Sitting on the southern tip of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minch City is one of South East Asia’s booming cities. Known by many as Saigon, this is Vietnam’s biggest city and its economic engine room.
Here the timeless streets - lined with old wooden stalls selling everything from silk to spices - lead to ancient pagodas and effervescent markets merging with modern neighborhoods with gleaming skyscrapers, trendy shopping malls, gourmet restaurants and minimalists bars.
Nonetheless, Saigon has not forgotten its past, and each building stands as a reminder of past eras. The real beauty of this urban mosaic is that these two worlds blend into a smooth one.
So let's travel to this enigmatic city, and let me walk you through it thrilling mysteries.
How to get to HCMC?
Vietnam has four international airports; the largest one, Tan Son Nhat, is located 5 miles away from the center of Ho Chi Minh City and has a domestic and international terminal.
Direct international flights are available from major cities in Europe, Australia, and other parts of Asia. It takes about 10 minutes to walk between terminals along a covered walkway, so it's a relatively easy airport in which to transit.
Ho Chi Minh City is also served by domestic flights from just about any airport in the country, including the major tourist destinations of Hanoi, Hue, Danang (for Hoi An), Dalat, Nha Trang, Phu Quoc, and Con Dao.
From Europe and North America, there are no direct flights to Ho Chi Minh City, and flights to Vietnam cost generally more than other countries in Southeast Asia.
One solution is to fly to Hanoi with Vietnam Airlines and take a connecting flight from there or change at other cities in the region, such as Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Hong Kong buy a cheap ticket to Bangkok, Singapore or Hong Kong, then take a match.
Travelers flying from the USA also need to change planes at least once, but they can find some very good deals with flights ranging from 400$ to 800$ depending on when you are travelling. You can count on China Eastern Airlines, Air China, United Airlines for the best deals.
Vietnam Airlines fly direct to Ho Chi Minh City from the UK at least twice a week, from London Gatwick. You can also fly indirect, via the Far East through hubs such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur with airlines such as Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Malaysian, Turkish Airlines, China Southern, or via the Middle East with carriers such as Emirates, Etihad and Qatar.
From London - 15 hours (including stopover);
New York - 20 hours (including stopover);
Los Angeles - 18 hours (including stopover);
Toronto - 21 hours (including stopover);
Sydney - 9 hours.
The most comfortable way to get a Vietnamese visa is by online application. The application fee may vary on some websites, but it is generally around 20-25 USD per person. Your approval letter will be sent to you by e-mail. You take a print out of this letter and give it on customs office where your passport will be stamped.
Another 25 USD is charged for stamp fee. You also need to fill a form and submit a passport size recently taken photo. But still, this will be less costly than applying to a Vietnamese embassy in your country.
Taxis are the most common form of transport from the airport, with a number of official companies offering their services.
When getting a taxi from Tan Son Nhut, ignore the touts that will immediately ask you if you need a taxi when exiting the terminal. They will charge you 7 USD to get downtown (it's only about 3 USD). Instead, walk straight to the curb where you'll see a row of taxis. Make sure to agree a price with the driver or ensure the meter is reset. If they refuse to use the meter at all, take a different one.
For those willing to splash out a little more, a private chauffeured car can be hired from the airport to your destination.
Here are some Taxi contacts that may come handy in your travel:
The cheapest way to travel from the airport to the city center is by public bus 152, which drops passengers by Ben Thanh Market in the downtown part of the city. Buses leave approximately every 15 minutes and are often labeled in English.
Keep in mind that this service only operates between 6 am and 6 pm. The fare to the city is about 25 cents, but the bus is often crowded with no room for luggage.
When to go to HCMC?
Ho Chi Minh City has a tropical weather; it is warm all year round with two distinctive seasons, wet and dry season.
It can be said that anytime in a year is a good time to visit Ho Chi Minh City, but the best time to visit would be during the cooler dry season, starting from December and lasting until April. This time of the year is the hottest, with temperature settling for an average of 28 degrees. Humidity is quite moderate in December and begins to go down from January to April.
So if you’re traveling during this period, you are getting away from the usual sticky weather of Saigon.
Dry season also mean high season; it’s definitely an attractive occasion for travellers to celebrate Christmas and New Year frivolously with the locals. From Christmas until New Year, the streets and the hotels in the city center are booming with colorful decorations, folks hanging out and ridiculous sales happening in all kind of shops.
Keep in mind though that during Lunar New Year, around late-January and mid-February, you are better off being in Ho Chi Minh City rather in the rural area, where everything will be closed. The flights will be fully booked just before it; 99% of the population travels home to spend time with their family during the “Tet” Festival. Otherwise, it’s a pretty awesome opportunity to see how the Vietnamese party!
While the dry season tends to be the popular choice, don’t dismiss a visit during rainy season which runs from May to October. Considering that Saigon has a rare nice climate, it often has short day time rains that clear pretty quickly and give room to even more sunshine. So you can just wait out the afternoon rain showers in a café or a museum.
In brief, if you want comfortable climate - visit Vietnam between December and April. If you are a budget travellers or professional sales hunters, May - September is the best choice.
Where to stay in HCMC?
Ho Chi Minh City has a very wide range of hotels to choose from. From cheap hotels with basic facilities to world-class, five-star hotels, often overlooking the Saigon River, you are spoiled for choice in this great value destination.
The districts are numbered in Ho Chi Minh City. District 1, on the banks of the river, and District 3, at the center of old Saigon, are where most visitors stay since it is a central location that has the highest proportion of the museums, restaurants, galleries, bars and nightclubs. The gracious old colonial hotels are here, too, as are many newer international hotels.
Hotels in the central districts of 4, 5 and 10 are also worth considering. Wherever you decide to unpack your holiday wardrobe, be sure to check if your room is air conditioned as daytime temperatures linger at around 25 degrees throughout the year, often accompanied by intense humidity. Free Wi-Fi is everywhere, but service can be hit-or-miss. When in doubt, just remember that location trumps facilities.
Look for bargains during Ho Chi Minh City's low season, from May to October, when some hotels discount their room rates to entice visitors during the rainy season.
Traveling on a budget
Pham Ngu Lao Street in District 1 is considered the main backpacker hangout in Saigon, and is a mere 25-minute taxi drive from Tan Sot Nhat International Airport.
The lanes and alleys in Pham Ngu Lao Street are packed with affordable motels, hostels and guesthouses, as well as mini-hotels offering ridiculously cheap prices, 7 to 15USD per a single bed. Set along these alleyways you can also find western-style restaurants, cafes and international bars
You can stay at The Hello Hotel for 22USD!
Located in District 1, this hotel is within a 10-minute walk of Saigon Culinary Arts Centre, September 23 Park, and Zen Plaza. Mariamman Temple and Museum of Fine Arts are also within 1 mi (2 km). Along with a restaurant, this hotel has a rooftop terrace and a business center. Free WiFi in public areas and free self-parking are also provided. Other amenities include tour/ticket assistance and free breakfast. All 11 rooms offer free WiFi, minibars, and flat-screen TVs with cable channels. Ceiling fans, hair dryers, and showers are among the other amenities that guests will find.
Or you can stay at the Liberty 3 Hotel for 50USD!
Located in District 1, this hotel is within a 10-minute walk of September 23 Park, Zen Plaza, and Ben Thanh Market. Museum of Fine Arts and Mariamman Temple are also within 10 minutes. This hotel features a restaurant, a coffee shop/café, and a 24-hour business center. WiFi in public areas is free. Additionally, concierge services, dry cleaning, and laundry facilities are onsite. All 66 rooms feature modern comforts like LCD TVs with cable channels, along with free WiFi. Minibars, room service, and hair dryers are among the other amenities available to guests.
Traveling like a Queen (or a King)
At the higher end of the hotel spectrum, management strives to deliver international-standard four or five-star service, and usually does so. If you happen to prefer the authentic vibe of Vietnamese houses with their special architecture, Rex Hotel may be the perfect fit for you.
“Your Vietnam Home”, as they like to advertise, Rex Hotel has been amazing visitors with it first-class services and amenities accompanied with the unique oriental architecture in each room.
The hotel is located in District 1, at the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, which makes it convenient for tourists to wander around. This luxury hotel is steps from Ho Chi Minh City Hall, Ho Chi Minh City Hall Square, and Saigon Tax Trade Center. Parkson Plaza and Vincom Center Shopping Mall are also within 5 minutes.
Along with 4 restaurants, this hotel has a casino and an outdoor pool. Free buffet breakfast and free WiFi in public areas are also provided. Additionally, a health club, a bar/lounge, and a coffee shop/café are onsite. All 286 rooms boast fireplaces and deep soaking tubs, while also providing free WiFi, free wired Internet, and LCD TVs with cable channels. Guests will also find 24-hour room service, minibars, and premium bedding.
In most of these luxurious hotels, a room is priced starting at $150 per night. Check-in and check-out time is as usual 2 p.m and 12 p.m. In peak seasons such as summer (June, July, August), visitors are supposed to book in advance to be able to get a room. Booking can simply be made online at the hotels’ websites.
How to get around HCMC?
Saigon Public Transportation
While Ho Chi Minh City might be known for its notorious traffic, getting around is quite easy once you’ve done your research. Saigon is divided to 24 Districts, with District 1 to 5 having most of the attractions, restaurants, bars, nightclubs and many shopping venues.
The cyclo is a favorite among the tourists when it comes to wandering around the city, but there’s also a very efficient network of public buses, private taxis, and even motorcycle taxis. You can even rent a bicycle or motorbike, just be careful with the city’s busy, and crazy traffic!
Catching a cab in Saigon is pretty much the easiest way to get around the city, and you can find several ones lined up famous hotels, landmarks, bars and restaurants. The standard taxi fee is about 27 cents the kilometer, so yes, it is pretty cheap!
If you’re staying in District 1, you can get to most places for less than a half dollar. Just keep in mind that taxi scams are pretty popular in Saigon, so better to stick with legitimate taxi companies like Mai Linh Taxi, or Vinasun.
How about you just weave through that crazy traffic? Sounds pretty fun, doesn’t it? Well, it does, and it’s pretty cheap too! For a few cents you can zoom through the city and explore an entire district in a very short amount of time.
Buses are pretty great for discovering the city on a tight budget. For 300VND, you can ride the white buses with their comfy seats and cool air-conditioning. Major bus terminals in the city include Ben Thanh Station, Cholon Station, and Mien Dong Station.
If you are taking the bus from the airport to the city center, look out for the #147 (Cho Long Bus Station – Tan Son Nhat) and #152 (Trung Son Resident – Tan Son Nhat) buses. Bus #147 will take you to Chinatown, while Bus #152 will go to the Ben Thanh Market.
Bicycle & Motorcycle Rentals
Your hotel can help you rent a bicycle or motorcycle, but they’ll probably rip you off. You’re betting off renting one yourself from Pham Ngu Lao Street, where you can have a bicycle for about 1$ per day, and a motorcycle for about 5$, helmet included. I know. Crazy cheap.
What to do in HCMC?
Visiting the Colonial Buildings
There are many buildings of the colonial era all over the city. From the theater, you can go to the city hall, visit the cathedral and finally take a tour at the post office. Between these landmarks, one comes across many buildings less prestigious that seem straight out of the colonial time. You’ll often feel as if you were in a small town in the French!
The Post Office Building
Built in the early 20 century by the French Post administration, it is one of the city’s most popular buildings. No surprise there since its metallic skeleton was done by Gustave Eiffel himself! Painted on the walls of its grand concourse are fascinating historic maps of South Vietnam, Saigon and Cholon, while a mosaic of Ho Chi Minh takes pride of place at the end of its barrel-vaulted hall.
Address: 2 Cong Xa Paris, District 1.
Hours: 8 am to 5 pm.
Notre Dame Cathedral
Hard to miss with its fabulous pinkish orange color, the catholic cathedral stands in the heart of Saigon’s government quarter. A neo-Romanesque church, with huge square towers rising 40 meters in the sky and tipped with iron spires, even its brick were especially brought from Marseille. The Cathedral was named after the Virgin Mary, and her impressive statue stands in front of the church’s doors.
Soak up in its rich culture
War Remnants Museum
The War Museum in Saigon displays war engines, paintings and photos relating the conflict between the United States and Vietnam. There are many shocking pictures showing the atrocities of war.
Although the visit can be a bit difficult because of the disturbing pictures, the Vietnam War Museum is one of the most interesting museums in Saigon. It is an obligatory passage for those who are interested in the history of Vietnam.
Address: 28 rue Vo Van Tan district 3
Hours: Every day from 7:30 am to 12 pm, and 1:30 pm to 5 pm
Fine Arts Museum
The Saigon Museum of Fine Arts is a small museum dedicated to paintings and sculptures by Vietnamese artists. It has been converted into a beautiful villa of French colonial style.
The collection of the museum is made up of ancient and contemporary works. Its location, close to the Ben Thanh market, right in the city center and its low entry price make it an interesting stop on a visit to Ho Chi Minh City.
Address: 97A Pho Duc Chinh, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Hours: Tuesday to Sunday from 9 am to 5 pm
Go for a Shopping Spree!
Ben Thanh Market
One of the biggest tourist hubs of Saigon, it was originally built by the French in the late 1800s. The clock located at the entrance of the market is one of the major symbols of city. It is located in District 1 between the backpacker district of Phan Ngu Lao Street and the historical monument district of Dong Khoi Street.
You will find mountains of tee-shirt souvenirs, a multitude of souvenir items in wood but also all kinds of various products and varied (hygienic, food, textiles ...)
Hours: Opens daily from 6 am to 5 pm for the covered market, and from 6 pm to 10 pm for the night market.
Pack ‘em bags!
Despite almost a century of colonialism and brutal conflict, today Ho Chi Minh City is renowned for its warm hospitality, which even extends to former foes. A youthful enthusiasm runs through its streets, just like the stream of scooters, motorbikes and cars that flow relentlessly through its chaotic streets.
An enticing mix of future and past, Saigon, with its wide boulevards built during the French colonial era are lined with cutting edge skyscrapers, and jasmine scented temples gently rub shoulders with chic rooftop bars will charm you away!
As the sun goes down, find yourself a seat at one of Ho Chi Minh City’s famous rooftop bars, a perfect way to soak up the buzz of the city. Dynamic, chaotic and energizing; Ho Chi Minh city may have burst onto the world stage as a battle zone but today, there is no better destination to plug in to the pulse of 21st century Asia.