Most travellers arrive in Vietnam through Saigon and spend a few days here, either in the beginning or at the end of their vacation. Saigon is the biggest and most modern and international city in Vietnam. Officially its name is Ho Chi Minh City, but many people still call it Saigon, which was its name before 1975.
I have lived in Saigon for three months now. Before moving here I spent here 10 days as a tourist, flying here from Hanoi where we lived back then. Based on my impressions and experiences from those days, I was not very excited about the thought of moving here. To my taste, the city is too big, too busy and too noisy. You cannot call it charming or beautiful. However, you may end up calling it exciting, exotic, dynamic and interesting. I sometimes call it “Crazy Town”.
Based on my own experience of three months, I give you here some tips for the most enjoyable days in this chaotic city:
Don’t spend all your time at District 1 tourist traps
It is very difficult to get a clear picture of Saigon in two or three days. To understand the city better, it is good to know that the city is divided to Districts, which all have their own special atmosphere and character.
Foreign travellers often spend their time in the heart of District 1 (D1). The main tourist attractions, hotels, restaurants and high-class shopping centers are located there. However, it takes not more than one day to visit the main tourist attractions. If you stay only in those hotel quarters, you miss the most interesting sight of the city: the local way of life.
One good way to see more local life is to walk or take a taxi along Hai Ba Trung -street to the west. There you can find stores and markets where the locals go shopping. There is also a very interesting “Pink Church”, Tan Dinh church on Hai Ba Trung, as well as Tan Dinh market, which is not so touristy than Ben Thanh market.
West from D1 is District 3, which is quite familiar to me since we live there. D3 is more authentic and Vietnamese – our apartment is only three blocks from the War Remnants Museum and we hardly ever see foreign tourists in our neighbourhood. Yet, we have only one kilometre to walk to the Main Post Office. Between D1 and D3 is the biggest park in Saigon, Tao Dan. It is a nice place to have a little break from the heavy traffic and noise.
Stay at a hotel with an outdoor pool
In Saigon, it is hot all year round. Walking around the city and seeing the main sights will be full of sweat. Staying at a hotel with an outdoor swimming pool makes a big difference to your days! There are plenty of these in Saigon, and often the pools are at the rooftop of the hotel building, with a gym and a bar.
Look up for nice restaurants
Saigon is full of nice restaurants: Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, Italian and many others. However, it is difficult to find them if you don’t have the exact name and address in hand. One useful tip is to look up – the restaurants often are “hidden” in the second or third floor and have only a very modest and narrow entry at the street level.
Hotels often have nice rooftop bars with wonderful sights over the city. The most famous one is a rooftop bar of Rex Hotel on Nguyen Hue walking street. Liberty Central Saigon City Point Hotel has a very nice rooftop bar, too.
To get a different view of the city you can take a lunch or dinner cruise on Saigon River.
Use taxi or Uber
Public transportation in Saigon is very poor. To save your feet in the heat of over 30 degrees, I encourage you to use taxi or Uber. It is very cheap and you find them easily everywhere. Use Vinasun taxis (white cars) or Mai Linh taxis (green cars), they have a good reputation. Some taxi drivers speak some English and most of them understand the names of the main tourist attractions. You can write the address on a piece of paper and show that to the driver to avoid any hassle. Remember that taxis don’t accept credit cards and most of them are not willing to handle the biggest notes.
Taxi fares are around 20.000 – 50.000 VND for a short drive in the city center.
Be careful at the streets
Saigon traffic may be the craziest one in the world. For a pedestrian, it can be very frightening and seem dangerous. Yet you must cross the street many times during a day. It is easiest at the crossroads with traffic lights, but remember that not all motorcyclists stop at red light.
I would say that Saigon is not the best place for a relaxing vacation, but it surely is a fascinating and interesting city. It is worth visiting now, before it will loose its Vietnamese spirit and become too modern and international.