Ho Chi Minh City: What you need to know & budget tips
First up, even though this article might have Ho Chi Minh City in the headline, everyone still refers to the city as Saigon. Although the French left in 1954, the people have kept its foreign name everywhere except for on official buildings.
The name isn’t the only thing left behind by the French – you can still see the French influence in the city’s architecture, its fashion and its food.
There’s a mini Notre Dame cathedral, Saigon locals are thought to be the best dressed in all of Vietnam, and the Banh Mi sandwich was first invented with the aid of a crusty baguette.
A bustling city of more than eight million people, Saigon is a place where you can expect to stay for a year without dining in the same place twice. But if you don’t have that much time, don’t fret, I’ve outlined some of the best places to see, things to eat and locations to sleep below, especially for those of you who are on a budget.
Things to see and do in Ho Chi Minh City
As I’m sure you’re well aware, Vietnam was a war torn country for two decades, right up until the mid-1970s. For a country where more than a million people were killed in a war, it is doing surprisingly well just 40 years later.
There are a few places worth visiting that are dotted around Saigon and will help you to learn more about the country’s war torn past.
Just remember before you visit that most museums close for lunch – roughly between 12pm and 1:30pm each day.
Cu Chi Tunnels
The Cu Chi Tunnels are a huge network of underground tunnels located about 40km from the center of Saigon. These underground trails were dug out during the war and are part of a ginormous network of tunnels throughout the country.
These clever constructions are part of the reason Vietnam won the war, and were built by Communist forces from the late 1940s when they started fighting against the French. The troops would hide out for months in these cramped spaces, emerging on the surface to fight.
Don’t visit if you’re claustrophobic!
Cost: You can book a trip at any of the tourist offices on Pham Ngu Lau (the main backpacker street) in Saigon for about 150,000VDN (US$7).
War Remnants Museum
Prepare to feel depressed when you leave the War Remnants Museum. The toll of the war in Vietnam is excruciating to see, and the photographs plastered on the walls throughout the museum show the worst bits. From dead bodies, to deformed babies, this museum is perhaps one place to skip if you’re traveling with children.
I do think it’s an important place for adults to visit though. Very rarely do you go to a museum where it’s you (America, Australia and France) who are the enemy, rather than the other way round. It’s eye-opening and worth seeing the conflict from another perspective – our countries really wreaked havoc on beautiful Vietnam.
Cost: 15,000VDN (US$0.70)
Also known as the Reunification Palace, the Independence Palace is the place where the Vietnamese War ended back in the middle of the ‘70s. The North Vietnamese Communist Army drove a tank through the palace’s gates, with a BBC journalist standing in the foreground remarking, “The men from the jungle have arrived.”
Today the palace is still grand and the government still holds meetings here from time to time. It’s very dated though – stuck in the 1960s – and the décor hasn’t changed a bit since then, making it more like a museum.
You can even see hunting trophies of elephant tusks and feet which are a little confronting.
Cost: 30,000VDN (US$1.40)
Non-war-related things to see and do in Ho Chi Minh City
Don’t let the war history get you down – fascinating though it may be – as there are many other things to see and do in Saigon. Being the vibrant place it is, and somewhat of an up-and-coming hipster city, there really are some cool places to sip a coffee.
14 Tan That Dam St apartment building
If you want to fit in with the trendy crowd of Saigon, this is the place to head. When you get there you will probably feel like you’ve come to the wrong place, but dare to enter the dark alleyway and climb the apartment stairs, and you will come across boutique shops, bars and cafés.
Trendy young designers sell their wares, tattooed mini-skirt clad girls sip strong cocktails and a cluttered restaurant sells artesian pizzas to hungry patrons. Each floor offers something unique, and between all the places to hangout are apartments still occupied by long-term residents. This is one of my favorite places in Saigon to hang out.
The Botanical Garden in Saigon is also part of a zoo, but I’d advise you skip the zoo as the animals aren’t very well treated. It is also one of the world’s oldest zoos – perhaps this might have something to do with its condition.
The Botanical Garden is home to hundreds of species of plants and is a perfect place for a late afternoon stroll (when it’s not too hot.) A good place to come and people watch the locals on the weekend.
Cost: 8,000VDN (US$0.36)
Tao Dan Park
Speaking of people watching, Tao Dan Park is one of the biggest parks in District One of Ho Chi Minh City, and people watching doesn’t get much better than sitting on a bench here in the early mornings. Locals flock here at the beginning of the day to get their workouts in, and you can see them strolling, running and working out around the park.
There’s also an area where older men gather with their birds inside cages to socialize everyday between 7am and 9am. Sounds a little bizarre but it’s interesting to watch – the men believe the birds need this interaction time with each other. At one end of the park there’s also a sculpture garden that’s worth a look.
Saigon Central Post Office
The post office won’t keep you entertained for hours on end, but it’s a good place to come if you’re in to architecture. In the center of downtown, opposite the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Saigon Post Office is another leftover from the French – it was designed by Gustave Eiffel, the same architect behind the Eiffel Tower.
Although it still functions as a post office, it is mainly a tourist attraction these days, with a host of souvenir stores and travel booking agents inside.
Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas
This is my favorite religious place in the whole of Saigon. Taking ten years to build, this is an active Buddhist monastery and should be respected as one.
There are shrines on each floor – over its four floors – but by far the most impressive is the room at the very top of the building where you can find the 10,000 Buddhas. They are everywhere – built into the walls and into the lotus leaves unfolding from the giant statues that dominate the center of the room.
Jade Emperor Pagoda
If you want more religious culture, the Jade Emperor Pagoda is an interesting place to come. The outside pond is crowded with turtles, some of whom have blessings engraved into their shells.
Inside the pagoda the scent of incense is overwhelming, as the locals come here to honor their Gods and pray each day, lighting incense as part of their offerings. Huge God statues adorn the many different rooms, and there are sections for particular blessings, such as fertility.
Bin Tanh Market
A bit of a tourist trap, although if you bargain hard you can find some great deals. This is the place to come if you want to buy fakes – from handbags to clothing, this market has it all.
It is open during the day but at night time when the market closes the surrounding area becomes busy with street food stalls and other stands selling knockoffs.
The best places to eat in Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnamese street food has got to be some of the best in the world and to only eat in Saigon’s restaurants would be a sin, when some of the best foods are to be found at street stalls.
Here’s a rundown of some of the best Vietnamese street foods you should try when in Saigon:
Banh Mi (sandwiches)
Banh Mi is probably the cheapest street food you can find in Saigon, with these delicious sandwiches starting from just 10,000VDN. Stemming from its French roots, a Banh Mi typically is served inside bread that resembles a miniature baguette and can feature pate – another French influence.
The sandwiches are stuffed with herbs and fresh greens like bean sprouts, giving the Banh Mi a light flavor.
Pho bo (beef noodle soup)
This is possibly the most recognized street food dish in Vietnam, and rightly so. There are three components of a pho bo – sliced beef, thin rice noodles and broth. In the south the broth is clear, whereas in the north it’s more fatty and darker.
Normally chili, bean sprouts and other veggies are added to the pho to give it more flavor.
Xôi (sticky rice)
Xôi is often eaten for breakfast. It is sometimes mixed it with dried shrimp, Chinese sausage, green onion stirred with oil, and is often flavored with soy sauce.
Gỏi cuốn (Vietnamese fresh rolls)
Perhaps my favorite street food of all time – fresh Vietnamese rolls. Divine. If you’ve ever eaten in a Vietnamese restaurant, chances are you’ve already tried these, but fresh from a street food stall they are something else. Sometimes they add noodles to them to bulk them out.
So where can you get these street food delights? If you want to truly experience Vietnamese street food first hand in Saigon, I would recommend you head to the Binh Thanh District district, which is about 4km from the center of District 1. This is where we lived for a month and you’ll be hard pressed to spot someone who is not a local.
The district is full of street food stalls and a thriving market. None of the vendors speak English, so we became pretty good at pointing at other people’s food to indicate what we were interested in eating.
Đặc Sản Miền Tây
This was our favorite pho place in the Binh Thanh District and it was just a street away from our apartment, so we came here most days. It only costs 54,000VDN for two bowls of delicious pho and this includes two glasses of iced jasmine tea to wash it down with. You won’t leave hungry.
Hong Hoa banh mi
This is one of the best places we’ve gone to for Banh Mi – and if you’re around this part of District 1 you should certainly check it out. For just 15,000VDN – not the cheapest of Banh Mi places but still extremely affordable – you get a ginormous sandwich that is stuffed with anything from minced pork to fois gras, as well as such as cilantro, cucumber and pickled carrots. So delicious – you’ll thank me!
This is a street food like stand crossed with a budget restaurant. It’s in the center of District 1, and is a little more expensive than your average pho. Expect to pay about 50,000VDN for a bowl. The joint also serves coffee though, so it’s a good place to get two delicious Vietnamese food and drink combinations at once!
You may tire of the street food stalls. Why? Although the food is delicious, and often better than what you’ll find in a restaurant, their chairs and tables are tiny and made for children. Especially for tall Westerners, you can only maintain a seated position for about 20 minutes at a time.
So when this uncomfortableness gets to you and you want to head to a restaurant, here are some reasonably priced and delicious options.
Nha Hang Ngon
This restaurant is always packed, with a nice mix of locals and Westerners. The food is traditional Vietnamese and it can be tempting to over order because the menu is very extensive, making it difficult to make a choice.
Ask the waiter for help if you get stuck – but I can recommend their crispy rolls and spicy beef dishes. Both were extremely tasty. You’ll pay around 60,000VND per dish here, which is good value in this pretty and atmospheric restaurant.
If you want a restaurant with atmosphere, head next door to Nha Hang Ngon and up an apartment building. At the top of the complex you’ll find a beautifully decorated rooftop restaurant serving up delicious Vietnamese fare.
With similar prices to Nha Hang Ngon, Secret Garden isn’t as crowded and I think the food is a little tastier. It’s not a good option if the weather is miserable though, as nearly all the seating is out in the open. Perfect for a balmy night as the sun is setting.
Saigon has an amazing café culture. Influenced by the French, these days I think it’s almost more prevalent than the scene in Paris. We were speaking to a young local and he said that when you leave university you either ‘open a coffee shop or work for a large corporation’.
One of our favorite café haunts was ID Café where they serve delicious food and tasty coffee. They also do the traditional Vietnamese drip coffee here – and it’s a good place to try it. The café packs out during the day with both locals and foreigners, many who use the café as a working space.
Where to stay in Ho Chi Minh City
The priciest part of town is District 1, which is right in the center. But if you are a tourist, this is where you’re going to want to stay as it’s close to all the attractions. An alternative option is to rent an apartment in the Binh Thanh District, which is just past the zoo and adjacent to District 1. We rented an apartment here for a month and it was a lot cheaper than District 1 but still just a 5 – 10 minute taxi ride away from the city center, depending on traffic.
Expect to pay between US$400 and $600 a month for a one bed budget apartment.
If you are staying shorter term, the main streets for cheap guest housing and backpacker accommodation can be found at Pham Ngu Lao and Le Lai. You can easily find a room here for less than US$10 a night, especially if you plan on staying in a dorm.
Phan Anh Backpackers Hostel is a modern backpackers that has clean facilities and is popular with budget travelers.
Saigon Backpackers Hostel is another good option where you can find a spacious double room for just over US$15 a night.
If your budget stretches a little further, you can find decent three star hotels for as little as US$30 a night. Just a two minute walk from Ben Thanh Market brings you to Hong Hac Hotel, a decent hotel that’s good for those on a budget. Or try Dragon Palace II Hotel, 500m from the Reunification Palace, which is also good value.
Safety in Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City is a safe place, certainly compared to other cities of its size. The biggest annoyances you might have is petty crime like pickpocketing, so avoid carrying large amounts of cash around with you and waving your fancy camera in people’s faces.
Be careful of carrying your phone in your hands, as it might get snatched, especially around the backpacker area of District 1.
There are some places you might want to avoid, especially at night. These include some of the parks – although visiting parks at night in any major city is always never a good idea. In Saigon, avoid Gia Dinh Park (Tan Binh District), 23rd September Park (District 1), Hoa Binh Park, Le Thi Rieng Park (District 10) and Phu Lam Park (District 6). These parks are hotspots for prostitution, drugs selling and robbery. Some homeless people also camp out in these areas.
The Nhieu Loc area along the Thi Nghe Canal is also a spot to skirt around. It is a polluted area of the canal and many working men come here to get trashed after they knock off. There are sometimes fights and rowdy crowds.
You want to be careful if you book any tours through a travel agent. Make sure you get a receipt and preferably go with a tour company that has already been reviewed online.
But by far, the biggest danger will be crossing the road. The traffic in Saigon is insanely crazy and you’ll see motorbikes coming every which way, with cars trying to squeeze in between. There are cross walks but they are ignored, so make sure you check each direction before you step out into the street.
If you begin walking, only go forward and do not step back. Stepping is very dangerous because you will be moving in a way that drivers can’t anticipate. Have faith and keep on your path of heading in a straight direction, and the traffic will hopefully skirt around you.
Taxis in Ho Chi Minh City
Speaking of traffic, you should be vigilant when you take a cab in Saigon.
All legitimate taxis are metered and don’t get into one that isn’t. Two of the most reputable companies are VinaSun and MaiLinh. Be very careful of knock off / copycat taxis though. These can have the same looking logos but instead of it saying VinaSun, it might say VinaSum.
How can you spot these drivers? Aside from the typos in the signs, sometimes they persistently yell at you to get in their taxi. The good taxi drivers don’t hassle tourists, and so the quiet ones are more likely to be legit. Also, if you get into a taxi and they don’t turn on the meter, get out immediately, as this is not likely to be a legal taxi.
One of the best ways to get a taxi is to have a designated taxi representative flag one down for you. These can be found out the front of most hotels and apartment complexes. They will give you a ticket with the registration of the taxi written on it, so you can complain to a hotline if you have a problem.
When arriving at the airport, ignore the drivers yelling at you at the exit and instead go for a metered taxi. These will be a lot more affordable and will help you avoid getting ripped off.
Always have your destination written down, as Vietnamese is a tonal (read: difficult) language to speak, so your driver might have a hard time understanding you if you don’t have your address written down.
Scooters in Ho Chi Minh City
There’s no doubting it – Saigon is one of the craziest places for scooter traffic in the world. Just check out this video to get an idea. You certainly ride a scooter at your own risk here. We didn’t take the chance. Even after driving scooters in Bali, where the traffic can certainly be hectic, the traffic in Saigon was just too intense for us.
Scooter hire is affordable though, if you do plan on being adventurous. It costs as little as US$50 to hire one for the month, and daily rates range from about 150,000 to 300,000 VND for an automatic scooter. Make sure you ask at multiple outlets (the majority are found around the Pham Ngu Lao backpacker area) to get the best deal.
Our research has found that Chi’s Café on Bui Vien is a recommended place to rent with well-maintained bikes and an English-speaking staff.
Before you take the risk though, make sure your insurance covers you in the event of an accident. Also insure you have the right license to drive a scooter in Saigon, so you don’t end up having to bribe a policeman.
And there you have it – my rough guide to Ho Chi Minh City! Do you have any tips to add? Or any questions? Write your thoughts in the comments below!
By Carmen Allan-Petale
Carmen is one half of the couple behind Double-Barrelled Travel, a travel blog focused on vlogging. Carmen married Dave two years ago and they quit their journalism careers in mid-2013 for a life on the road.