Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city in Vietnam and the unofficial business capital. If you love chaotic cities with a buzz and want to visit a city that is transforming into a modern Asian metropolis then this is the place to be.
I’ve put together some notes on the city and linked to other useful resources.
Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City?
Saigon was the name adopted after the French conquest in the 1860’s, and it was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the North Vietnamese took over the South in 1975. While the city name is officially Ho Chi Minh City many people still call it Saigon, especially when referring to District 1. There are banks, beers, and businesses with Saigon in its name, and no one will admonish you for saying Saigon.
[The main train station with the “Sai Gon” sign still intact.]
Ho Chi Minh City is 10 degrees north of the equator and 19 metres above sea level, which means it’s hot all year round. This is the tropics, so there is no point complaining about the heat. There are two seasons: wet season and dry season, so you can forget about summer and winter. It never gets cold here, though you may here some locals remark that a 20c/70f night is a bit chilly.
Rainy season usually involves an hour or so of rain a day (and not every day) so it’s not as bad as it sounds. In the dry season it can go months without rain, and by the end of the season (march and april) is when it is hottest. And how hot is that?
[Coming in to land at Tan Son Nhat International Airport.]
Ho Chi Minh City is served by Tan Son Nhat International Airport (IATA: SGN), which is the largest airport in Vietnam. The airport is 6 km from District 1 so it is relatively close compared to other big cities. It is a small airport for a city this size and there are plans to build a massive regional hub airport 40km north of the city.
There are direct flights to Australia, the US, and Europe, and the big Middle East airlines fly here as well. There isn’t a low cost airline hub though so flights within ASEAN aren’t as frequent as in Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur.
There are no trains or transfer buses so taxi is the easiest way to get from the airport. Upon arrival go to the taxi rank and look for a Vinasun or Mailinh taxi representative. They are the most reputable taxi companies and you shouldn’t have any difficulties with them.
A taxi to downtown District 1 will cost around 120,000 to 150,000 VND, and there is a 10,000 VND airport departure fee added at the end. Tipping isn’t expected here but if you round up to the nearest 10,000 that is fine.
I have heard some horror stories of people being ripped off in the airport, usually from the other taxi companies that catch out people who are brand new to the country and not familiar with the currency with so many 000’s.
If you don’t want to expend mental energy worrying about getting ripped off there is a prepaid taxi stand, which is in a private car and costs $12 USD (about 220,000 VND).
You can use Grab to get a Motorbike taxis.
Getting Around the city
Ho Chi Minh City has a population of over 7 million people and sometimes it seems there are just as many motorbikes. In all of my travels I have never seen a city with so many bikes. While the traffic seems overwhelming when you first see it, there is a method to the madness and the traffic flows reasonably fast, even in peak hour. You can hire a bike for around $50 a month.
And not to put you off riding, watch this mesmerising video of traffic in Ho Chi Minh City.
As mentioned in the airport guide, Mailinh and Vinasun are the most reputable taxi options. I have caught other taxis and haven’t had a problem, but I know where I am going and insist on the meter.
With Vinasun and Mailinh I have never had a situation where I have had to insist on using the meter, but as with taxi’s in any country make sure the meter has restarted once you get inside. If you don’t know Vietnamese it is best to write the address on a piece of paper. Vietnamese is a tonal language so when we see the street name Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai and pronounce it in English without the tones, it doesn’t sound like it should to a native Vietnamese speaker.
A xe om (which means hug the rider in Vietnamese) are the motorcycle taxi drivers that can be found on just about every street corner, usually laying on the back of their moto in the most precarious fashion. They will usually find you before you find them but if not just walk to a corner until you find one. Price is by negotiation and the general rule of thumb is that a moto will be 50-60% of the price of a taxi. If you are new in town this is obviously of no help but once you have taken a few taxi rides you can get an idea of what your regular route will cost.
There is no metro train service but there is one being built now. 3 lines are under construction with more planned in the years ahead. I suspect the expected completion dates will continually change so don’t hold your breath waiting for this. Keep track of the progress via the Wiki page.
The public bus system has over 150 routes throughout the city. You will see these bright green buses (and hear the noisy turning signals) on the main roads. If you are living in District 1 you won’t have any need for them, especially as taxis are relatively cheap. They are a cheap way to get to the outer districts if you know where you are going.
Despite the chaos on the streets, Ho Chi Minh City is a very walkable city if you live in District 1. The streets are laid out in a grid and are lined with beautiful old trees (a legacy of the French colonial days). The footpaths are wide enough as well (though there are always bikes parked on the footpaths).
Crossing the road is an artform in itself as well. If you wait for a break in the traffic you will never cross the street, so you just have to start walking into traffic, even when it is like this. I started off by walking next to locals who were crossing the street until I eventually got the hang of it myself. Basically you walk slowly, without stopping or making any sudden movements, and the traffic will part around you.
Where to stay
[Bui Vien – the main street in the backpacker area of Saigon.]
Ho Chi Minh City is divided up into 24 districts but for visitors it’s easiest to find a place to stay in District 1. Read this post for where to stay in Ho Chi Minh City.
Search for Ho Chi Minh City hotels here.
[Scooters at Ben Thanh Market.]
Ho Chi Minh City Travel Guide – Travelfish have loads of great articles on what to do so refer to this index page to find things to do and see (and eat).
Oi Vietnam – A free magazine that can be found in selected locations or downloaded online. Features current events and feature stories.
Ho Chi Minh City travel guide – Rusty Compass independent travel guide to Ho Chi Minh City.
Saigoneer – A magazine blog with regular updates and news and pop culture relating to Saigon. Features reviews on restaurants and night life, events, history, and things to do.
Historic Vietnam – Tim Doling writes about the history of Saigon, including the historic buildings which are fast disappearing.
Ho Chi Minh City Blogs
Hello Saigon! – A prolific blogger chronicling life in Saigon as a new resident.
Saigonist – An expat writing about living and traveling in Saigon with a slant towards technology and entrepreneurship.
Blog Posts About Ho Chi Minh City
The changing face of Saigon – 2017 edition – Revisiting the 2015 post with updates on metro construction and building projects.
The changing face of Saigon – Written in 2015, this post documents the many changes happening in the city.
Notes on Ho Chi Minh City – things I love about life in Saigon – My notes on living in HCMC.
Iconic Saigon war photo locations revisited – I went wandering around Saigon looking for the locations of famous Vietnam war photos.
Cost of living Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City for $724 a month – My cost of living breakdown from 2012.
Why I Love Saigon – Jodi from Legal Nomads
Why I am living in Saigon, Vietnam – By David Hehenberger.
The high stakes poker scam – I have heard about this scam and Eric Miller gives an entertaining summary of how he got caught up in it.
When it comes to food, Vietnamese is one of the best cuisines in Asia and even though the city is modernising at a rapid pace street food culture is still an integral part of life. You can still find a bowl of noodles for 20,000 VND (about $1), or a banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich) for 12,000 VND (about 60 cents). And with Saigon being the biggest city in Vietnam, food from all regions of the country are represented here.
For those who have tired of Vietnamese there are plenty of international options. Japanese is probably the best represented international food, but there are lots of western options such as pizza and steakhouses, along with the familiar fast food chains (Pizza Hut, KFC, and McDonalds).
Viet Street Food – Blog of a foodie based in Saigon.
The Legal Nomads Guide to Saigon Street Food – This post will keep you in good food for a month.
Saigon Vegetarian – Vietnam can be a challenge if you are vegetarian but there are plenty of options available.
Halal food guide – Good place to find Indian food for when you want a day off from eating Vietnamese.
Saigon and Cholon Heritage Tours – Tim from Historic Vietnam offers tours of French colonial Saigon and Cholon (the large Chinatown district of HCMC).
Why Location Independent Entrepreneurs Love Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam – Dan at TropicalMBA has spent a lot of time in the city and dedicated a podcast episode to the city.
The Saigon city skyline as viewed from an apartment tower in District 5, looking towards the office towers of District 1. The big concrete block that stands out in the middle of the photo is 727 Tran Hung Dao, which is said to be haunted. Looking at it from this viewpoint I wouldn’t say it wasn’t.
This building was built in 1960 and was home to hundreds of American soldiers. It is now abandoned is due to be demolished.
Ho Chi Minh City Photo Gallery – My photo gallery featuring over 800 photos.
Old Saigon Photo Albums – tommy japan has compiled hundreds of photo albums on Flickr of old photos from Saigon, including lots of war photos.