Ho Chi Minh City Travel Guide: Discover Vietnam’s buzzing metropolis
Our first stop in Vietnam was also the most intense. Swapping Chiang Mai’s quaint alleyways and cute corners for the high-octane roar of Ho Chi Minh City was a complete 180, with moments that would make me long for Thailand’s laid-back nature or Myanmar’s empty roads. But while most people say spending just a day or two in Saigon (as it’s referred to by the locals) is enough, I was quite happy taking my time here while turning the slow travel approach into an antidote for this hectic city life. Turns out spending 5 days in Saigon was just right. Keep reading to find out how to dig into the sights and the culture one step at a time with this introductory Ho Chi Minh City travel guide.
Arriving in/leaving HCM
Being a major hub, Saigon has no shortage of options when it comes to arriving and departing. It all depends on your time and budget. The good news is that budget travelers will have several options for getting into Ho Chi Minh City. Regardless of the mode of transport you choose, be sure to have your Vietnam visa sorted before you arrive – unless you want to get charged an arm and a leg upon arrival.
Getting in by bus
If this isn’t your first destination in Vietnam, you’ll likely be coming in from the north. The country’s elongated (and somewhat awkward) shape is conducive to making multi-stop itineraries. Travelers quite often get into Saigon from destinations like Da Lat, Mui Ne, or Hoi An. Traveling by train or bus is quite common, and Vietnam has a relatively well-functioning network of long-distance buses. These service both locals and travelers.
Bus-wise, I’d recommend booking a ticket with FUTA, which was recommended to us by various travel agents around Saigon. The buses we took with FUTA were clean and ran on time. If you book a sleeper bus, you’ll have a seat that is akin to a recliner – but without the reclining function. So while you’re not in a completely horizontal position, you’ll be able to rest/sleep with your back at a roughly 30-degree angle, while your feet are tucked under the backrest of the seat in front of you. Each seat has a blanket, and the bus company provides water and a wet towel. Bathroom breaks happen every 2-3 hours or so, with some longer stops that allow for getting dinner or breakfast. There are other bus companies, of course, so feel free to browse. The sleeper buses will all have a similar setup.
Domestic flights can be a cheap and much faster alternative to buses, depending on where you’re coming from and how much luggage you have. VietJet and JetStar pacific are the most widely-used carriers for flying within Vietnam. If pressed for time and not wanting to do multiple stops, I’d recommend flying in from Hanoi or Da Nang. Low-cost international flights from the surrounding countries are quite commonly operated by AirAsia, which is also what we took from Chiang Mai, setting us back roughly 50 USD even despite booking just a week in advance. The only critical time to watch out for, though, is during and around Tet (the Vietnamese equivalent of New Year). You’ll see prices for flights and any kind of transport rise, as locals travel back home to visit families and friends.
Ho Chi Minh City Hotels
I have to say I was not impressed with the budget options in Saigon at first – especially when scouring online booking pages. Between loud backpacker areas and high-end hotels, it seemed a bit tricky to sus out a good and budget-friendly private room option for not so fussy travelers. The good thing is that District 1 hosts some of the best Ho Chi Minh City hotels and hostels for any kind of budget. This is the main ‘touristy’ area in Ho Chi Minh city and, most likely, one you’ll be spending the majority of your time in. We stayed at the Quynh Kim Hotel, just around the corner from Saigon’s bustling Bui Vien street. The aircon room was clean and had a decent size, and the reception staff was more than helpful. The only thing that took me some getting used to was the lack of proper windows. But I would learn soon enough that tall, narrow and long buildings are a thing in Vietnam, and thus not every room has a ‘normal’ window. If you prefer to have more of a social vibe, I’d recommend the the Vietnam Backpackers hostel – especially if you plan on traveling around Vietnam some more after HCMC. Their ‘Passport’ program lets you take advantage of getting 10 nights for free if you sleep 10 nights at their various locations around the country.
Ho Chi Minh City Attractions
Between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, you’ll often hear the latter being touted as the go-to Vietnam destination – because Saigon is just too chaotic. I beg to differ. Yes, where Hanoi offers a quaint historic downtown with (seemingly) a lot of Vietnamese flair, Saigon seems more like a giant heart, pumping arteries full of motorbikes and taxis. But that doesn’t discount it as a flagship destination. Even more so. Spend a day or two here and you’ll get a glimpse into the Vietnamese mentality almost instantly: energetic, dedicated, and focused.
Saigon Top Sights
Spread out between big boulevards and intimidating roundabouts are numerous sights, which you can visit easily with the public bus system or taxis (I’d recommend using the Grab app every time). The Ben Thanh Market is perhaps the most mentioned place, favored by those who want to do some souvenir shopping. IMHO, it’s worth having a look – even if just in passing – but we thought it to be way overpriced and very much of a tourist trap. But it’s there if you don’t mind overpaying for some souvenirs.
You can also visit the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Main Post office – which are conveniently located next to each other. The Notre Dame Cathedral did not blow my socks off. However, it was also closed due to construction, so we could only observe it from the outside. The Post Office was, on the other hand, a neat surprise. With an intriguing arched ceiling and colonial-era regional maps flaking the foyer, I thought it a good place to people-watch (it’s, of course, a working post office, so you’ll see locals go in and out at they go about their day).
For a taste of something different, the Tanh Dinh church might provide a delightful break from the otherwise somewhat drab architectural landscape of Saigon. It’s bubblegum pink and totally adorable.
On the other hand, if history is your thing (and there’s a LOT of it in Saigon), I’d hands-down recommend the War Remnants Museum. For a more than a fair price of 40,000 VND, you’ll get an impression of the Vietnam War from the other side. I’m not gonna lie: parts of the exhibition were completely harrowing and tear-inducing, and it was a lot of information. So, if you go, make sure you’ve got about 2 hours to spare.
Something Unexpected: Bookstore Street
While wandering around the vicinity of the Notre Dame Cathedral, we stumbled upon an entire street dedicated to bookstores. This lovely strip of road is sectioned off and pedestrian-only, and offers a much-welcome break from the noise of the busy streets outside. While most of the bookstores cater to Vietnamese readers, you’ll find sections of foreign language books as well. Got some digital nomad work to do? Settle into one of the café corners here and enjoy the noise-free work environment!
Ho Chi Minh City Coffee Culture
If I were to choose one thing where Vietnam excels over its neighbors, it’d be this country’s coffee culture. You see, Vietnam didn’t just inherit the coffee obsession from the French – they transformed the hand-me-down coffee culture and made it their own. That’s why ca phe is probably the one single Vietnamese word that will become etched into your brain as you walk around the various Ho Chi Minh City attractions. The coffee here is made from the punch-packing robusta beans, and the coffee flow never stops. Have a ca phe sua da at 10 am or 10 pm, if you please! There’s no wonder the people in Saigon seem to be the human embodiments of the Energizer bunny! If you’d like to partake, here are a few coffee basics:
- Ca phe den – plain black coffee
- Ca phe da – plain black coffee, iced
- Ca phe sua – coffee with condensed milk
- Ca phe sua da – coffee with condensed milk, iced
And if you’re up for coffee with a view, hit up the Café Apartment on 42 Nguyen Hue Walking Street. This mid-century apartment block used to house military and government employees. Luckily, after it was no longer needed, the units in the building were, one by one, transformed into various cafes and boutiques. My favorite one was Saigon Oi, on the 5th floor and with a spacious balcony. Watch city go from day do night as the walking street below fills up with tourists and locals. Mango Tree was also a nice hiding spot, with an amazing-looking specialty mango snowflake dessert that will satisfy anyone’s sweet tooth! Wifi is available pretty much at every café, so it’s also a good spot if you need to get any work done.
Ho Chi Minh City Travel guide: Budget Traveler tips
While Ho Chi Minh City hotels were not the cheapest we’ve seen around southeast Asia, sticking to a designated budget should not pose a problem. Out of our expenses, we found food-related costs to be the hardest to curtail. Unlike in many locations around Indonesia, breakfast is typically not included in the price of your budget accommodation in Ho Chi Minh City. Most wallet-friendly meals are still around 50-70K VND, while pho would start from 40K. This made each meal a 2-3 dollar affair. The cheapest option tended to be a bahn mi (baguette sandwich). These you can find for as low as 20K to 30K (just over 1 USD). At the same time, in Thailand, you can often get a warm, freshly made full meal at a street stall for the same price.
The best place for cheap snacks we found was at Turtle Lake. This is an interesting site to see on its own, but it’s even better if you’ve got some time to spare in the evening. The lake is more of a pond and is not much to marvel at. There aren’t any turtles, either! But the lookout tower and the meandering walkways that crisscross the pond create a cool glimpse into local nightlife. You’ll find dozens of small stands dotting the circumference of the pond, where local students grab snacks and set up shop to chill and chat the evening away with friends. Most of the vendors there don’t speak any English, but you’ll be just fine observing and pointing at things. Most snacks there will set you back 20K.
In terms of transport, one cost-saving (and safest) way to get around is by using the Grab app. Download it and use it religiously to book rides, no matter how close or far. And if you like to drink, you’re in luck: beer in Vietnam is cheaper than in Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar. You can get a big bottle for as low as 10-20K, and the bia hoi (fresh beer that has to be drunk within a certain number of hours) may go for as low as 4K per glass. Hungry for other budget-friendly locations? Then check out other destinations we’ve travel-tested before!