Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnamese: Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh), commonly known as Saigon or by the abbreviation HCMC, is the largest city in Vietnam and the former capital of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam).
Afternoon siesta, near Ben Thanh Market
Saigon was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City on May 1st 1975. However, the old Saigon moniker is still very widely used by both Vietnamese and foreigners - especially when referring to the most central part of the city, to which most tourists flock.
Tan Son Nhat (IATA: SGN | ICAO: VVTS) is Vietnam's largest international airport. Immigration is notoriously strict and can be time consuming, but if your papers are in order you should be fine.
The recently introduced air-con airport bus service is the cheapest way into the city.
Taxis from the airport to the city centre take 30 minutes and cost USD3-5; make sure the driver uses the meter. However, if you want to avoid the trouble of bargaining and negotiating, you can just buy a "Taxi coupon" near the exit of the airport terminal for USD$5.
You can exchange money at the airport, but you're probably better off paying for your first trip with USD and exchanging in the city as the exchange in the airport may charge a commission of as high as 3%.
Taxi drivers get commission for taking customers to certain hotels so when arriving at the airport be explicit about exactly which hotel you want to be taken to. This may be harder than expected if the hotel is one that doesn't pay commission.
When going to the airport, taxi drivers often attempt a scam involving an airport entry tax; it's their job to pay it. As of November 2006, international departure taxes should be included in the price of your ticket.
Taxis are the most comfortable way of getting around, and it's easy and safe to flag a taxi anywhere, anytime; but beware rigged meters that increase the fare too fast.
Carry small change and bills for paying fares, which are quite cheap at 12000 dong for the first 2km, plus 6000 dong per additional km. However, not all taxis are created equal: newer cars are more likely to have working air-con; larger mini-SUV-type models charge a higher rate.
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 the driver to go a little slower.
You can rent your own motorbike in many places, especially around the backpacker area (Pham Ngu Lao) in District 1. Prices range from USD3-7/day; USD4 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. At around USD2/hour and because they are so slow, they can be a good choice for taking in the city - however in areas popular with tourists, they often try to overcharge, so bargain beforehand.
A big investment was recently made in public transit, and brand new bright green buses are everywhere - the tourist information office has route information. 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).
The streets, sidewalks, and outdoor markets are owned by the motorbikes, and not yet geared towards pedestrian traffic (although sidewalk clearing campaigns are now underway). Even though traffic is not as dense and chaotic as in, say, Bangkok, 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 (probably) 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.
Reunification Hall: the tank that ended the war
- Reunification Hall, 106 Nguyen Du Street. 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. Be sure to check out the impressively kitschy recreation room, featuring a circular sofa. 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 15000 dong; open daily 07:30-11:30, 13:00-16:00.
- War Remnants Museum, 28 Vo Van Tan Street. Formerly known as the Exhibition House of American War Crimes, and currently housed in a rather confused assemblage of warehouses, with new purpose-built premises under construction next door. This disturbing display of man's cruelty during the Vietnam (American) War includes halls full of gruesome photographs, a real guillotine, a simulated "tiger cage" prison and jars of deformed fetuses blamed on Agent Orange. The comic relief provided by a display on the evils of American rock music has sadly disappeared. Entry 10000 dong; open daily 07:30-11:45, 13:30-17:30.
- City Hall, end of Nguyen Hue Street. Originally called the Hôtel de Ville and now formally re-branded the People's Committee Hall, it's 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 Street (just inside the zoo gates). 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'll have no idea what you're 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, then beg, borrow, or rent a two-wheeled vehicle and join the throngs for di choi. It's basically a party on wheels, where everyone just rides through the downtown streets until the wee hours.
If the heat starts to get you down, there are several water parks where you can splash around to cool off. Close to the city centre in District 11 is Dam Sen Water Park; just north of the city in the Thu Duc District is Saigon Water Park; others are Water World in District 9, Ocean Water Park in District 7, and Dai The Gioi Water Park in District 5.
Galaxy Cinema at 116, Nguyen Du, District 1, is also a favourite among locals and bored tourists. They show up to date movies in a 4 screened cinema.
Visiting hair salons is also a must do for tourists, as Vietnamese are famous for it. Hair wash, manicure and pedicure cost no more than USD10. One nice place to go to is Vu Salon @ 210, Tran Quang Khai, District 1, within city limits.
- Ben Thanh Market, west end of Le Loi. Probably the largest, 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 (just outside of Ben Thanh market). Here you can enjoy many kinds of different food and drink, and go round to do your shopping as well. Open from 17:00 (when the Ben Thanh market closes).
- Saigon Square, corner of Hai Ba Trung and Nguyen Du. Some of the former Russian Market stores have moved here. Very popular for hip, young people; you can find cheap watches, DVDs, T-shirts, jeans, shorts, slippers, etc, and there's a nice supper market in the middle of the square. Open 09:00-19:00.
- 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.
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 city, but there's a fair collection in the Ben Thanh market (see Buy).
Along Pham Ngu Lao there are many budget Westernised options, and venturing a bit further into the side alleys can uncover some better choices than on the main streets.
Hue beef noodles at Dong Ba, 110A Nguyen Du, Dist 1. This is a shop that sells Hue Food including Banh Beo, traditional rice cakes.
- Lemongrass, 4 Nguyen Thiep Street. A reliable if mildly touristy Vietnamese restaurant. Most dishes are in USD3-4 range, although some seafood items are expensive; try the weekly specials.
- Quan An Ngon, 138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street. A large but busy Vietnamese restaurant featuring the best regional specialties from around the country in the USD2-3 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 (keep going till you reach the roof, there's a restaurant inbetween 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 - you grill it yourself at your table. Around USD3-5 per person. Come with your fighting mitts on Friday and Saturday nights, 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.
- Mgoc Suong Marina,19C Le Quy Don, is a restaurant specializing in seafood. Try the fish salad and the clams cooked in white wine.
- L'En tete, 1st floor, 139 Nguyen Thai Binh, Q.1 (at the junction with Calmette). Excellent French restaurant in a area not normally associated with high dining. Great for a leisurely dining experience, good food with main courses ranging from 150000-450000 dong. Open 17:00-midnight,
- 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 USD10 per person but they will park your motorcycle while you eat, and wander around the waterfront.
- Temple Club, 29-31 Ton That Thiep, Q.1 (first floor, with an ice cream parlour below) has a 1930's ambiance with separate bar, restaurant, and lounge area sections. The food is fair but most people come to soak up the atmosphere.
A cup of immensely strong black Vietnamese coffee (sweetened with sugar or condensed milk), cà phê sữa nóng, in a traditional Vietnamese café 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 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  is 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 civet excrement. Two convenient outlets are east side of Nguyen Hue right before City Hall, and corner of Thu Khoa Huan and Ly Tu Trong.
- Givral Café, Dong Khoi (opposite Continental Hotel) is more in the French tradition, with fresh pastries, collared waiters and elaborate portions of ice cream. Well located, but over 20000 dong for the simplest cup.
- Hideaway Café, 41/1 Pham Ngoc Tach, Q.3 - as it's name implies, this place is hidden away and a good place to read, or have a quiet conversation or meal. Decent Western menu, although slightly pricey, is good. Free wi-fi.
- Sozo has two locations, including one in Pham Ngu Lao. Prices are reasonable, wi-fi is free, and all proceeds benefit needy Vietnamese families.
- Cine Café 116 Nguyen Du, inside the Galaxy Cinema complex - quiet ambience with views of the park.
- Chot Nho Cafe 189, Nguyen Van Troi, Phu Nhuan District. Reasonable price, good menu. 10 minutes by taxi from main city centre. Wi-fi is free
Bars and clubs
Saigon has plenty of places to drink, although to a certain degree Vietnamese and foreigners hang out in different places; however this is slowly changing as Westerners become more familiar with the ways of the East.
- 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 guaranteed to be open and busy as it is part owned by Saigontourist. Stick to beer (which is cheap and available in large sizes), the mixed drinks are expensive and surprisingly weak.
- 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.
- Bottom Line, Ly Thu Trung. Cubby hole for the lost and lonely. Good sports coverage, OK food, and pleasant attractive staff.
- Carmen, 8, Ly Thu Trung. Fantastic latin music playing band. Drinks pricing on the upside though.
- Catwalk, at the side of New World Hotel. All in one place with a massage parlour, disco, KTV and a mini casino. Price is on the expensive side but it is a sight to behold.
- Eden, De Tham Street. Often busy, full of sporties, revellers, expats 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 wi-fi.
- Heart Of Darkness , 17b Le Thanh Ton. Based on the Cambodian equivalent, this is a friendly mid-range bar. Broadly a dance-centric "teacher-friendly" expat bar, but plays to all-comers.
- Ice Blue, Dong Khoi. Downtown English pub, complete with darts board and warm beer (if you want it that way!). Friendly, but shuts at midnight.
- Juice, claims to be Saigon's first juice bar (of course it wasn't, there were many local places before - but maybe it was the first Western-managed one). Food slipped recently, but still a nice place to hang out. Has wi-fi.
- Level 23, Sheraton Saigon 23F. The latest on the 5-star hotel drinking scene, with separate bar and nightclub, and great views over the city. A little soulless though, and very pricey with most drinks 80000 dong.
- 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), pretty good food - but no dance floor. Lots of billiards/pool tables out back.
- Napoli, Pham Ngoc Tach. Located in a villa on the first floor (above an ice cream parlour). Good live music with a mixture of Vietnamese and English songs. The resident band must predate the reunification as they know all the old songs.
- 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 venue with lots of character, 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. (Incedentally, and speaking as somone who has visited Oblivion recently 26th Nov 06, it is not as you say a 'late night venue with lots of charecter' but a brothel... maybe I did'nt tackle it late enough but just as a minor warning to those who might go after something that they won't find)
- Polo, Ham Nghi Street (above the Liberty Hotel). Mixture of expats and locals, starts getting busy quite early. Reasonably priced food and drink, good music spanning from the Eighties to the present.
- Saigon Pho, this little hole in the wall is only a stone's throw from Allez Boo, but much more expat orientated. Open late.
- Saigon Saigon, Caravelle Hotel 9F, 12-13 Lam Son Square. A pleasant bar for a nightcap with good views; but get there early if you want to avoid the execrable house band.
- Shadow Bar, Mac Thi Bui. Expat bar, good place to wind down or up.
- The Tavern SB8-1 My Khanh 2 (H4-2) Nguyen Van Linh, Saigon South (Phu My Hung) tel: 4120866. Great place to enjoy a cold beer or a great "Western" meal - favourite dishes are fish'n'chips & bangers'n'mash. Reasonable prices and nice, friendly staff and management. Opens for breakfast, closes at midnight.
- 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 the like.
There are plenty of nice and cheap hotels available for tourists and also the high end names like Sheraton for the "business class" people. Do take note (especially lonely male travellers) that most hotels do not allow you to bring back a local female companion to stay overnight. Only exemptions are those seedier hotels mainly used for "other" businesses.
Area around Ben Thanh market along Le Thanh Ton and Ly Tu Trong has many reasonably priced hotels with clean rooms in the USD25-35 bracket; some provide free wi-fi.
- Ngoc Ha, 53, Le Anh Xuan. Close to Ben Thanh market and the New World Hotel. Clean and decent rooms, air-con, 'fridge, wi-fi in the lobby. Rooms USD25-35 including simple breakfast.
- Y Thien, 247 Ly Tu Tron; tel: (84-8) 824 8176. This full service hotel is 5 minutes from Ben Thanh Market and offers a range of rooms from tiny and windowless (yet functional) to quite nice with a full wall window overlooking the city and streets below (try the 4th floor room to the right of the elevator for USD20-25/night). Rooms are clean, bathrooms are large and recently upgraded (overkill on the shower remodeling). TV with cable, air-con, fan, 'fridge, elevator, all night guard for bikes, in hotel safe. If you don't want to stay in the backpacker area, and are willing to pay a little more, it's a good option.
Pham Ngu Lao in District 1 is the main backpacker hangout, just a short walk (10-15 minutes) from Ben Thanh Market.
- Hotel Bi Saigon, 185/26 Pham Ngu Lao (in alley #185) tel: 8360678 . Not the cheapest hotel, with a "Superior" room for two costing USD27, but clean, comfortable and terrific staff. In-room Internet access is just USD3/day (bring your own laptop). The lobby houses the La Table De Saigon restaurant, great food and a perfect place to get a snack before heading out on the town.
- Nguyen Khang Hotel, 283/25 Pham Ngu Lao; tel: 8 373 566 [email protected] - in a small alley that links Pham Ngu Lao and Do Quang Dau, along with several USD8-20 competitors of variable quality. This particular hotel has a nice vibe, kind staff, free Internet and free breakfast. Recently built (or remodeled), clean, tastefully simple in decoration, rooms have air-con, fan, 'fridge (and those at the front have nice large windows). USD15/day and under.
- Rainbow Hotel, 283/5 Pham Ngu Lao; tel: 8360039. Large bright (albeit somewhat worn) rooms, and those at the front have a nice view. Good value at USD9 and under.
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 remain far and away the best choices at the moment.
- Continental Hotel, 132-134 Dong Khoi Street, . 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 USD60 and up (taxes, service, breakfast included). On the minus side, there is no pool, and traffic noise can be irritating.
- Rex Hotel, 141 Nguyen Hue Boulevard, . Ideally located in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, next door to the People's Committee Hall. 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 USD70 and up, but the rooms are very pleasant. There's a swimming pool on the roof and an excellent buffet breakfast.
Luxury hotels are popping up 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 USD200 a night for any of these.
- New World Saigon Hotel. Recently renovated and exceptional value, this is where Bill Clinton stayed during his visit to Vietnam following the conclusion of his presidency. A single bedroom suite on the Executive Floor is USD120 including butler service, unlimited food/snacks/drinks during the day, and lavish buffet-style happy hour in the Executive Floor lounge every night. The nightly all-you-can-eat seafood buffet in the Park View Coffee Shop for USD20 is fantastic.
- Cu Chi Tunnels and boat trips on the Mekong Delta - the most popular excursion, and tirelessly advertised by countless agencies around the Pham Ngu Lao area
- Vung Tau - nearby city with great beaches, about 2 hours away by bus, or less by boat along the Saigon River
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