The No Nonsense Guide to Ho Chi Minh City

Bui Vien walking street Ho Chi Minh City

 

We’ve learned a bunch about Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) in the few days we’ve been here. Keep reading and find out how easy and fun this neat and exciting place is while being a very different experience than the ones found in all the usual vacation spots.

OK. Let’s get to the meat and potatoes here. To give you a feel for what this place is like, we’ve compiled some of what we’ve learned so far. We’re sure once you get to the end of the article you’ll be as jacked as we were to finally get here

Population

First, let’s cover some info about the city itself. Located in the south of the country the former capital of Vietnam is big. It’s home to some 8.4 million people beating the capital of Hanoi by a cool million.

Climate

It’s fairly muggy in Ho Chi Minh City. We do sweat it up here during the day, but at night it’s comfy.

The hottest month of the year with the most sunny days is April with temps around 30°C or 86°F. July looks to be the wettest month. The coldest being December. If you’re planning a trip this winter you can expect temps around 27°C or 80°F.

Safety

You’ll find petty crime here just like any other big city. Knowing what to be careful of is more than half the battle. Some of this is common sense but it is easy to feel relaxed enough to do things that will invite petty crime.

One example is being loosy goosy with your phone. Leaving it a table at an outdoor restaurant, or using the map function while walking down the street is not advisable.

Also, it is a good idea to wear your handbag or man purse in front if possible. We do this and sometimes use a carabiner to fasten it to a belt loop. Anything to buy some time to get a hand on it if we feel someone going for it. This is a tip shared often among people here as there are occasions where it will be snatched or the strap will be cut.

Getting to Ho Chi Minh City

We’re not going to sugarcoat it. Getting to HCMC takes a little longer from Canada or the United States than the average trip to say Mexico or Cuba but we think it’s worth it. It’s just so much more horizon-expanding compared to the stereotypical beach vacation.

We found many flights from North America to be around 20 hours complete with a layover. If you’re on a two week’r as society graciously allows you every year then no doubt this will cut into your fun time. All the more reason to ask for an extra week or two off, right? After all, don’t you deserve it?

Of course flight costs will be higher. However, we saw no shortage of return flights coming in at under $1000 CAD. One thing to consider is that the cost is offset by how inexpensive it is once you get here. We don’t stay in fancy places but a quick search yielded plenty of 5 star hotels in HCMC for $129 CAD. Last time we looked at prices for just a basic hotel at home it was about the same or more!

We won’t be covering it in this post but there is most likely a visa requirement to enter. Check with the proper entity before making plans.

Getting around

We found that one economical way to get from the airport to District 1 was by bus (#109). It worked out to be around $1 CAD each. There are, of course, buses going to other areas. Be careful though as some charge extra if you are packing a large amount of luggage.

Though the city is punching in a SkyTrain system, we were a couple of years too early for it. Scheduled for 2020, it will greatly improve the flow. That being said you can still get around ok.

We mostly walk for exercise and to see the sites. As we only stayed in HCMC for 5 days before moving on we did not have the need to take transit other than the bus from the airport.

We only used a cab once while in HCMC. This 15 minute ride from our hotel to the bus terminal cost us a whopping $2. Pro tip: If there is no meter, make sure you have an idea of what the price should be and agree upon it before climbing in.

cyclos HCMC tranportation

Cyclo operator in HCMC waiting to show you the sites!

Cyclos are an interesting way to get around. Basically, they are a modern take on a rickshaw with the seat upfront. You will have no problem finding one as they are everywhere.

A popular mode of getting from A to B is by motorcycle taxi (xe om). You flag one down and hop on the back. This option will cost anywhere from $1-2 depending on how many km’s you are going but we never ripped into it. Another pro tip: make sure your travel insurance covers this kind of activity.

For the more adventurous, one can rent a moped. This is not advisable however. We have rented mopeds in the past while in Thailand but it is a completely different story. Not knocking Vietnamese drivers but it is a lot more aggressive here on the road.  The number of accidents involving mopeds here are staggering! One thing that seems evident is that traffic lights are regarded as mere suggestions. Also riding on the sidewalk is common for people looking to get around in traffic. The highways are another story. For that reason we opted to find other ways to truck our brittle bones around.

Where to stay

This city is divided up into 24 districts. We chose to stay in District 1 for several reasons. Firstly, this area is where the majority of sites we were interested in are located. We were able to walk to most in under 20 minutes.

It also happens to have a large amount of budget hotels and hostels to choose from. No problem finding street food in the area either, but we saw options no matter where we went with the exception of right downtown in the financial district.

The area we stayed in is known for it’s walking street called Bui Vien. If you know of Khao San Road in Bangkok then you get what we mean. If not, it is a bit of a shit show complete with young drunk backpackers, “massage parlors” and nightclubs spilling out into the streets. This usually turns us off but we were staying about a block away in a much more sedate spot. We only had to scoot past it for a few minutes to get to better areas of the neighborhood.

One neat thing about this area is the tight meandering maze of tunnel-like passages that cut from one side of a block to the other. It really feels like you are in an underground city. There are street food stalls, residences, hostels, and even the odd makeshift convenience store in what appears to be peoples living space. And again, more mopeds zipping through these confined spaces. You will find yourself constantly ducking into a doorway or alcove to yield to mopeds. Quite an experience.

Sightseeing

As mentioned earlier, a lot of neat attractions are within walking distance of one another. Here are a few we thought were worth mentioning.

 

The Ben Thanh Market (free to browse!)

This is pro’lly the best place to check out souvenirs, handcrafted items and the essential t-shirt that screams “I’m a tourist!”. Be prepared for the hard sell by the way. Pro tip: haggling is expected and a good idea as the first price you are given can be triple what they will let something go for.

ben thanh market shopping HCMC

One of the many entrances to the Ben Thanh Market

 

The Reunification Palace ($1)

This is a place of great significance when speaking in terms of the Vietnam war and in our opinion worth checking out.

reunification presidential palace

View from the entrance gate of The Reunification Palace

 

 The War Remnants Museum ($2)

We’re not going to lie to you. This was heavy! We have now officially heard both sides of this conflict but it doesn’t make it any easier to digest. We included it on the list however as we think it is important to not forget what humanity is capable of and to try to keep it from happening again.

tiger cages vietnam war prison

Typical Tiger Cage found in Con Dao prison

 

Notre Dame Basilica (free)

Built by the French in 1863 to 1880 it is a smaller version of the real thing back in France. While closed to tourism while under renovation, we were told it is still open for church services. 

Notre Dame Basilica HCMC

Notre Dame Basilica under renovation

Bitexco Financial Tower (see below for entrance fee)

At 68 floors it is the tallest building in HCMC and the second tallest in all of Vietnam. We’re told that there is a $10 entrance fee to the observation deck on the 49th floor but we never bothered. The other option is to buy a coffee at the cafe on the 50th floor and enjoy the view for free!

Bitexco Financial tower Ho Chi Minh City

Bitexco Financial tower in the heart of downtown

Costs

This is a tough one to nail down as everyone is different. When it comes to accommodations food, and activities, we’re fairly frugal. If you’re as budget conscious as we are you may like what we have to say here.

Let’s talk about rooms first. As we are two, we opt for double rooms with a private bath. Our last room complete with a double (queen size) bed, an additional single bed, a fan, air conditioning, and a mini fridge was around $25 CAD. We loved it! Shopping around may get you a better price but you get what you pay for. By the way, this price is twice that of some in smaller cities in Vietnam.

Next on the list is food. Anyone who knows us, gets how much we love our street eats. And while we do eat at restaurants on occasion, the local street food stand is our preference. It’s not just the budget that has us favouring this option. It’s how damn good it is. We cover this in another post you can find here. Our costs vary a little from day to day and place to place but in HCMC we were coming in under say $10-15 per day.

The last thing is attractions. Again, it depends on what floats your boat. We never spend more than $10 in total on any given day including our coffee habit but that’s us. If we have time and can organize something ourselves, we’ll do that. It’s more rewarding that way and it doesn’t leave us feeling like cattle.

With all that said we can tell you that our daily budget worked out to be $45 a day no problem.    

The internet

Communication is a breeze here. There is wifi just about wherever you go. Also, we’ve been using several different networks and not to jinx it, they’ve all been dependable and relatively fast.

If you think you’ll need more than that, bring an unlocked smartphone with you. Sim cards and plans are cheap here. An example is what we got from Viettel. It rang in at $5 CAD for 3.5GB. That’s a smoking deal. There were larger more economical plans (i.e $10 for 20Gb) but as the sim plans only lasts a month at a time we thought this was enough.

Buying a sim card from a proper  phone store is better than a hawker on the street as an unregistered card could potentially be deactivated. You can buy them at the airport for convenience but know that they will be slightly more expensive.

Conclusion

We hope that by reading this you see that getting here and around isn’t that much more difficult to put together than say Mexico or Cuba. It just takes a little more planning and forethought. Have you already stepped up your game and been rewarded with interesting experiences and found it’s not that hard? That the risk reward ratio is a no brainer? Leave a comment below so others can get amped about doing the same.

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2 Responses

  1. Dawn says:

    Great article. Lots of helpful stuff here. Can’t wait to check out HCMC. Looking forward to your next post.

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