So, I’d covered Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. Next was a brief few days in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, also known fondly by its previous name, Saigon. I only spent a few days in the city, so here is my Ho Chi Minh City travel advice and budget planning for a brief visit.
This was my second trip to Vietnam, having visited Hanoi and explored Ha Long Bay back in 2013. I’d heard great things about Saigon, so even though I’d experienced some of Vietnam before, I didn’t want to leave it off my Southeast Asia backpacking trip.
From my visit to the capital and with two weeks of Cambodia behind me, I had some idea of what to expect once I’d hopped over the border. But, as ever, I was wrong!
Saigon is the complete opposite of Hanoi. Whereas Hanoi felt small, quiet and – I hate to say it – poor, Saigon was a bustling global city complete with roaring traffic, skyscrapers and a thoroughly international vibe.
My Itinerary: I only spent a few days in Saigon, including a visit to the Mekong Delta in the south of Vietnam. I arrived by bus from Phnom Penh, which was a hassle-free experience, though obviously a long journey.
Disclaimers: Prices listed below are in Vietnamese dong and US dollars. During my visit in November 2016, the exchange rate was around 20,000d to US$1. Yes, you read that correctly. As in many places in Southeast Asia, haggling in common, so prices are often negotiable.
Before you go
Visa: Back in 2013, I needed to apply for a visa to visit Vietnam with my British passport, though now the rules have changed to include a 30-day visa exemption. However, there is a one-entry only condition; you can’t leave and come back again on the same visa.
Needless to say, always check before you go as to whether you need a visa, as the rules are constantly changing. I also think it’s good practice to travel with some US dollars and a couple of passport-sized photos in Southeast Asia, just in case.
Vaccinations: I got vaccinations for diphtheria, polio, tetanus, hepatitis A and typhoid, which were recommended for most places in Southeast Asia as well as Vietnam. For a full list of what is recommended, check the NHS website. There are no high-risk malarial zones in Vietnam, so no malaria tablets are needed, though stock up on bug spray because you will get bitten!
Insurance: I was insured on the Explorer plan (worldwide) with World Nomads, as they are the only insurers I know of that will cover you when you’re already overseas, which I was at the time. The plan cost £176.23 (US$215) for two months. There is a slightly cheaper plan available, but it doesn’t cover very much.
Money: I’m a millionaire in Vietnamese dong and you probably are too! I exchanged currency in a travel agency near where my bus dropped me off, by September 23 Park. Some places do accept US dollars in payment, such as hostels, but the exchange rate is usually higher than standard, especially if it’s a tuk-tuk ride.
Awareness and Safety: I felt very safe in Saigon. There are so many tourists and the city is always so busy that I never felt uncomfortable, even walking alone at night. Of course, as a solo female traveller, I am always extra cautious; I hold my bag close and I use a backpack with a padlock. Bag snatching and pick pocketing has been known to happen, as it does in most touristy places, so be careful.
Long Bus Journeys: Though I didn’t travel up or down Vietnam, I did arrive by bus through a company called Giant Ibis, which I greatly recommend. The journey from Phnom Penh cost US$19, which includes hostel pick up. Tickets can be bought in advance on their website.
Accommodation: US$4 per night at Saigon Friends Hostel (three nights). This hostel had a superb location, literally across the park from where the bus dropped us off and central to everything. However, it has a bit of a funny smell and I did not enjoy the bathrooms.
Also, I stayed in the six-bed female dorm, which was fine, but those staying across the hall were in an 18-bed dorm with three-tiered bunk beds. You have been warned.
Meals: Vietnamese food is incredible and it’s hard to go wrong. Be sure to pick up some banh mi from a street food vendor (US$1 or less), try some pho, cold vermicelli noodles, fresh spring rolls or salads, and Vietnamese drip coffee. It’s hard to go wrong, everything is so cheap.
The most expensive meal I had in Saigon cost US$6 for two courses and a drink. However, the tastiest meal I had was soup noodles with pork from a vendor the hostel staff recommended, which cost a measly 15d (US0.75).
Transport: I literally walked everywhere in Saigon, as I loved walking around the streets and getting a feel for the different areas. However, the city is big and be warned that your feet will ache at the end of the day! Also, be very aware that scooters also use the pavements, so watch out for traffic even when you’re on the sidewalk.
Café culture: Like Laos, the former French influence has left it’s mark in Saigon, which includes a big café culture. Coffee costs 50d (US$1.5) or less, depending on whether you’re in a cafe or buying from a vendor.
What to see: The HCM Museum (15d)is a great introduction to the city. The War Museum (15d) has some exhibitions that may be unsettling for some, but it’s an important place to visit and gives much-needed context to Ho Chi Minh City. The Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica is also an iconic landmark worth a look and may just convince you for a moment that you’re in Europe.
My favourite museum in Saigon is the Independence Palace, also called the Reunification Palace (30d). It was the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam up until the end of the Vietnam War, when tanks rammed into the gates and the building was seized. It’s strangely kept in pristine condition, complete with 1970s decor, which makes the palace seem trapped in time.
Don’t miss: sending a postcard at the Saigon Central Post Office. Over a hundred years old, the interior hasn’t changed since it opened, including maps of Indochina’s telegram lines.
There are loads of tours for the Catacombs and the Mekong Delta, which can be booked through hostels and the many tour and travel agencies around the September 23 Park.
However, I highly recommend shopping around and pushing for tour details and reviews to avoid repeating my own experience. I booked a tour through my hostel to visit the Mekong Delta and it was horrendous. I didn’t really see anything on the tour I took, just places that newly built and made especially for the tour.
A good tour of the Mekong Delta should leave very early in the morning so that you can see the floating markets.
Ho Chi Minh City Travel Advice & Budget Planning
I loved Saigon and actually enjoyed the city much more than I enjoyed Hanoi. The food is amazing, the people are lovely and the city is buzzing. I can see why so many expats choose to live there.
Vietnam is also one of the cheapest places in Southeast Asia, which takes some beating! I didn’t really spend more than US$15 per day, not including accommodation. You could push for less or push the boat out and budget for more. Your dong will go a long way (sorry, couldn’t resist at least one dong joke).
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