The First-Timer’s Travel Guide to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

The First-Timer’s Travel Guide to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City was the last leg of our two week trip to Vietnam. It was also the shortest.

When planning our trip, I had read that Saigon was like your typical modern Southeast Asian city. Like Manila in my native Philippines, many travelers treated it more like a stopover than a destination. They suggested spending no more than one or two days in the city, which is what we did.

Truthfully, it did remind me a lot of Manila. It lacked the old world charm of Hanoi and felt more like a modern metropolis with trendy bars and a pulsating nightlife. Younger travelers would probably enjoy that, but Ren and I are closer to 50 than we are to 30 so those things don’t appeal to us anymore.

What we did find appealing however, was Saigon’s vibrant street food culture that was the best among all the stops we made in Vietnam. Despite spending little more than two full days here, we left with the most memorable dining experiences of our trip. It’s been over four months since we left Saigon and I still find myself often thinking about “waterfall chicken” and “seafood street”.

Compared to more exotic destinations like the Mekong Delta, Ho Chi Minh City may not be as interesting to many tourists, but if you travel for food like we do, then you’ll find that this city has a lot to offer.

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War Remnants Museum

GUIDE TABLE OF CONTENTS

  1. Saigon at a Glance
  2. Best Time to Visit
  3. How to Get There
  4. How Long to Stay
  5. How Much Money to Bring
  6. Where to Exchange Currency
  1. Where to Stay
  2. Where to Go / What to Do
  3. Vietnamese Food Guide
  4. Where to Eat in Saigon
  5. Travel Tips
  6. How to Get Around

SAIGON AT A GLANCE

Located in the southern region of the country, Ho Chi Minh City is the biggest city in Vietnam by population, but it isn’t the capital. That distinction goes to Hanoi in the north. Formerly known as Saigon, it was merged with surrounding Gia Định Province in 1976 and renamed Ho Chi Minh City in honor of the communist revolutionary leader credited for uniting the country at the end of the Vietnam War.

Today, the city is still informally known as Saigon. Being shorter, the name Saigon is used more often in daily speech, particularly by the Southern Vietnamese. The locals we interacted with did in fact refer to their city as Saigon rather than Ho Chi Minh City. I’ll be using both terms interchangeably in this guide.

BEST TIME TO VISIT

Unlike Hanoi in the north that sees climate changes akin to the four seasons, Saigon only has two seasons – dry (Dec-Apr) and wet (May-Nov). It stays warm throughout the year with an average temperature of about 28°C (82°F).

DRY SEASON: Ho Chi Minh City’s dry season is from December to April. It’s considered the best time of the year to visit Saigon even though it’s also the warmest. Vietnam is largely a Buddhist country but they do celebrate Christmas and New Year, making December to January a festive time to visit the city.

WET SEASON: The wet season in Saigon is from May until November. Humidity is at its highest and tropical storms are more frequent. Unless you like rainy and sticky weather, then it’s probably best to go during the dry season.

We visited Saigon in late April and the weather was pretty good. It was hot but it wasn’t too humid, which was fine by me. I’ll take hot over humid any day. Weather-wise, January to March seems like the best time to visit Ho Chi Minh City. The skies are clear, temperatures are relatively mild, and humidity is at its lowest.

Just be mindful of the Tet holiday (Vietnamese New Year) which happens sometime between the end of January and early February. Many establishments will be closed during that time and accommodations will be at their most expensive.

HOW TO GET THERE

We flew in to Ho Chi Minh City but there are many ways to get there depending on where you are. Assuming you’ll be flying in to the city like we did, then you’ll be arriving at Tan Son Nhat International Airport which is about 30-45 minutes from downtown Saigon.

BY PRIVATE TRANSFER: Private transfers are the easiest way to get to your hotel from the airport, though they won’t be the cheapest. You can probably arrange for one through your hotel, but if not, then you can book a private transfer through Klook.

BY GRAB: We took Grab going in and out of Saigon. If I remember correctly, we paid around VND 65,000 to get into the city from the airport. The total was actually VND 53,000 but our driver charged us extra for toll/parking fees or something like that. To go back to the airport from our AirBnB rental, we paid VND 73,000. Traffic was heavier at that time though hence the surge pricing. In general, Grab is the best way to get around Saigon.

BY TAXI: A taxi from Tan Son Nhat to your hotel in District 1 should cost you between VND 150,000-170,000. I read that some taxis may try to rip you off so it’s best to go with the two most reliable companies – Mai Linh (white and green) and Vinasun (white). Ignore any other taxi companies and be sure to get metered taxis because fixed rates will be higher. To avoid the hassle, get a Grab instead. Not only are they more reliable, they’re cheaper too.

BY BUS: If you’re on a budget, then you can take the Yellow Bus 109 to get to the city. They run every 15-20 minutes from 5:30AM till 1:30AM and cost VND 20,000 each way. It will run through the city center and make its final stop at Pham Ngu Lao street. Another option is Yellow Bus 49 which will take you directly to your hotel for VND 40,000. You can follow this link on Saigon airport shuttle buses for more information.

We flew into Saigon but there may be other ways to get there depending on your current location. I suggest checking 12Go Asia to find route options available to you. You can click on the link or use the widget below.


HOW LONG TO STAY

Like Hanoi, Saigon is a stopover for many travelers. They’ll stay here maybe one or two days before moving to less urban destinations like the Mekong Delta or Da Lat. Assuming you only want to see the best of Ho Chi Minh City before moving on to other parts of the country, then one full day is enough, two if you don’t want to rush. If you plan on taking a day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, then I’d say two full days in Saigon is ideal.

HOW MUCH MONEY TO BRING

The unit of currency in Vietnam is the Vietnamese Dong (VND). Vietnam is an inexpensive country. We found it to be on par with Cambodia, perhaps even cheaper. Assuming you’ll be sharing a hotel room with one other person and staying only in Ho Chi Minh City for a couple of days, then a budget of around VND 700,000 per day should be enough. This factors in your hotel room, meals, transportation, pocket wifi rental, museum entrance fees, and some light shopping.

To be honest, I don’t really like giving budget suggestions because everyone is different. We all like to do different things so someone else’s budget may not necessarily work for you. It all depends on what you like to do. For us, VND 700,000 per day is a good baseline but feel free to adjust based on your own travel habits.

WHERE TO EXCHANGE CURRENCY

The best places to exchange currency in Vietnam are at banks and gold/jewelry shops. We tried both and they were excellent. I think the gold shop may have been better but not by much. In Saigon, the gold/jewelry shops around Ben Thanh Market are said to offer the best rates.

I’ve read that you can exchange currency at some hotels as well, but the rates generally aren’t good or they charge you an additional fee for the service. Same goes for the airport. If you’ll be arriving at Tan Son Nhat Airport and need to exchange currency, then change a small amount there, just enough to get you into the city, and change the rest at a bank or gold shop.

Alternatively, you can also withdraw VND from an ATM. The rates are competitive but be sure to advise your bank you’ll be using your ATM card abroad so you don’t run into any problems. In my experience, my ATM card works in some machines but not all.

WHERE TO STAY: M2C+ Cafe

District 1 around Ben Thanh Market is considered the best and most convenient place to stay in Saigon. We stayed at this AirBnB rental in the area bordering Districts 1 and 3. It was a short walk to Ben Thanh Market and the War Remnants Museum from here.

Staying at a place like this was a first for us. It isn’t a hotel or a true BnB but an actual cafe. The owners of M2C+ Cafe own the building and they have a couple of rooms available for rent on AirBnB. The cafe occupies the first two floors of the building while this room is on the top floor. I believe they’re opening a nail spa on the third floor as well. Check out my post on M2C+ Cafe in Saigon for more pictures and information.

You can book a room there through AirBnB. If M2C+ Cafe isn’t the ideal place for you, then you can search through their list of Saigon accommodations. If you’re new to the site, then you can get up to USD 43 free travel credit via THIS LINK. Alternatively, you can book a hotel room in Saigon through Booking.com or Agoda as well.
Where to Stay in Saigon, Vietnam: M2C+ Cafe

Approximate Room Rate: Around USD 38 per night (as of April 2017, with breakfast)



Booking.com

WHERE TO GO / WHAT TO DO

1. Take a City Tour of Saigon

What better way to become acquainted with Saigon than with a city tour? Explore on your own or go on guided tours to see the city’s highlights like Saigon Central Post Office (pictured below), Notre Dame Cathedral, Thien Hau Temple, and Reunification Hall.

If you’d like to have a guide explain everything to you, then you can book full or half-day tours of Ho Chi Minh City through Klook. We went on a city tour a few years ago and we were driven around in bicycle rickshaws for a portion of the tour. Fun!
Saigon Post Office, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Length of Tour: Half or full day / Cost: Starts at around USD 10 per person for half day group tours

2. Visit the War Remnants Museum

If you’re going on a Saigon city tour, then the War Remnants Museum may be one of the stops. If it isn’t, then you may want to visit this place on your own. On display here are photographs, memorabilia, and vehicles of war like tanks, helicopters, even fighter jets. This museum is a little depressing, especially the exhibit on Agent Orange, so it may not be for everyone. But if the Vietnam War played a prominent role in your upbringing like it did in mine (ie Rambo), then you should definitely make a stop here.

Check out my post on the War Remnants Museum in Saigon for more pictures and information.
War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Length of Tour: Around 1-2 hrs / Admission: VND 15,000 per person

3. Crawl through the Cu Chi Tunnels

A Cu Chi Tunnels tour is probably the most popular day tour you can do from Ho Chi Minh City. It takes you through a curated tour of the Cu Chi jungle to show you what subterranean life was like for the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. Tour highlights include a crawl through the famed tunnels as well as a chance to fire weapons used during the war. I got to fire ten rounds from an AK-47!

Check out my post on the Cu Chi Tunnels for more pictures and information. I booked my tour through Viator but you can book a Cu Chi Tunnel tour through Klook as well. They have a few variations combined with other attractions that you might find interesting.
Cu Chi Tunnels, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Length of Tour: Around 5 hrs / Cost: Starts at around USD 12 per person

4. Take a Day Trip to the Mekong Delta

A visit to the Mekong Delta is another popular day trip you can make from Saigon. Considered Vietnam’s “rice bowl”, the delta is a fertile agricultural area that produces more than a third of the country’s annual food crop. Rice is the staple crop here but coconut palms, fruit orchards, and sugar-cane groves also thrive in the region’s nutrient-rich soil. The delta is home to thousands of animal species making it one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world.

We didn’t have time to go on this trip, but you can book a Mekong Delta tour through Klook. They offer a few versions bundled with other attractions as well.
Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Length of Tour: Full day / Cost: Starts at around USD 16 per person

SAIGON – Mekong Delta” by William Cho, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 / Processed in Photoshop and Lightroom

5. Take a Cooking Class

I don’t cook so I had no idea how much fun this could be until we took a cooking class in Hoi An. We had such a good time that we try to take a cooking class now whenever we travel. Aside from this one, we’ve taken classes in Chiang Mai, Bali, and Phuket. It’s just a fun, hand-on way of getting to know the local cuisine.

There are many tour providers that offer cooking classes in Saigon, but for me, there’s no better platform than Cookly. Why? Because they focus only on cooking classes. They offer the biggest selection of one-day cooking classes around the world, and they have many in Ho Chi Minh City. Follow the link to see a list of cooking classes they offer in Saigon.
Cookly, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Picture borrowed from Cookly

6. Hire a Private Tour Guide

We rarely go on private tours but when we do, we always learn about the coolest things. The private tour we did in Saigon was a perfect example of that. We told our guide Alex that we wanted to experience authentic street food so he took us to Vinh Kanh Street in District 4. It turned out to be one of the best meals we had in Saigon. In fact, we enjoyed it so much that we wound up going back the next day on our own.

Check out my post on experiencing Saigon like a local with Inspitrip for more pictures and information.
Inspitrip, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

7. Experience and Give Back with Backstreet Academy

Have you heard of impact travel? It’s a movement that aims to provide tourists with authentic experiences that benefit local communities. If you’re interested in doing immersive activities like learning how to fish from an actual fisherman or making jewelry from a local craftsman, then this may be something you’d be interested in.

Backstreet Academy is a pioneer in the impact travel movement and gives up to 80% of tour revenues back to the communities. Unfortunately, they don’t have as many in Ho Chi Minh City yet, but you can can check this list of Saigon activities to see if anything interests you.
Backstreet Academy, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Picture borrowed from Backstreet Academy

THE ULTIMATE VIETNAMESE FOOD GUIDE

We were lukewarm about Vietnamese cuisine before this trip, but we became huge fans after spending two weeks eating our way across the country. It’s now become one of our favorite cuisines. If you enjoy Vietnamese food, then you may want to check out our Vietnamese Food Guide. It covers many interesting dishes from Hanoi in the north to Saigon in the South.
Vietnamese Food Guide

WHERE TO EAT IN SAIGON

10 Must-Try Vietnamese Restaurants & Street Food Stalls

Our Vietnamese food guide gives you a general introduction to Vietnamese food, but if you’d like to know where to eat in Saigon, then you can check out our Ho Chi Minh food guide. It lists 10 must-eat restaurants and street food stalls in Saigon.
Saigon Food Guide: 10 Must-try Vietnamese Restaurants & Street Food Stalls

Most of the street food stalls we visited in Saigon were featured in Luke Nguyen’s show, Street Food Asia. Turns out we were right to listen to him. Not everyone can visit all 10 eateries so listed below are our 5 favorites, 4 of which we learned about from his show.

1. Bánh Mì Hòa Mã

Bánh Mì Hòa Mã is a street food stall that serves banh mi op la, a Vietnamese breakfast consisting of a baguette, sunny side up eggs, pate, and charcuterie. Open from 5-10AM, they serve your food in personal-sized skillets in an alleyway by the side of a building. I was busy crawling through the Cu Chi Tunnels so I couldn’t go, but Ren said it was one of the best breakfasts she had in Vietnam. Be sure to come early because the place is popular and they’ve been known to run out of food.
Bánh Mì Hòa Mã, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Expect to Pay: VND 50,000 per order of banh mi op la

2. Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa

We ate bánh mì everywhere in Vietnam but this one may have been my favorite. Opened over 30 years ago by a lesbian couple, the place is known locally as Banh Mi O Moi which basically translates to “lesbian banh mi”. They’re widely recognized as the best place to have bánh mì sandwiches in Saigon. I don’t remember which one we ordered but it was delicious and loaded with ingredients like cold cuts, terrine, pork floss, and pickled veggies. Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa is hugely popular so be prepared for a wait. It’s worth it.
Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Expect to Pay: VND 35,000 per banh mi

3. Phở Lệ Nguyễn Trãi

This was the only place in this short list of 5 that wasn’t featured on Luke Nguyen’s show. Instead, it was recommended to us by two locals – the food-loving owner of our AirBnB rental and Alex the founder of Inspitrip. As expected, the food was delicious. Their phở bo (beef pho), served with beef tendon, was the best phở I had on this trip. It was really good, much more flavorful I thought than northern phở.
Phở Lệ Nguyễn Trãi, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Expect to Pay: Around VND 50,000 per bowl of pho

4. Cơm Gà Xối Mỡ Su Su

We enjoyed many good meals in Vietnam but this dish may have been my favorite. Many places serve cơm gà xối mỡ or fried chicken and rice but what makes this place special is how they cook the chicken. Poached in a master stock, they bathe chicken thighs or wings under a waterfall of hot oil for a few minutes to crisp up the skin. The result is the crispiest fried chicken I have ever tasted in my life. It’s so good, especially when dipped in that dark, savory-sweet homemade sauce. Be sure to check our Saigon food guide for a video of the waterfall machine in action. It really is quite cool.
Cơm Gà Xối Mỡ Su Su, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Expect to Pay: VND 42,000 per order of chicken rice

5. Ốc Oanh

The “waterfall chicken” above may have been my favorite meal but this was probably my favorite dining experience. Nicknamed “seafood street”, Vinh Khanh in District 4 is known for its many street food restaurants offering different types of seafood like snails, crab, scallops, fish, and octopus. Snails are a hugely popular delicacy in Vietnam and one of the best places to have it is here at Ốc Oanh restaurant along Vinh Khanh street. We enjoyed the atmosphere and seafood here so much that we ate here twice on consecutive nights.
Ốc Oanh, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Expect to Pay: Varies, depends on seafood ordered

TRAVEL TIPS

1. Rent a Pocket Wifi Device

Simply put, you need a good wifi connection when you travel. Not having one at all times is inconvenient and keeps you from doing research, checking email, and posting on social media. Without it, we wouldn’t have been able to book Grab rides in Saigon.

You can get a steady wifi connection by purchasing a sim card or renting a pocket wifi device. We prefer the latter so we rented a 3G pocket wifi device through Klook. But if you’d rather get a 3G/4G sim card, then you can either pick it up at Tan Son Nhat International Airport or have it delivered to your hotel.
Pocket Wifi, Vietnam

2. Plan your Trip with Sygic Travel

I’ve been using this free trip planning app for over five years now. It’s just a convenient way of mapping out a trip. It allows me to plot points of interest on a map so I can see exactly where they are and come up with an efficient itinerary. Check out my post on the Sygic Travel app for more information.

DOWNLOAD: iOS / Android

Follow this link to check out our 2-day Saigon itinerary on Sygic Travel. You can also download a copy of our 2-week Vietnam itinerary in editable Word format from our EAT-ineraries page. It goes north to south and includes Hanoi (with Ha Long Bay), Hoi An, and Saigon.

3. Check for Discount Tickets

When it comes to tour booking platforms in Asia, Klook and KKday are king. They offer a big selection with the best prices. Follow these links for a complete list of Saigon deals on Klook and Kkday. Even if I don’t wind up buying anything, I always enjoy going through their sites because I often find unique activities that I wouldn’t normally think of myself.

4. Get Travel Insurance

To be honest, I don’t think you need to get travel insurance before every trip. For me, it depends on where you’re going and what you’ll be doing. If we’re just going to a place to eat and shop for a few days, then we may not get it. But if we plan on doing more outdoorsy things like skiing or horseback riding, then we’ll definitely purchase a policy.

We buy insurance from World Nomads or SafetyWing. They’re both leading travel medical insurance providers often used by many digital nomads. Check out my article on why we buy travel insurance for more information and a description of the two. You can follow the links to get a free quote from World Nomads or SafetyWing.

5. Let Motorbikes Avoid You

Motorbike traffic in Saigon is crazy. It’s a continuous stream of two-wheeled vehicles flowing through the streets like schools of fish. If you’re the least bit hesitant, then you’ll never get off the sidewalk.

As our guide Alex explained to us, you just have to walk with confidence and let them avoid you. Vietnamese people practically rode out of their mother’s wombs on motorbikes so they know what they’re doing. They have their eyes forward at all times so they can quickly react to avoid anything directly ahead of them, whether it be another motorbike, a lamp post, or you.

We tried it a couple of times and it really does seem to work. I mean, we survived right? By no means am I saying this is a foolproof method, but if you’re a chicken in Vietnam, then you’ll never cross the road.

Just find a good place to cross, time it well, then proceed with confidence and caution.

6. Pay Only in VND

If something is quoted in VND, then pay for it in VND. Don’t pay in USD or any other currency because you won’t get a good rate. Hotels and restaurants may accept USD as payment but don’t do it. You’ll be losing money every time so only pay in VND. As described, banks and licensed money changers are the best places to exchange currency in Saigon.

7. Don’t Be Confused by the Currency

Vietnamese currency is among the most confusing I’ve ever seen. The multiple zeros make it confusing enough but the colors between banknotes are often quite similar. For example, VND 100,000 bills look like VND 10,000 banknotes. They have a similar greenish color.

I overheard tourists talking on the bus and one woman made the mistake of paying for a VND 50,000 can of Coca-Cola with a similarly red VND 200,000 bill. In her words, it was the most expensive can of Coke she’s ever paid for in her life. Be careful when handing over bills because chances are, the vendor won’t correct you if you make a mistake.

8. Bring the Right Power Adapter

Vietnam has Type A, Type C, or Type F electrical outlets so be sure to bring the right power adapters for your devices. Electrical voltage is 220V and the standard frequency is 50Hz.

HOW TO GET AROUND

As of this writing, there is no metro system in Saigon. The easiest and most convenient way to get around the city is by ride sharing app. Grab is cheap in Vietnam. We used Grab to go everywhere and if I remember correctly, a 20 minute ride from District 1 to District 4 cost about VND 45,000. Even the locals recommend it over taxis. We didn’t do it but our AirBnB host even suggested Grab motorbikes as a great way of touring the city.

Have fun!

By no means am I an expert on Ho Chi Minh City but I do hope you find this guide useful. I’m only sharing some of the things I learned from our trip. If you have any suggestions, then please let us know in the comment section below. You’re welcome to join our Facebook Travel Group as well.

Thanks for stopping by and have an awesome time in Saigon!

OUR GEAR

These are some of the things we brought with us to Saigon. If you’d like to see what other gear we use, then you can check out our “What’s in Our Backpack?” post. (NOTE: The following links are Amazon affiliate links.)

Disclosure

Some of the links in this guide are affiliate links, meaning we’ll get a small commission if you make a purchase at no added cost to you. We only recommend products and services that we use ourselves and firmly believe in. We really appreciate your support as this helps us make more of these free travel guides. Thank you!

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There are 14 comments for this article
  1. Jhon roach at 7:46 pm

    What an amazing blog this will surely help the tourists or the travellers who are planning to travel to saigon.This will definitely save the time of planning the itinerary for the tourists.

  2. Jojee M at 12:41 pm

    Thanks again, for this JB! I always scour your blog each time we travel. This time, a three-day SGN quick trip with the hubs and sister-in-law! 🙂

  3. M Phan at 11:09 pm

    I was born in Saigon. I left in 1980 when I was a kid and haven’t been back for a visit since then. This is a great blog with so many useful information which will prepare me and my family for our long awaited trip back home next year. Many thanks for sharing.

  4. Nino Siongco at 9:14 am

    Very, very informative!

    Did you bring USD and had it changed to Dong? Or is it okay to just go ahead and bring/exchange Php when you get to the airport/Ben Thanh? Thanks!

  5. JB Macatulad at 8:17 am

    Happy you found it useful M Phan! Glad it helped you plan your first trip home. Have a wonderful trip. 🙂

  6. JB Macatulad at 8:21 am

    Hi Nino, I personally always bring USD since it’s more convenient. Not sure if they accept PHP.

  7. Ramon Perry at 7:53 pm

    Great. Blog, you’ve got it all covered!
    We just came back from Hanoi. Grab is insanely cheap, it cost us just 25000 to get anywhere around district 1. That’s kind of bad actually coz it’s no incentive to walk anywhere.
    Saigon Skydeck was one of our favourite, at sunset of course.
    And the private motorbike tour Saigon Unseen was great fun. it’s about half the price of Vespa tours and so fun.
    And those BANH MI street food has to be my favourite food, along with pho of course.

  8. JB & Renée Macatulad at 8:02 am

    Happy to hear you enjoyed Saigon so much Ramon! A motorbike tour does sounds awesome and definitely something we want to do on our next trip to Vietnam. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  9. Greg at 7:20 am

    For me, the most interesting place in Ho Chi Minh City is the Museum of War Remnants. The photos are drastic but it’s worth seeing them.

  10. JB & Renée Macatulad at 11:13 am

    I agree Greg, the War Remnants Museum is intriguing and often difficult to process. I found the photo exhibit on Agent Orange to be particularly distressing.

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