Once you land in Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon), you are instantly thrust into a no-frills Southeast Asian experience. Taxi drivers bombard you at the airport, the heat and humidity can be overpowering, and lingering smells of burning rubbish fill the air, writes Lainey Quinn, aka Little Miss Sunray, as she continues her Asian adventures for Irish Travel Trade News.
Ho Chi Minh City may not be the prettiest or most relaxing place to visit, but it’s what every traveller is looking for when exploring a new city: historic architecture can be found on every street, the locals are incredibly friendly towards tourists, and food and shopping are ridiculously cheap. Night markets, Franciscan architecture, lush mountains and rice paddies make this buzzing city a marvel to explore. There are also plenty of idyllic gardens and parks to chill out in and sip on refreshing coconut water or a Vietnamese egg coffee while you take a break from sightseeing.
When you arrive at Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport (code: SGN), you will need to go through Immigration to get a Vietnamese visa. Even if you are only staying for a week or two, you will need a 30-day single-entry visa. This can be bought online for €14,74 from https://vietnamvisa.govt.vn. Visas can also be bought on arrival, but this will extend your waiting time at the airport. Save yourself time and hassle with the language barrier and come prepared with your visa pre-brought and letter of approval printed out. Don’t forget to bring a 6×4 passport photo and US$50 for the stamp fee.
Good Morning, Vietnam
Conquer the jetlag and get up as early as possible on Day 1. It gets significantly more humid from lunchtime onwards and there is plenty of walking to do, so you are best off starting early.
Visit the War Remnant Museum and learn all about the Vietnamese/American War and Agent Orange. This museum provides an in-depth, fascinating account of the war and there is an entire floor dedicated to educating people about Agent Orange, the dioxide chemical that was used by the American soldiers to deforest Vietnamese jungles, but instead ended up horribly debilitating and disabling millions of citizens. The photos on display are hard to look at, but it is an important part of history for Vietnamese people (and others), and the effects of Agent Orange are still affecting millions of people today, in Vietnam and the USA.
Next, head to the Notre-Dame Basilica and Reunification Palace, both impressive buildings that date back to the 1800s and hold major significance in the war history of Vietnam.
By this stage, the heat and hunger will be making you a little dizzy, so head to a local restaurant to taste authentic Phở (a soup broth with rice noodles, herbs, and meat). The best place to get Phở recommended by locals is 323 Pham Ngu Lao or any of the local restaurants around the Thai Binh market. You will pay anything between 35,000 – 65,000VND), where €1 equals approximately (wait for it!) 26,500VND or Vietnamese Dong.
Next, order a Grab moto-taxi (the cheapest and ‘most exciting’ form of public transport) and head to the French Colonial Saigon Opera House (at 7 Lam Son Square, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1) to catch an afternoon show. Tickets range from 200,000 – 900,000VND and there are plenty of dance and music shows to choose from.
From there, head to the Bến Thành Market day and night market and feast your eyes (and your wallet) on the huge variety of cheap clothes, jewellery and souvenirs.
Before you head back to your hotel, go to one of the tourism offices on Phạm Ngũ Lão (District 1) and buy a ticket for the famous underground Cu Chi Tunnels for the following day. Don’t pay anymore than 250,000VND, which will cover private transport, an English-speaking tour guide, water and entrance into the tunnels.
Rise and Shine
Most accommodation in Vietnam offers free breakfast up until 10.00am, so take advantage of this, especially when you have a day ahead of exploring underground tunnels!
Most Cu Chi Tunnel tours will bring you to a workshop before the tunnels. This ‘Handicapped Handicraft’ workshop is where victims of Agent Orange create beautiful paintings using duck egg shells that you can buy in the adjoining shop. It’s amazing to see how the Vietnamese have created so many employment opportunities for their citizens with disabilities – perhaps the Irish Government could learn a thing or two from them.
Your next stop will be the tunnels – so get ready to be mesmerised by the information that your tour guide will tell you. Learn about how the Vietnamese citizens and soldiers lived their daily lives in the three-storey, 12-metre-deep tunnels and how there were living quarters, factories, kitchens with concealed chimneys, bomb shelters, and even theatre and movie halls within the underground web of tunnels. Over 45,000 men and women died and over 130 babies were born in the undergrowth.
The Cu Chi tunnel tour takes up most of the day, usually from 1.00pm to 7.00pm or you can opt for an earlier start time and thus get back to the city earlier. Either way, you won’t have much energy afterwards to do much apart from relax and enjoy some more authentic Vietnamese food!
Take a street food tour with fluent English-speaker Khoi, a 21-year-old local and food tour guide. I had the opportunity to go on a private street food tour with Khoi and I gave his programme five stars at the end of it. He really has a unique itinerary and knows all the nooks and crannies to bring tourists to eat. His price is US$29 (€25.38), which is a bit on the pricey side, but it is worth every cent.
This street food tour includes:
- Private street food evening tour (maximum five people)
- Free pick-up and drop-off at your hotel
- Vietnamese food and unlimited drinks (mineral water, soft drinks, beers)
- Experienced English-speaking guide (Khoi)
- Photos and videos from the night
- Travel insurance
Essential Things to Remember
Holidays in Ho Chi Minh City are full of exploring and there is plenty of walking to do, so stay hydrated and wear sunscreen (it can get up to 35 degrees during the day).
If you happen to get lost, don’t rely on locals to give you clear directions, even if you show them a map. They will most likely send you in the wrong direction (like most Asians, they don’t like to say ‘no’ or that they don’t know!). Google Maps will always be able to show you where you are, even if you aren’t connected to wi-fi, so use that as a rough guide in times of trouble. Alternatively, you can download the free Maps.me app on your phone and save offline maps.
Pickpockets and tourist scams are rife in Ho Chi Minh City, so watch your belongings everywhere you go. Don’t cross the road holding your phone or it might be snatched out of your hand. Also, when you are buying from a Vietnamese, remember they will charge four times more than locals, so try to bargain it down to about 50%. Check out Lainey’s average price guide for Ho Chi Minh City below…
Price Guide to Ho Chi Minh City
When you go on a holiday to Vietnam, you will quickly realise there are ‘tourist prices’ and ‘local prices’. As a tourist you will stick out like a sore thumb and, guaranteed, you will be charged at least four times more than if you were a local. It’s impossible to not get hit with the tourist price, but you can bargain the price down by at least 50% from what you are first quoted. Use this average price guide to know how much to bargain the price down to.
Accommodation and Transport
Taxi from airport to city centre: 120,000VND/€4.48. Take either a Grab, Vinasun or Mailinh taxi – do not accept offers from drivers in unmarked cars.
Bus 109 from airport to city centre: 20,000VND/€0.75
3km taxi ride in Ho Chi Minh City: 50,000VND/€1.87
Tours and Tickets
War Remnant Museum: 15,000VND/€0.56
Reunification Palace: 40,000VND/€1.49
Mekong Delta day tour: 300,000VND/€11.21
Cu Chi Tunnels day tour: 250,000VND/€9.34
Cheapest breakfast (mini sweet baguette with eggs): 30,000VND/€1.12
Small bottle of water: 8,000VND/€0.30
Large bottle of water 1.5-litres: 10,000VND/€0.37
Saigon Red or Green Beer: 8000VND/€0.30
Saigon Special Beer: 15,000VND/€0.56
Tiger Beer: 14.000VND/€0.52
Beer in nightclubs: 30,000VND/€1.12
Bottle of local wine: 45,000VND/€1.68
Imported wine: 800,000VND/€29.90
Yoghurt and berry smoothie: 60,000VND/€2.24
Box of Marlboro Red cigarettes: 25,000VND/€0.93
Box of local Jet cigarettes: 22,000VND/€0.93
Local Vietnamese Dishes
Bahn Mi (small baguette with broiled chicken, cucumber slices, pickled carrot, onion, and radish, cilantro leaves, and jalapeno pepper): 20,000VND/€0.75
Banh Xeo (mini-sized rice pancakes that are fried and served with fresh mustard leaves and herbs, as well as sweetened fish sauce for dipping): 25,000VND/€0.94
Phở (rice noodles called bánh phở, a few herbs, and meat, primarily made with either beef or chicken): 40,000VND/€1.51
Cha Gio (fried spring rolls): 6,000VND/€0.23
Bun Bo Hue (rich and spicy soup with tender slices of beef and pork, then topped with lots of fresh herbs): 30,000VND/€1.13