Ton. Based on the Cambodian equivalent, this is a friendly mid-range bar. It is broadly a dance-centric "teacher-friendly" expat bar, but plays to all-comers.
- The Tavern SB8-1 My Khanh 2 (H4-2) Nguyen Van Linh, Saigon South Tel: 4120866 Located in Phu My Hung, commonly known as Saigon South, a great place to enjoy a cold beer or a great "western" meal. Favorite dishes are Fish and Chips or the Bangers and Mash, reasonable prices with a nice, friendly staff and management. Opens for breakfast all the way to midnight, 7 days a week.
- Underground More a food than a drink spot, though open for both. Sometimes busy with the business crowd, always packed with people enjoying the reasonably priced burgers, steaks and suchlikes.
District 1, central Sai Gon (including Pham Ngu Lao)
- Y Thien, 247 Ly Tu Tron. (84-8)824 8176. This full service hotel offers a range of rooms from tiny and windowless (yet functional) to quite nice with a full wall window over looking the city and streets below (ask to see and have the 4th floor room to the right of the elevator for $20-25/night). Rooms are clean, bathrooms are large and recently upgraded (overkill on the shower remodeling). TV with cable, A/C, fan, refridgerator, elevator, all night guard for bikes, in hotel safe. If you do not want to stay in the backpacker area, and are willing to pay a few more dollars a night, it's a good option. 5 minutes from Ben Thanh Market.
Pham Ngu Lao, located in district 1, this is Saigon's backpacker hangout. It is just a short distance walk from Ben Thanh Market (10-15 minutes).
- Nguyen Khang Hotel, 283/25 Pham Ngu Lao. email: [email protected]; tel 8 373 566. Located in a small alley that links Pham Ngu Lao and Do Quang Dau streets, this hotel is a welcome alternative to the bustle and gristle of the backpacker district. The alley actually has several housing options that range in quality and price from $8-9/night to $20/night. This particular hotel has a nice vibe, kind staff, free internet and free breakfast. It is recently built (or remodeled), clean, tastefully simple in decoration, and the front rooms have nice large windows. $15/day and under. Rooms have A/C, refridgerator, fan.
- Rainbow Hotel, 283/5 Pham Ngu Lao. ph: 8360039. Same alley as the Nguyen Khang Hotel. The rooms are large and bright, and the front rooms have nice a view. A good value at $9 and under, if you don't mind the somewhat worn rooms and truly tacky pin-ups over the bed (possibly in just some of the rooms).
- Hotel Bi Saigon , 185/26 Pham Ngu Lao. ph: 8360678. Another hotel located in alley #185. Not the cheapest hotel, with a "Superior" room for two costing $27/day, but clean, comfortable and terrific staff. In room internet is just $3/day (BYOL). The lobby of Hotel Bi Saigon is the restaurant La Table De Saigon, great food and a perfect place to get a snack before heading out on the town.
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, but not quite up to modern standards; but if you want to experience a little colonial atmosphere, these remain far and away the best choices at the moment.
- Continental Hotel, 132-134 Dong Khoi St, . A perfectly located old-school colonial hotel dating back to 1880 and the setting of Graham Greene's The Quiet American (but not, alas, its filmatization). Lovely breakfast garden, huge rooms, nice balcony views and only slightly expensive at US$60 and up (taxes, service, breakfast included). On the minus side, there is no pool, and noise from traffic can be irritating.
- Rex Hotel, 141 Nguyen Hue Blvd, . Ideally located in the center heart of Ho Chi Minh City, nextdoor to the People Committee House. Another old standby, former haunt of the press corps and site of the daily news briefing during the Vietnam War. The 5th-floor beer garden (Rooftop Garden) is famous and its symbol, the golden crown, is rotating again. Slightly more expensive at US$70 and up, but does have a swimming pool.
Luxury hotel chains are popping up in Saigon faster than mushrooms in the monsoon rains. Current competitors include Caravelle, Sheraton Saigon (complete with Prada shop in the arcade), Renaissance Riverside and Sofitel Plaza; upcoming entrants include the Hyatt. Expect to pay closer to US$200 a night for any of these.
- New World Saigon Hotel. Exceptional value, this is where former U.S. president Bill Clinton stayed during his visit to Vietnam following the conclusion of his presidency. The hotel was recently renovated, the nightly all you can eat seafood buffet in the Park View Coffee Shop for USD 20 is fantastic. A single bedroom suite on the Executive Floor costs USD 120 a night and that includes the butler service, the unlimited food and snacks and drinks during the day as well as the lavish buffet-style happy hour in the Executive Floor lounger every night.
- The most popular excursions from Saigon are a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels or a boat trip on the Mekong Delta.
For trips to these and other destinations the easiest and cheapest option is to go to one of the many travel agencies around Pham Ngu Lao area and book there.
- Happy Tour travel agency arranges cheap trips & open bus tickets. Purchasing through Happy Tour earns you a free hour of internet, free breakfast, a free CD-burning session, or a free t-shirt (shamelessly embroidered with the Happy Tours logo).
- TNK travel agency arranges various day trips (including Cu Chi trips with different options) as well as cheap bus tickets to Phnom Penh.
- Viet Circle Travel is a travel agency for custom made tours, hotel bookings, air tickets and visa arrangement. Tel: +84-8-5153935.