When I told a couple of old friends that I am heading to Ho Chi Minh City, most of them are quite puzzled with my choice of destination. I mean, there are no fun theme parks, no beaches, and nothing much to see but streets that reflect closely to that of what we have in Manila. It’s an interesting choice, indeed, but I’ve heard great things about Vietnam, and it was one hell of a steal that I couldn’t just let go off (PHP 2,500 for a roundtrip ticket) so I decided to take it instead. Little did I know that this would be the jump off of my 12-day solo adventure as well as the beginning of an insatiable craving to see more countries. It was a mix of fate and luck that I ended up in this city, and I regret nothing.
Since this was my first out of the country flight, I’ve had a lot of worries: currency exchanges, budget, where to stay, what to do, and many other questions that were not easily answered online. While I was not afraid of traveling by myself, it definitely took me some researching to be confident on what I was about to do. I know that there are tons of available resources online, but I’ve created this guide for those people who are also facing the same dilemma — a weird sense of loss, and just being overwhelmed by the sheer number of articles that you have to read, just to understand how to navigate the bustling streets of Ho Chi Minh City. This is your one-stop guide for everything that you need to know for your trip to SGN.
Before leaving for Ho Chi Minh City
- Fly from NAIA: Direct flights are available daily (flight is approx. 2 hours 45 minutes)
- Fly from Clark or Cebu: No direct flight available; usually with one layover (SG or KL)
Tip: If you are on a budget, choose the red-eye flights to save more money. Just arrange a pick-up at the airport if you’re iffy on taking the public transport in the middle of the night.
Timezone: Ho Chi Minh City is one hour behind the Philippines.
VISA: As part of ASEAN, Filipinos are VISA-free in Vietnam if staying for less than 21 days.
Currency: Vietnamese Dong (1 USD = 22,716 VND as of this writing; check the current currency exchange here)
- If only traveling to Vietnam: Change your money to VND before leaving the country. As much as possible, avoid exchange in hotels and airports as the rates might be a little lower due to bigger fees.
- If going on a cross-country trip: Exchange your money from PHP to USD. When you get to the airport, you can exchange a small amount there before heading out in the city to look for a better deal. There are tons of money exchanges in Ben Thanh Market and Saigon Market that offer good rates.
- Other options: You can also opt to withdraw from the ATM but be mindful of the location of the machines. You can also use Credit Cards, but just like everywhere else, stay cautious.
- Accommodation: Depending on your preference, you can score a room for as low as $5/night.
- Food: You can get a full meal (with drinks and dessert) for as low as 80,000 VND (roughly $3)
- Tours: As low as $10 per tour
- Shopping: Ho Chi Minh City is famous for its overrun bags, which you could buy for $30~
- Coffee: A trip to Vietnam wouldn’t be complete without coffee. Order yours for as low as $1
- Transportation: This would ultimately depend on your destination and your preference. However, if you want to travel like a local, motorbike ride usually starts at around 12,000 VND ($0.50).
- If traveling for a longer period of time: Buy a local sim card on the airport. You can also have your roaming services activated, although this might be a little more expensive depending on your provider. Another option is to avail of pocket wifi services for the duration of your trip.
- If only stopping by for a couple of days: Believe it or not, most places in Vietnam has a wifi. Even the small cafes or hole-in-the-wall restaurants have it. Just be sure to ask nicely.
- Maps.me – Download maps and navigate the city even without internet connection.
- Grab – Book trips (just like in the Philippines) using this app. You can also avoid being scammed this way.
Accommodations in Ho Chi Minh City
During my trip, I’ve decided to stay in a hostel as I wanted to be able to meet more people along the way and also save some cash.
I stayed in Himalaya Phoenix Saigon Hostel, which is quite comfy and serves delicious (not to mention, free) breakfast. The staff there were also very nice and accommodating. It only cost me 16 USD (PHP 821.00) for a two-night stay. Such a sweet deal!
Tip: Make sure to compare deals from a variety of websites to check for promos and best prices. However, I usually prefer using Booking.com, though, as they give discounts when you used their platform after a certain period.
Things to Do
Sight Seeing in Ho Chi Minh City
During my trip, I’ve decided to take the touristic route and just see the famous sights in Ho Chi Minh City. As I’ve mentioned in my other post, I started the day with plans of doing the tour DIY-style but ended up renting a motorbike and getting scammed. It was a bittersweet experience, but something that I will always remember.
Anyway, here are some destinations that are worth seeing in the city:
- War Remnants Museum
- Independence Palace
- Jade Emperor Pagoda
- Museum of Vietnamese History
If walking isn’t your cup of tea, or if you’re not quite sure you can do a DIY tour, you can always ask your hostel for the available tour packages. Most often than not, this is available at the front desk of where you are staying. Additionally, you can also book discounted tours via Klook. They have several available tours that you can book online, with options for the pick-up and drop off in your hotel.
Visit the Cu Chi Tunnel
Yes, crawling in one of Cu Chi’s cramped tunnels is definitely one of the highlights of my trip. It was an eye-opening experience about the country’s past, as well as an adventurous challenge for myself.
Not Mekong Delta, but the Saigon River 😉
Cruise along the Mekong Delta
Mekong Delta is one of the top destinations when visiting Ho Chi Minh City. Aside from its scenic route, the river also holds a rich history and gives you a glimpse of the Vietnamese culture. I have not gone through the tour, but from what I heard, it’s pretty amazing. From a luxurious cruise to the usual day trips, there is quite a lot of options on ways to see Mekong Delta.
Buy Local Goods
…Or just go crazy and shop ’til you drop! Visit Ben Thanh Market and Saigon Market for extremely affordable goods. And yes, this is where you’ll find those famous Vietnamese bags (a.k.a. extremely cheap Northface overruns). You can also score your family’s (and even extended family’s) pasalubong in the markets for a very low price.
Hit the Streets for Good Food
Don’t be afraid to go to the streets and roam around to look for food. Sometimes, the hole-in-the-walls are the ones that bring the best food experience. Or you can also try one of those food tours that some travel companies conduct.
Some of my favorite dishes during my trip are:
- Spring rolls
- Banh Mi
Don’t forget to try them as they are really good. 🙂
Go on a Coffee Crawl
Ho Chi Minh City has an array of good coffee and instagrammable coffee shops. Search the streets and look for these interesting stops! Make sure to give yourself a much-needed break to avoid possible palpitations.
Party at Bui Vien
Bui Vien is Ho Chi Minh City’s unofficial backpacker hub. Filled with bars offering cheap booze, the street is also home to most hostels. In the morning, this area might look a little quiet, but at night, bui Vien is brimming with travelers all over the world, ready to PARTY.
Just a friendly reminder to be aware of your surroundings and be mindful of your belongings, especially when it’s already in the wee hours of the night.
Where to go after Ho Chi Minh City?
Ho Chi Minh City is actually a great place to start backpacking. Whether you’d like to explore more of Vietnam and head to the north or do a cross-country trip to Cambodia, you can find tons of options for you. Here are some of the possible places to go if you’d like to explore beyond the city and into other interesting destinations.
- Head to Cambodia: You can either take the cruise in the Mekong Delta going to Phnom Penh or take a bus in the city headed to Cambodia’s capital. Travel time (via bus) from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh is around 6 hours.
You can book your transfers on the spot, but I highly recommend using apps/websites like BookMeBus, where you can place your payment and reservation online. They will send you a voucher and complete instructions on how to get to your bus station (no more worries of getting lost). They also give freebies like water and snacks when you book using their platform. (Note: their trips are just to-from Cambodia and not around Vietnam)
- Explore North Vietnam (Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi): If you would like to venture to the north, you can also take the bus from Ho Chi Minh City. However, if your only plan is to head to Hanoi, I suggest that you just take the plane as the land trip would take you a good 1-2 days. Otherwise, you can book a sleeper bus or a train heading to your next destination.
So, what do you think? Do you think you’re ready to fly to Ho Chi Minh? 🙂
If I missed anything in this guide or if you want to see more of these comprehensive lists, please feel free to leave a message in the comment section below! I would love to know what you think and what I could improve.