Recently, a friend who is planning a trip to Southeast Asia asked me if I had any advice for Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Having lived there for a little under a year teaching English, had my opinions and figured I should share the info with all of you as well.
Before you Go
Vietnam does require a visa before entering the country. I got mine at the Vietnamese Embassy in Bangkok before heading to Ho Chi Minh City, it was cheap and only took 24-48 hours. You can also get one from a Consulate in the U.S., either in person or by mail, and it generally takes 5 business days to process the visa application and then a few more days to be returned in the mail.
Vietnam does not have “visas on arrival” but they do have “pre-arranged Visas.” Major tour agents are now able to offer pre-arranged visas you can pick up when you arrive at the airport. The agent will fax applicants an invitation letter which needs to be presented to immigration upon arrival.
For more information on Vietnamese Visas:
Ho Chi Minh City
I highly recommend staying in District 1, it’s the most centralized district in walking distance to all the main sights. This area, especially on the streets of Bui Vien and Pham Ngu Lao, offer tons of hostels and hotels, most for $10/night or less. My favorite site for finding a cheap room is hostelworld.com.
Food & Drinks
- Phở or pho is a Vietnamese noodle soup consisting of broth, linguine-shaped rice noodles called bánh phở, a few herbs, and meat, primarily served with either beef or chicken. (also best hangover food)
The best pho in all of Ho Chi Minh is Pho Quynh, 323 Ð Pham Ngu Lao
- There are tons of vendors selling various types of street food, including fresh fruit smoothies. The best smoothie place is on Bui Vien, located on a side alley way. Make sure to add mangosteen to your smoothie
Five Boys Number One, 84 Bui Vien Street, Pham Ngu Lao Ward, District 1, Ho Chi Minh
Bobby Brewers on Bui Vien has American food and Vietnamese food. But the cool thing about this place is they show free movies upstairs if you need a break from the hot sun or afternoon showers. It also has free wifi
Cheap Drinks: the cheapest drinks in all of Ho Chi Minh are on Bui Vien. At night, this tourist street turns into backpacker heaven as all the stores put out little plastic stools along the street and you can buy a beer for the U.S. equivalent of 12 cents. However, DO NOT drink liquor from these places, only bottle beer that was sealed. When I was living there, a couple tourists died because some of these cheap places started mixing their drinks with methanol instead of ethanol to save a few bucks.
- Also, be very careful while hanging out on Bui Vien, it’s notorious for pickpocketing and petty theft. I was robbed twice on this street while living in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City, but all the people who live there still refer to it as Saigon). There is a “motorbike mafia” that will zoom by, wearing masks, and yank purses off women’s shoulders, etc. I even saw a guy take out his phone to take a photo and a motorbike came from out of nowhere and snatched it straight of his hand! Only keep a few essentials on you, and never take your passport while going out in Saigon, it’s such a pain to replace while abroad.
Bui Vien – best place to pre-game, as drinks are 12 cents. There are also a number of real bars located on the street, besides the curb-side bars with plastic stools, such as the Crazy Buffalo and Go2 Bar but you’ll be able to spot them easily.
Emergency Room – a bar that most tourists don’t know about, but it’s modern, not too expensive and the owners are Australian, so it’s safe to drink the liquor here. It also has a pool table upstairs but the main drawl to this place is that all the servers where slutty nurse outfits lol. Could be fun to check it out, it’s also entertaining/sad to see all the creepy old western men that go in hopes of satisfying their weird Asian fetish and finding a “mail order bride”
Pasteur, Bến Nghé, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Lush – the most cosmopolitan of all Saigon night clubs, plays all kinds of music and is definitely a dance club. It’s pricey for Vietnam standards but it’s usually packed, especially on Tuesdays since it’s ladies night, and girls drink free until midnight. If you go here, I would dress up a little, not too much but more than flip flops and a tank top. Popular with tourists, expats and upper class locals
2 Ly Tu Trong, District 1
Apocalypse Now – Saigon’s oldest club, can either be a hit or miss depending on the night, but usually popular among backpackers as it’s mentioned in most travel books
28 Thi Sach, District1
Broma – chill bar, popular with tourist and expats, some locals. Has a cool rooftop bar to hang out at.
41 Nguyễn Huệ, Bến Nghé, Hồ Chí Minh, District 1
Nice Rooftop Bars – most of the nice hotels have some sort of rooftop bar either with a view of the Ho Chi Minh City skyline or Saigon River. Two of my favorites were at the Rex Hotel and Hotel Majestic. Although these places tend to be expensive, the views are worth it for at least one drink. But a must, is the bar on top of the Bitexco Tower, Vietnam’s version of the empire state building lol. Perfect place to go watch the sunset.
Go to a karaoke Bar – there seems to be a karaoke bar on every corner in Asia. However, it’s not the type of karaoke bar we’re used to in the States. Instead of having a stage in the middle of a bar, where drunk fools get up in front of everyone and sing, you rent a private room with a group of friends and each take turns singing a song. The Vietnamese tend to take it seriously, and sincerely try to sing well, which makes it that much more hilarious. (side note: each private room gets their own server who keeps the beer flowing) If you get a chance, befriend some locals and get them to take to a karaeoke bar, it’s a ridiculous experience you should witness.
Hang out in a café: Since Vietnam used to be a French Colony, it has a big café/bakery culture that has gained a lot of popularity in recent years. There seems to be a new one popping up everyday. So while you’re out sight-seeing, take a break and stop in a local coffee shop and get a Vietnamese coffee with ice!
War Remnants Museum – This is a Must! This museum, although completely biased, shows how awful the Vietnam War really was. There are graphic images of bomb victims, preserved fetuses in jars that show how Agent Orange completely deformed children, etc. There is no censorship and it’s really eye-opening.
Reunification Palace – Honestly, I found this to be extremely boring and if you’re on a time limit, I’d skip it.
Notre Dame Cathedral – a small-scale replica of the notre dame cathedral in Paris. It’s cool to see but I really recommend going at night. Although the church is closed in the evenings, young locals tend to gather there and hang out on the lawn in front. I used to grab a few beers, meet up with friends and pre-game there before going out. It’s a unique way to get a feel for the younger Vietnamese generation.
Binh Tanh Market – Another Must! The most famous market in Saigon, where you can buy almost anything you can think of. But be sure to bargain down the price, they always charge westerners double what they charge locals.
Pagodas – Saigon has a number of pagodas, but none that are particularly great. I’d just stop in if you happen to pass one while sight seeing.
The People’s Committee Building – I’d definitely swing by for a photo-op and get a pic of the big statue of Ho Chi Minh in the front. The building itself is gorgeous, but I’m pretty sure visitors aren’t allowed inside. This building is located right next to the Rex Hotel in a very upscale part of Saigon (they even have a louis Vuitton store in this neighborhood). It’s interesting to walk around in this area and see the contrasts of the rich and poor.
Must-do Day trips from Saigon
I’m usually not a fan of group tours, but since you only have a few days in Saigon, I highly recommend using them to get to some of the awesome destinations right outside the city. The main tourist street, Bui Vien, has tons of Travel Agent shops offering day trips to close-by destinations. They are fairly priced and sometimes include lunch. A big air-conditioned bus picks you up in the morning from a designated location and drops you off in the evening. It’s easy and hassel free
Cu Chi Tunnels – the small network of tunnels the Viet Cong used to hide out during the war. On these tours, they actually let you get down in the tunnels and crawl through them, such an awesome experience
Mekong River Delta – The Mekong is a sort of swamp land in southern Vietnam, but day trips from Saigon take you to the very beginning of this region and allow you travel down palm-lined canals in traditional wooden boats. Definitley worth it to check it out.
Tips and Advice
Getting around – The main form of transportation in Vietnam is by motorbike. Motorbike rentals are available for tourists although I really don’t recommend it. The driving is crazy in Saigon and accidents are extremely common (I’ve seen more dead bodies by living there than I would like to admit) It’s also unnecessary if you’re staying in district1 as most places are within a reasonable walking distance. Taxis and motorbike taxis are pretty cheap as well. However, if you are planning to go somewhere via taxi, ask the people at the front desk of your hotel to give you a ballpark estimate of how much it should cost to make sure the taxi drivers don’t rip you off (because even though most of the car taxis have meters, they may take an extra long route to run the meter up.)
And if you do use a motorbike taxi, check to see if there is a guard covering the hot pipe before jumping out. I have so many scars on my legs from that!
Crossing the road – one of the strangest things about Saigon is how to cross the street. Not all areas have working stop lights and there never seems to be a break in traffic, so if you sit there and wait for people to stop and let you pass, you’ll be on the same street corner for hours! In order to cross the road you need to literally walk out in front of on-coming traffic and keep moving slowly and the motorbikes will go around you. If you suddenly stop, it seems to throw them off and you are more likely to get hit. I know this sounds really strange but here’s a video link to help you understand
Dealing with the cops – The cops in Vietnam are completely corrupt and can be paid off for almost anything. You shouldn’t have any issues with them, especially if you don’t rent a motorbike. Most foreigners run into problems with the police when they rent motorbikes because the police will pull them over for bogus reasons and try to get money off them by threatening them with some ridiculous fine. However, should you run into an issue with them, you should pretend to speak another language besides English, whip out your high school Spanish or just straight up make one up. The cops in Saigon tend to know enough English to mess with you, but if they feel like you don’t understand, they will get tired and give up. Several of my fellow teachers used this trick and it really works.
Hope this helps! Enjoy your trip