Real talk: I didn’t think about it too much when I booked my tickets to Vietnam. It was, through and through, an impulsive buy. They were on sale and I was set on checking off any Asian country in my travel list so I went for it. I’d be lying if I say I didn’t have any doubts after—especially after reading some troubling accounts about pickpockets taking advantage of tourists and how dangerous its roads can be.
As it turns out, my trip is going to turn out as one of the bests I’ve had so far. The country’s culture, sights, and food stand out from their Asian neighbors, and everything is so relatively cheap, making it the perfect destination if you’re on a budget. Planning to go to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam soon? Here are all the places you can visit and the activities you shouldn’t miss on your stay there.
By Plane: A lot of our major airlines host flights to and from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Hanoi. We got our tickets for about P3,500 for a roundtrip flight, but regular price may be around P6,000 more or less.
From the Airport: Unless you will be staying in a hotel with a service that can pick you up from the airport, the best way to travel to the heart of the city is by Grab. Unlike the crazy rates here in the Philippines, Grab rides around Saigon are very cheap. You’ll only have to pay around P150 to P250 for a ride depending on the time of your arrival. You wouldn’t have to wait for long to get a booking since there is usually a driver nearby, too!
Where to stay:
We used Airbnb during our travel, but there are also very good hotels in the vicinity of Saigon that are very friendly to the wallet, too. Depending on your plans, you can choose from different Districts to stay on. District 1 is the most popular among tourists, especially the backpacking crowd who wants to be close to the major attractions of the city while saving money on lodging. District 2 is more upscale, with larger cafes and a predominantly expat crowd. District 7, lastly, is a more modern neighborhood with a sprinkling of malls where you can do some serious shopping.
We stayed in District 1, but on the calmer side of Ben Thanh Market and Backpacker Street. The two, while popular among tourists who are after some cheap shopping and nightlife, are also well-known to be some of the most dangerous areas in the district when it comes to pickpocketing and snatching.
How to get around:
Pretty much of what you’ll see in the city are within walking distance so you can get around on foot. Do note though that the streets of Vietnam are on a different level from the Philippines. Motorbikes are the main mode of transportation by the locals and even the most experienced metro commuters can get overwhelmed by how fast they go around. Traffic lights are not always followed in the city and you always have to be careful even if you’re walking on the pedestrian lanes where a lot of motorists drive by.
If you want to stay on the safe side, Grab is still the easiest way to go around. Again, the rates are very cheap—you can expect to pay around P80 or less for a quick ride. Just make sure that you pin a location where the drivers can easily spot you. Saigon has a lot of small streets and you need to be on the main roads for the car to pick you up. Don’t worry about the language barrier, too. Grab has a feature that will automatically translate everything for you. You can also use taxis, but make sure that you only get on the legitimate ones. VinaSun is the most popular in Vietnam, though their rates are a little bit higher than Grab.
If you really are set on walking though, one tip given to us by the locals is to never hesitate in the middle of the street. Yes, you STILL have to be careful, but the motorists there are experienced in maneuvering their way from pedestrians. Stopping in the middle of the road can be more dangerous!
Places to go and activities to try:
Send a post to a friend (or yourself!) at the Saigon Central Post Office
Established in the late 19th century, the Saigon Central Post Office or Bưu điện Trung tâm Sài Gòn is a French-inspired building that attracts flocks of tourists every day. It was built when Vietnam was still part of the French Indochina and has Gothic and Renaissance-inspired architecture that’s perfect for photos. Still a functioning postal center, you can buy several postcards inside which you can send to anywhere in the world! I sent one to the US for only 32,000 VND which is roughly P73 in our money.
Besides its postal services, this is also a great place to buy souvenirs and gifts for your friends back home. There are many shops branching off on the left and right side of the building where you can find almost everything the local market offers—from coffee filters, jade beads, and shell combs. Haggle if you can!
P.S. Just across the Post Office is the Notre Dame Cathedral, another famous landmark of Ho Chi Minh. As of this writing though, the Cathedral is currently being renovated so it is closed for visitors.
Learn about Vietnam’s History at the Independence Palace
The Independence Palace or Reunification Palace is Vietnam’s very own version of Malacañang. It is a constant fixture in the country’s history, starting from when the French invaded the country up until the Vietnam War when tanks crashed through its main gates to signal its end. Now, the Palace stands untouched since the 1970s after several renovations, with some of its rooms open to the public for viewing. Entrance to it costs 40,000 VND (about P90) but I recommend you get the higher package that comes with a tour guide who will walk you through the building to explain every room in detail.
Visit Cu Chi Tunnels
The Vietnam War is notorious for being one of the bloodiest wars in history but it is also one of the biggest displays of bravery from an Asian country fighting against a superpower like the US. To survive the war, the Viets built the Cu Chi Tunnels, a series of man-made underground narrow tunnels where they lived and hid from their enemies. Their location is a bit far from the city—about two hours bus ride—so it’s better to book a tour beforehand for a hassle-free visit.
The structure of the tunnels is one of the perfect displays of the ingenuity of the Vietnamese. The early people who lived there built special features that let them breathe, cook, and fight underground—they can even deliver babies there! Though the majority of the tunnel system has been blocked off now (originally, you can slip through there and emerge in Cambodia!), you can still experience getting inside some of the small holes to experience them briefly. Do note though that the openings are reaaally small, so if you’re on the bigger side, you may not be allowed to go inside. Those with heart conditions and fear of enclosed places are also discouraged to go down. Entrance to the jungle and tunnel area costs 116,000 VND (about P262) but the fee is usually already bulked with tours.
Tip: Mosquitoes are notorious in the area so it’s better if you wear long pants or at least bring a mosquito repellant. Wear comfortable shoes that you wouldn’t mind getting muddy, too.
Take a tour at the Mekong River
A Vietnam trip wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the famous Mekong Delta river, an overwhelming network of distributaries that passes through Myanmar, China, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The river is considered one of the beating hearts of the country—a lot of its sea harvests come from the delta and its rice fields are also made rich by the silt-infused water. The Mekong River lies about two hours away from the city so it would be better to book a tour beforehand (we got a full-day excursion for about P800 from Klook) for a stress-free experience.
Depending on your tour itinerary, you can visit a number of small islands and local factories once you’re there. There are a number of stops where you can eat a local lunch (we stopped at Turtle Island) and you can also experience rowing on the narrower and calmer water alleys in a small boat.
Pay respect to the country’s religion at Vĩnh Tràng Pagoda
A display of Vietnam’s majorly Buddhist religion, the Vĩnh Tràng Pagoda, which lies near the Mekong River, is a must-see spot if you want to be immersed in the country’s religious culture. Set on acres of sprawling manicured gardens is a complex of beautiful Buddha structures and an intricately-structured temple where you can pay your respects. There are three main statues that the area houses—the Standing Buddha which represents compassion and bliss, the Laughing Buddha which stands for good luck and happiness, and the Reclining Buddha which symbolizes nirvana. The Pagoda itself is a must-visit, though you will not be allowed to get inside if you’re wearing shorts or mini skirts.
Shop (and eat!) at Ben Thanh Market
Ask any local about the best place to shop and they’ll recommend you Ben Thanh Market. One of the earliest structures in the country, the place is a spacious marketplace populated by small stalls that peddle everything—from textiles, brand knockoffs, to souvenirs. The market is also a wonderful place to visit if you want to try some local food. There is a side particularly dedicated to food stalls where you can try every cuisine Saigon has to offer. A word of advice though: ALWAYS haggle before buying anything. All prices in the market are inflated because the shop owners know that their main visitors are tourists, so don’t be afraid to work for a big discount! I was able to buy a bag for only 300,000 VND (around P678) from 450,000 VND. When haggling, it’s better to state your budget for the item rather than saying vaguely that you want a discount.
Have some beers at Backpacker Street
The main hub of tourists, Backpacker Street is the ultimate paradise for those who want to experience the nightlife in Vietnam. The narrow alley is packed with clubs that come alive at night, as well as smaller local eateries where you can chase away your hangover. The area is much calmer in the morning, with shops selling cheap clothes for as low as 25,000 VND (around P57). Be careful here at night though. Since most of its crowd are tourists, it’s also one of the most common places for pickpockets and snatchers.
Some Safety Tips:
Vietnam is a wonderful place to visit, but even the locals admit that it can get a bit tricky when it comes to safeguarding your possessions. Never whip out your phone and carelessly take pictures while you’re out on the streets. If you really need to do it (to check out maps, for example) do it with your back to the street, preferably in a sheltered place. Always keep an eye on your bags, too! If you’re bringing backpacks, it’s better to put them in front of you when you’re going on busy places, especially Ben Thanh Market and Backpacker Street.
Other than that, most of the locals are friendly. There may be some barriers caused by language, but you can easily communicate with them by using a translation tool.