First Time in Ho Chi Minh City – Detailed Saigon Travel Guide
Ho Chi Minh City, commonly known as Saigon, is the largest and most vibrant city in Vietnam. As the country’s economic and cultural hub, it’s a fascinating destination for first-time visitors. This comprehensive guide covers everything you need to know for an unforgettable trip to Saigon.
General Info about Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is located in southern Vietnam, about 1,760 km from the capital Hanoi. With over 13 million inhabitants, it’s the most populous city in the country.
The city has a rich history, serving as the capital of French Indochina in the late 19th century. After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, Saigon was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the revolutionary leader. However, locals still commonly refer to it as Saigon.
The city is divided into 24 districts, with District 1 being the central business and backpacker district. Other major districts for tourists include District 3, 5 and 10.
Vietnamese and English are the most widely spoken languages in HCMC. The local currency is the Vietnamese dong (VND), and US dollars are also widely accepted.
Saigon is hot and humid year-round, with an average temperature of 28°C (82°F). The wet season runs from May to November, while the dry season is from December to April. The hottest months are March and April.
How to Apply for an E-visa to Vietnam
Visitors from many countries can get an e-visa to enter Vietnam. This can be done easily online in just a few simple steps:
- Go to the official Vietnam E-visa website and select your nationality.
- Fill in the online application form with your details. Make sure all information is accurate.
- Upload a scanned copy of your passport photo page. The passport must be valid for at least 6 months from your arrival date.
- Pay the visa fee by credit card. The single-entry e-visa fee is $25 USD.
- Check your email for visa approval letter sent within 3-5 working days. Print it out to present on arrival.
The Vietnamese e-visa is valid for 90 days from the date of issue and allows a multiple entry.
How to Get to Ho Chi Minh City
There are several convenient options to travel to Ho Chi Minh City:
- Tan Son Nhat International Airport (SGN) is located just 7km from the city center. It serves both international and domestic flights.
- Major airlines flying into HCMC include Vietnam Airlines, VietJet Air, AirAsia, Emirates, Singapore Airlines, and Qatar Airways.
- Flights from Hanoi take about 2 hours, from Da Nang 1.5 hours, and from Phu Quoc 1 hour.
- Airport taxis into District 1 cost about VND 200,000 and take 20 minutes.
- Long distance buses arrive at the main Mien Dong Bus Station, about 10km from downtown.
- Open-tour buses like Sinhcafe, The SinhTourist and Vietnam Backpacker Tours offer popular hop-on, hop-off services from Hanoi, Da Nang, etc.
- Buses take around 33 hours from Hanoi and 14 hours from Da Nang.
- Saigon Railway Station is situated in District 3, within walking distance of backpacker accommodation.
- There are several overnight trains connecting HCMC with destinations like Nha Trang, Da Nang, Hue, and Hanoi.
- The Reunification Express train takes around 30 hours from Hanoi. Purchase tickets in advance if possible.
- Hydrofoils and ferries to the Mekong Delta depart from Bach Dang Pier in District 1. This is a good option for visiting places like Can Tho, Ben Tre, etc.
Grab a SIM Card When You Arrive
Getting a local Vietnamese SIM card will make your life much easier for staying connected in Ho Chi Minh City:
- SIM cards are available at phone shops and convenience stores at the airport arrivals hall.
- Top providers include Vinaphone, Mobifone, and Vietnamobile. A prepaid SIM costs around 100,000 VND.
- Show your passport to register the SIM card in your name as required by law.
- Data packages are very affordable – around VND 100,000 for up to 10GB of 4G data.
- Having a local SIM also provides a Vietnam phone number, useful for booking taxis, food delivery, etc.
- Alternatively, get a pocket Wifi router to connect multiple devices like laptops and tablets. Some hotels provide these too.
- It’s best to get the SIM card right upon arrival at the airport to have connectivity straight away in Saigon.
Getting a Vietnam SIM is quick, convenient and super cheap. The fast 4G LTE network covers most parts of the Ho Chi Minh City.
Where to Exchange Currency
The Vietnamese dong (VND) is the official currency used in Vietnam. Here are tips for exchanging money in Ho Chi Minh City:
- US dollars are widely accepted around Saigon, especially in tourist areas. However, you’ll get better rates paying in VND.
- Avoid exchanging money at the airport, as rates are very poor.
- There are money exchanges and ATMs throughout the city offering fair exchange rates.
- Major banks like Vietcombank, Techcombank, and DongA Bank have reliable ATMs and currency exchange counters.
- Your home bank card can be used to withdraw VND from ATMs linked to global networks like Cirrus, Plus, or Mastercard/Visa. Check for withdrawal fees.
- Some recommended money exchanges are on Le Loi and Nguyen Hue street in District 1.
- Always count your money carefully when exchanging currency. Check for any torn or damaged notes.
- Compare rates between a few places to get the best deal. Ask if commission is charged.
- Only exchange money at reputable registered money changers for safety. Avoid shady people on the street.
For the most favorable rates and convenience, withdrawing VND from an ATM using your debit card is recommended in Saigon. Carry some USD cash as backup.
How to Get Around in Saigon
As a busy metropolis, Ho Chi Minh City offers several convenient transportation options for getting around:
- Taxis are plentiful in Saigon but ensure they run the meter properly. Vinasun and Mai Linh taxis are most reliable.
- Grab is the top ride-hailing app, offering fixed lower prices than taxis. Uber also operates in Vietnam.
- Negotiate the fare before trips without meters to avoid overcharging. Expect to pay VND 15,000-20,000 per km.
- Ask your hotel or restaurant to call a taxi for added security at night.
By Motorbike Taxi:
- Xe Om (motorbike taxis) are great for zipping through heavy traffic. Agree on a price before your ride.
- Standard fares are about VND10,000-15,000 per km, more at night or for long distances.
- Always wear a helmet for safety. Women should use modest clothing while riding.
- Local buses are very affordable but often overcrowded and confusing. Routes are labelled only in Vietnamese.
- Useful bus lines from District 1 are the: 1 to Ben Thanh Market, 2 to Cholon bus station, and 152 to the airport.
- Pay the fare in cash (VND 7,000-9,000) when getting on bus.
- Traditional cyclo pedicabs offer leisurely rides through chaotic Saigon streets. Fares are negotiable, around VND 100,000-200,000 per hour.
- Best for short distances as drivers can tire. Focus on main attractions like Notre Dame Cathedral, Reunification Palace, etc.
Getting around Saigon is half the fun! Taxis, Grab, and xe om are most recommended for convenient transport.
Ho Chi Minh City Weather
Ho Chi Minh City enjoys a tropical savanna climate all year round. Here’s what to expect:
- Average year-round temperature is around 28°C (82°F).
- There are two main seasons – wet season from May to November, and dry season from December to April.
- The wet season sees hot, humid weather with average highs of 33°C (91°F) and frequent heavy downpours.
- The dry season has lower humidity and slightly cooler average temperatures of 26°C (79°F).
- The hottest period falls in March to May before the monsoon rains, with highs peaking around 35°C (95°F).
- December to February are the most pleasant months with lower heat. Light jackets may be needed for cool evenings around 20°C (68°F).
- Sunshine is abundant year-round though partly reduced in wetter months. Bring sun protection.
- Tropical storms and typhoons rarely hit Saigon directly but the outer bands can bring very heavy rain.
- Humidity is high across the year ranging from 60% to 90%.
Pack lightweight clothing suitable for hot tropical conditions all year round. Umbrellas and rain jackets are necessities during the wet season.
Best Time to Visit Ho Chi Minh City
With warm weather year-round, Ho Chi Minh City offers a great city escape anytime. However the best time to visit Saigon depends on your preferences:
Dry Season (December to April)
- Pleasantly cooler and drier weather, especially December to February.
- Christmas and New Year are lively with festive decorations everywhere.
- Peak tourism season means higher prices and crowds at major sights.
- Book accommodation well in advance for Tet (Vietnamese New Year) in January/February.
Wet Season (May to November)
- July to November see the heaviest monsoon rains. Bring umbrellas.
- Lower tourist numbers, hotel rates, and airfares make this budget-friendly.
- High heat and humidity from March to May with temperatures near 35°C.
- September and October are shoulder months with fewer downpours.
Key Festivals and Events
- Tet Festival in January/February with fireworks and decorations.
- Independence Day on April 30th has street celebrations.
- Mid-Autumn Festival in September/October with lion dances and mooncakes.
Anytime is a good time to visit Saigon! Go during cooler dry months for best weather but prepare for crowds. The wet season offers great value.
Best Areas to Stay in Saigon
With so many accommodation options” here are the top neighborhoods for visitors:
District 1 – The bustling heart of Saigon housing most attractions. Great classic colonial architecture and atmosphere. Convenient walking access around the district. Highest concentration of hotels, eateries, and nightlife. Can get very touristy.
District 3 – Adjacent to District 1 but offers a more local vibe with cheaper food and lodging. Lots of local shops, markets, and street eats. Good budget hotel deals and a base to experience authentic Saigon.
Pham Ngu Lao – Located in District 1, it’s known as the “backpacker district” crammed with guesthouses, travel agencies, and cheap eateries. Convenient but very touristy and noisy. Home to many expat residents too.
District 2 – The expat enclave with upmarket condos, international schools, and modern malls. Far from main attractions but offers a quieter setting.
Da Kao, District 1 – Historic colonial quarter with iconic French villas and buildings. Farther from downtown but great character accommodations.
For first-timers, District 1 offers convenience to key sights while District 3 provides an affordable local immersion. Decide your budget and preferences.
Things to Do in Ho Chi Minh City
With its buzzing energy” French colonial landmarks, and Vietnamese culture, there are endless possibilities to fill your Saigon itinerary:
Wander Around District 1 – Soak in the local scenes along busy Nguyen Hue and Dong Khoi lined with designer stores, cafes, and historic buildings. Don’t miss Saigon Central Post Office.
Visit War Remnants Museum – Provocative galleries showing Vietnam War’s impact through photographs and artifacts. Grounds also contain military equipment.
Tour Reunification Palace – Iconic 1960s building where the Vietnam War concluded in 1975 after tank No.843 crashed its gates.
Stroll Ben Thanh Market – Immense bazaar selling everything from souvenirs to clothes, food, and more. Bustling spot to practice your bargaining skills.
Day trip to Cu Chi Tunnels – Go underground to explore the over 200km network of tunnels used by Viet Cong soldiers during the war.
Take a food tour – Fun way to try local dishes like pho noodle soup, banh mi sandwiches, Vietnamese coffee and more with a local guide.
Visit Jade Emperor Pagoda – Gorgeous Chinese temple adorned with ornate carvings, incense smoke and statues.
Don’t miss seeing the War Remnants Museum, Reunification Palace, Ben Thanh Market and other top attractions to understand Saigon’s captivating history.
Where to Eat in Ho Chi Minh City
Renowned for its mouthwatering cuisine, Ho Chi Minh City offers limitless choices from Michelin-starred restaurants to tasty local street food. Here are top spots to delight your taste buds:
Local street food – For the best authentic Vietnamese food, join the crowds on plastic stools at local street food carts and stalls. Favorites are pho, banh mi, and Vietnamese coffee.
Ben Thanh Street Food Market – Located near Ben Thanh Market, its a hive of food stalls serving pho, banh xeo pancakes, seafood and more in a clean air-conditioned hall. Open until midnight.
Nha Hang Ngon – Upscale restaurant with mini street-stalls indoors whipping up classic Vietnamese cuisine. Great ambiance and service.
Cuc Gach Quan – Charming venue in a French villa serving creative Vietnamese dishes at affordable prices. Extensive vegetarian options too.
The Secret Garden – Romantic garden restaurant in District 1’s bustling Pham Ngu Lao area. Serves tasty Italian cuisine by candlelight.
Au Parc – Open-air but upscale French restaurant with Parisian vibe, located across from the Saigon Opera House. Superb duck breast magret!
Quan Bui – Hole-in-the-wall eatery famous for ‘Obama Com Thang’ or noodles with grilled pork – a favorite of former US president Obama.
Don’t leave without eating authentic local dishes like pho, Vietnamese pancakes, spring rolls, and French baguettes. Food tours are also a fun way to taste Saigon’s vibrant culinary scene.
Day Trips from Saigon
Escape the city buzz to explore more of southern Vietnam via these popular easy day trips from Ho Chi Minh City:
Mekong Delta – Float along lush tropical canals visiting fruit orchards and honeybee farms. Cai Be and Can Tho are main hubs.
Cu Chi Tunnels – Trek through the amazing 200km underground tunnel network used by Viet Cong fighters during the Vietnam War.
Cao Dai Temple – Attend the intriguing midday prayer service held by followers dressed in colorful robes. The temple architecture is also impressive.
Vung Tau Beach – Relax on the golden sandy beaches and enjoy fresh seafood. Take a boat trip to Con Dao islands for more beaches, diving, and hiking.
My Tho – Cruise the Mekong River to visit local cottage industries making coconut candy, rice paper, fried fish, etc. Ride Xe Loi miniature sampans.
Tay Ninh – Discover the unique Cao Dai religion, fusing Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism at the Great Temple. See the noon prayer service.
Don’t limit yourself to Saigon proper! Get out of the city to explore temples, Cu Chi tunnels, Mekong Delta floating markets and more.
How Many Days to Stay / Ho Chi Minh City Itinerary
Ho Chi Minh City deserves at least 3-5 days to experience its top sights. Here is a suggested one week itinerary:
Day 1 – Arrive and check-in. Grab a local SIM card and currency. Walk around central District 1 to get your bearings. Enjoy the night markets.
Day 2 – See the War Remnants Museum and Reunification Palace. Shop at Ben Thanh Market. Have dinner and drinks at a rooftop bar.
Day 3 – Take a full-day Cu Chi Tunnels and Cao Dai Temples tour. Marvel at the tunnel network and witness the prayer service.
Day 4 – Go on a street food walking tour in the morning. Visit key landmarks like Notre Dame Cathedral, Central Post Office, and Opera House.
Day 5 – Explore Chinatown Cholon’s markets, temples and authentic Chinese atmosphere. Eat dim sum or pho.
Days 6/7 – Choose from day trips to Mekong Delta, My Tho, Vung Tau beaches or the Cu Chi Tunnels again depending on your interests. Go back to favorite Saigon districts and eateries.
This allows time to see the top attractions and also take a couple day trips beyond the city. Extend your stay to explore nearby Mekong towns.
Ho Chi Minh City is an easy place to travel, especially for first-timers. Here are some key tips:
- Plan sightseeing for the morning or late afternoon to avoid the midday heat and crowds.
- Drink only bottled water to stay hydrated in the tropical climate. Coffee is also popular and very good!
- Cross the streets carefully as traffic is chaotic. Follow locals and walk slowly across.
- Get a local SIM card for affordable data access and a handy Vietnam phone number.
- Always negotiate taxi fares before getting in or use Grab/Uber. Similarly, agree on motorbike taxi pricing upfront.
- Pack lightweight, breathable clothing. Dress respectfully covering shoulders and knees when visiting temples.
- Carry small change for entrance tickets, street food, buses, etc since vendors may not have change for big bills.
- Avoid political or war discussions with locals. Not all past wounds have fully healed.
- Check visa requirements in advance as rules can change. Many travelers can get a visa on arrival.
- floating markets and more.
Enjoy the highlights of Saigon like French architecture, war history, tasty street food, and Vietnamese culture. With some preparation, you’ll find the city easy to navigate and the locals very friendly. Just go with the flow!
An exhilarating metropolis that beautifully fuses its French colonial past with vibrant Vietnamese culture, Ho Chi Minh City offers a sensational experience for first-timers. Spend time wandering lively District 1, understanding poignant war history, indulging in local cuisine, and getting a glimpse of daily life far from the tourist trail. By following the tips in this guide, you’ll be well prepared to make the most out of your Saigon adventures!