April 24, 2017

Saigon travel notes

Last updated: 5 November 2018

Welcome to Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City. Following are some notes for the first time traveller to our city.

Map of Saigon

A quick orientation

Map of Saigon

The map shows the districts in Saigon. District 1 is where most travellers end up staying — along the Pham Ngu Lau street. District 1 houses tourist attractions and historic sights. District 5 is called Cholon. This is the Chinatown of Saigon. This district is worth visiting for pagodas and the Binh Tay market. There is good late night street food too. District 2 is where many foreigners who work in Saigon live. District 7 has many Western and Korean establishments. The airport is in the Tan Binh district, about 7 kilometres from Pham Ngu Lau area in District 1. The domestic airport is just next to the international airport and about 8 minute walk.

Getting to the city or your destination

Getting a taxi or Grab

Once you are out of the airport, there are four options to go to District 1 or other parts of the city. District 1 (more specifically the Pham Ngu Lau neighbourhood) is where most of the budget and mid-range accommodations are. 1 US dollar is around 22,000 Vietnamese Dongs (VND).

  1. Mai Linh or VinaSun Taxi (the two most reliable taxi services in Vietnam). There is a taxi stand at the airport, the trouble is that you may be pointed to a random taxi. Insist on a MyLinh (green cars) or a VinaSun (white cars) taxi. These taxis are metered and it might cost you about 1 to 1.5 million VND to the city centre or Pham Ngu Lau area. You can also book a prepaid taxi at several counters that are located just after the customs check counter.

  2. Grab/GoViet — Use your phone to book the Grab/GoViet ride. The apps will ask you for the pillar number. The apps uses the pillar number to locate you. The big round pillars support the top floors of the airport and have the numbers prominently painted on them. It costs me around 80,000 VND from airport to District 1 on Grab. Beware of the fake Grab drivers who accost you as soon as you come out of the airport. Always order Go-Viet or Grab via the app.

Airport bus

  1. Airport Bus — There are three companies that offer a bus to the city. As you get out of the arrival area, past the crowd of people waiting, you will see the small bus counter (the small red box in the photo above) There is a counter each at international and domestic airports. The staff here speak English. Show them your destination and they will recommend the bus to you. If your destination is Pham Ngu Lau (the budget tourist area), you can take the bus number 109 or bus number 49. They are both inexpensive and will get you to Pham Ngu Lau area in 30 to 50 minutes depending on the traffic. Prepare to pay around 20,000 VND.

  2. Xe Om (the motorbike taxi) for the more adventurous. Walk to the domestic airport (turn right as you exit the international airport and keep walking along the covered walkway — you will reach the domestic airport), and then walk out from the airport. Before you are out, motorbike hustlers will come to you. A ride to the city should cost you around 50000 VND.

Typical travel time from the airport to the city

Where to stay?

Pham Ngu Lau

The Pham Ngu Lau neighbourhood in district 1 is a popular place to stay. There are hundreds of hotels and hostels here ranging from 5 USD a night to more than 100 USD a night. The best deals are in the small alleys — street 241 and 283 shown in the map above. You can get a comfortable and safe place for about 15 USD in one of these alleys. The cheaper places will not have lifts, and they will surely not have 24 hours reception. They are often family run businesses with the owners staying in the same premises as the hotel. They will lock the place around midnight. If you return late, you will have to ring the bell and wake them up. Same goes if you are checking in late at night — it is better to call them earlier in the day and let them know that you will be arriving late. The rooms are a simple affair, they are clean, have aircon and wifi. The alleys have good, inexpensive food and the vendors speak basic English.

If you want one solid recommendation, I will point you to Diep Anh Guesthouse inside street 283 Pham Ngu Lau (around 20 USD). You can book one night here. Check out neighbouring guest houses/ hotels next day — the owner or managers are happy to show you the rooms. You can choose the guesthouse that suits your budget and move into it.

The area behind the Ben Thanh Market has good mid-range hotels (30 USD and more). If you are booking on Agoda,com or Booking.com, look for hotels with rating 7 and above. Read the recent guest reviews to make sure that there is no current construction activity next doors.

Hotels will keep your passport with them until you settle your bills and check out. If you want to hold on to your passport, just pay them upfront and remember to take a receipt. Most hotels will also accept credit cards with small bank fee added on. Pay by card at a time when the owner or the more experienced staff are around. You don’t want to be stuck with a groggy and un-experienced night staff who is trying to figure out the card machine, while you are rushing for your flight.

Some hotels where I have stayed at and liked

  1. Ono Saigon, 7/8 Đường, Nguyễn Trãi, Bến Thành — Close to Ben Thanh Market. Around 28 USD
  2. Tripwriter Hotel and Bistro, in a quieter lane in the backpacker area. https://m.facebook.com/tripwriterhotel/
  3. Luxury Hotel, 34 Mac Thi Buoi Str., Ben Nghe Ward — Right in the city centre at a good price. http://luxuryhotel-saigon.com/intro/2/Description-of-hotel#.Wfg9L9up2Aw
  4. Kaiteki Hotel & Capsule — http://kaitekihotel.com

In recent years I have been using Airbnb, Some of my favourite apartments listed below

Around 20 USD

  1. https://www.airbnb.com.sg/rooms/16510352 (Older apartment, city centre. Four flights of stairs, no lift)
  2. https://www.airbnb.com.sg/rooms/18443558 (Six flights of stairs. Lift only works until 11 PM)

Around 30 USD

  1. https://www.airbnb.com.sg/rooms/10062549 (My regular stay in the Japantown in District 1, they have many apartments in the same block)
  2. https://www.airbnb.com.sg/rooms/14590718 (Many apartments in this block. Request for a lower floor if you don’t fancy climbing stairs)

Around 60 USD

  1. https://www.airbnb.com.sg/rooms/16091896 (Nice high rise apartment in the centre of the city. Highly recommended if you travel with family.)

Best place for currency exchange, ATMs

Before you leave for Vietnam, check the exchange rate using Google. On the Google search box type in the text 100 USD to VND.

Currency exchange

Google will return with the current exchange rate. This will give you an approximate idea of the current exchange rate. The exchange counters will always give you less than this official rate but it should not be much lower. If you do not have any Vietnamese currency on you (for a taxi, bus etc.), I recommend that you change about 20 to 50 USD at the currency exchange counter just after the immigration desk (before you take the escalator down to the baggage claim area) at the Saigon airport. This counter has better rates compared to the currency exchange counters elsewhere at the airport.

Currency exchange shop

Once I am in the city, I go to a specific exchange shop frequented by the locals. This shop is located on the junction of Nguyen Anh Ninh and Phan Chu Trinh streets, just across the street from the West exit of Ben Thanh Market (marked in red in the map below). This place is about 15 minutes walk from the Pham Ngu Lau area and you will spot the shop surrounded by other tourists exchanging money.

Every major street and business building has several ATMs, but you may have to pay a 4 to 5 USD ATM fee and also accept a low exchange rate when you withdraw money from a local ATM.

Buying a SIM card

Viettel has good coverage across Vietnam. I will recommend a small shop just outside the arrivals area of the International terminal at the airport. Get out of the arrival area, turn right and walk past the waiting relatives until you see a Big Bowl noodle shop. The SIM card shop is next to this noodle shop. This counter is also a good place to buy mobile top ups. SIM cards are cheaper in the city but I will recommend that you buy at the airport as you can then use Google Maps and transport apps (and you can call your hotel if the taxi driver has difficulty locating the address.)

SIM Card

Is Saigon safe? Can I get by with no Vietnamese language knowledge?

Yes, mostly it is safe. Just keep your phone and money close to you. If you have to check google maps, do not do it facing the street — often we have cases of motorbike phone grabbers snatching phones from unsuspecting tourists. Try to keep your stuff in a backpack, avoid using a sling bag. Don’t worry about language. Most local business persons are able to put together some English and sign language to aid basic transactions. Google Translate app is also good — it works best if you type in simple short sentences.

Some tips about street names and directions

Many Vietnamese addresses have numbers that may include sub-streets — for example 241/31 Pham Ngu Lao. What this means is that this particular address is inside an alley that splits off the main street number 241 Pham Ngu Lau. Check the entire address before you book Grab or show the address to a taxi driver — you might end up in another part of town that has similar name or in some cases exactly the same name. I always load up my destination on the Google Map on my phone and take a screenshot of the screen. Once the destination and its surrounding are stored as an image on my phone, I can zoom the image and show it to the taxi, Grab or the XeOm (motorbike taxi) driver. XeOm drivers are often elder gents — large text makes it easier for them to read. Vietnamese is a highly tonal language, and very often the locals may not catch your pronunciation but almost everyone can read. Keep the phone number of your hotel and local friends ready on your phone. You can always call them and request them to explain the directions to your driver.

Food and costs

Try Saigon and Vietnamese food — it is safe to try a street stall if you see local eating from that particular stall. Below are some approximate prices.

  1. Street side stall: 1.5 to 2 USD
  2. Local food restaurants: 2 to 3 USD
  3. International cafe/restaurants: 5 USD ++

Some shops in the category 2 and almost all businesses in 3 above accept cards and Samsung pay.

Power plugs in Vietnam, Internet

In Vietnam, the power sockets are of type A (similar to Japan and the US but the voltage/frequency is 220V/50HZ) and type C (Indonesia). Almost every shop has free wifi. Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, WeChat and other popular services are accessible. The locals use Facebook, Xalo (a local social network) and WeChat. Near the Japanese areas, you will find people using Live and near the Korean neighbourhood, a bit of Kakao.

What to do in Saigon?

My usual Saigon trip

Other than visiting the regular tourist attractions, you can just explore the city. The downtown area is walkable. You will find many cafes and street food vendors operating all night.

Late night cafes

Explore the cafes — there are hundreds of cafes — many of them 24 hours — across Saigon serving local coffee and other drinks. Try the cafe apartment at 42 Nguyen Hue street. The downtown area around the Dong Khoi street has pretty cafes and shops. The downtown area

Explore the alleys — the alleys are where you can experience the local life. One set of interesting alleys is the Japantown , it is like someone magically transported Japan into South East Asia. Stroll the book shop alley just behind the main post office at Nguyen Van Binh Street.

The Turtle Lake: Here you can talk to the locals and try some street food http://ofgettinglost.blot.im/the-turtle-lake-in-saigon

Explore Saigon at night — Saigon is beautiful at night. The availability of Go Viet and Grab makes night exploration accessible for people who do not have a motorbike. Some of my favorite adventures are exploring old buildings, looking for interesting points to capture the skyline and talking to the locals. Saigon is like the Shenzhen or Jakarta or Bombay of Vietnam - people from all over the country come here to work or to study.

Late night exploration

Buying souvenirs — I ignore the Ben Thanh market (you can visit for fun or for some food, but avoid buying here unless you are prepared to bargain). I head to a complex called Lucky Plaza. There is a supermarket on level 03. They sell small packs of local tea, coffee and candies — makes for nice souvenirs. Try the ginger flavored Gingy candy. Visit Marou Chocolate cafe, they have giftable small chocolate bars with traditional Vietnamese print on the wrapping.

Weather and what to pack

Southern Vietnam is always hot, except for a few days at the end and the beginning of the year. You can travel light. I recommend light cotton clothes. Middle to late months of the year, it rains and sometimes floods — get shoes and clothes that dry quick. Vietnamese cities have inexpensive laundry. I often travel for weeks with just 2 or 3 sets of clothes. There are loads of convenience stores and minimarts all over the cities and many barber/stylist shops too. There is no reason to bring a heavy bag.

Any Saigon article on this web is a gem: Vietnam Coracle. For example, check out the series on Saigon Midnight Loop.

The web portal for Saigon events and food (https://saigoneer.com)

Saigon Vietnam

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