Ho Chi Minh City isn’t the capital of Vietnam. That honorific belongs to Hanoi in the north but this southern metropolis is a must-do destination for anyone travelling to Vietnam. Why? The country’s largest city is an incredible mix of old-world French colonial architecture, gravity-defying skyscrapers, historical sites and buzzing rooftop bars. And did we mention the cuisine? From streetside stalls selling steaming bowls of pho to top-end fusion restaurants, you’ll quickly submit to a food coma. But before you do, these are the practical pieces of information you should know before you go.
Qantas and partner airlines offer flights to Ho Chi Minh City from Sydney and Melbourne, with connections from other Australian cities, and stopovers in Singapore, Hong Kong or Bangkok. Flight time from Sydney is between eight and nine hours.
Flying into Ho Chi Min City Tan Son Nhat International Airport
Australians flying into Vietnam can apply for a single entry e-visa that lasts for 30 days. Application can be done online at the Vietnamese National Web Portal of Immigration – processing normally takes two working days but be sure to leave plenty of time. Fees apply. Be wary of sites claiming to be able to organise official visas – the consulate has a list of sites that are a scam.
If you stay is longer than 30 days, you’ll need to apply for a visa directly from the Vietnamese Embassy or Consulate.
Ho Chi Minh City’s International Airport is the largest in the country and just six kilometres from the city. To get into the city proper, there’s a taxi queue to the left of the main ground floor exit or you can go to the Mai Linh taxi company counter to the right of customs and follow a staff member to the appropriate queue. The latter will cost around double of the first option as you are ordering a specific taxi rather than waiting in line.
The official language is Vietnamese – a no-brainer. You’ll find most people within the tourism industry will speak English. Have a few key phrases memorised, such as xin chào (hello), cảm ơn (thank you) and xin lỗi (excuse me). Vietnamese is a tricky language to master so it’s worth listening to an audio guide on the correct phonetic pronunciation, too.
Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon?
The name was changed from Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City in 1976 following the end of the Vietnam War. Many Vietnamese people still refer to the city as “Saigon” and the international airport code is in fact “SGN”. You’ll hear it referred to by both names during your stay.
The Australian government’s Smart Traveller website recommends visitors familiarise themselves with the laws prior to travelling to avoid penalties.
Penalties for drug offences are severe.
Vaccine and health advice
Check with your doctor about what vaccinations you might need before you fly; common vaccination recommendations for travel to Vietnam include hepatitis A and B, tetanus, Japanese encephalitis, typhoid and TB. Other important things to prepare for include:
- There have been cases of Zika virus in Vietnam. If you’re pregnant, speak with your doctor before travelling. Other mosquito-borne illnesses, such as dengue fever, are more common in the country’s south so take precautions.
- Prescription medicines with a value of more than US$100 need to be declared at customs.
- You can only carry seven days’ worth of medicines used to treat addiction and 10 days’ worth of medicines to treat conditions such as anxiety, depression or insomnia. You must present the medicine in English or Vietnamese prescriptions at Customs.
Chances are you’ll be exploring the area near your accommodation on two feet, which inevitably means crossing the road, a somewhat daunting task when one of the city’s almost eight million motorbikes are whizzing by. The key is to keep a steady pace when you identify a gap in traffic rather than darting out between the bikes.
The bright green buses might be cheap but the route maps are chaotic.
There’s no inter-city train system.
Book a taxi or an Uber instead. Mai Linh and Vinasun taxis are regularly ranked as the most reputable services – look for their branding before jumping in the back – and make sure your taxi has a meter that is switched on at the start of the trip. Uber or UberMoto is also available throughout the city.
Locals get around on motorbikes but if you’re a first-time visitor, it’s sensible to avoid driving one yourself. Instead, hire a cyclo. You might look like a tourist – it’s just not an option locals choose – but it’s a calm way to take in a chaotic city. Just be sure to hold on to your valuables and set a price with the driver before you start out. Cyclos are banned on some busy streets so you may need to take a round-about route.
- At the time of writing the Australian dollar was buying 17, 926 Vietnamese dong – check a reliable currency conversion service for up-to-date information.
- US dollars are accepted but you’ll get a better conversion rate by using dong.
- Bartering is acceptable and basically expected at small street side vendors and within the big markets.
- Remove your shoes before entering someone’s home
- Never touch anyone on the head, especially a child. This is only done by close family members; otherwise it’s considered rude.
- Haggling is part of the fun of visiting the city’s bustling, chaotic markets but don’t loose your cool if you don’t get the deal you want. Outbursts are considered a loss of face.
- It’s considered more polite to place chopsticks across the top of your bowl when you’re taking a break from your pho – leaving them pointing out of your bowl is unlucky.
- Don’t photograph military instillations.
Ho Chi Minh City is warm year-round, with an average temperature of just under 28ºC. Like most South-East Asian countries, there are two separate seasons: rainy and dry, though they’re less disparate than what northern cities experience. Rainy season lasts from May to November and dry from December to April.
The humidity average is just under 79.5 per cent so prepare to get a little sweaty if you’re walking around in the middle of the day.
Petty theft is common in tourist spots so keep your valuables close.
When to go
This southern city has less seasonal fluctuations than the mountainous north but December to April is considered the best time to visit. The weather is more temperate and you’re less likely to get caught in a long-lasting downpour.
The city is generally quieter during Tet (Vietnamese New Year), at the end of January to the beginning of February, and around Reunification Day on 30 April.
Dress codes are more relaxed in this cosmopolitan city but adorn yourself respectfully when visiting religious or sacred sites (i.e. cover shoulders, legs and any tattoos). Breathable cotton is a must when visiting during the hot summer.
Though the creamy Vietnamese iced coffee – locally known as cap phe sua da; made with a shot of espresso and a generous pour of sugary condensed milk – is even more refreshing with a stack of ice cubes, ask for your drink without them.
Don’t drink the tap water; instead purchase big, sealed bottles of water from supermarkets or roadside vendors – a litre will cost around 50 cents.
Australian drivers’ licenses and International Drivers’ Permits issued in Australia aren’t valid in Vietnam. You need a Vietnamese Driver’s license to drive throughout the country, including 50cc or more motorcycles.
Unless you’re a pro, it’s probably best to avoid hiring a bike and taking yourself on a tour of the city. The bike situation in the city is full-on and it takes a deft hand to navigate a two-wheeled vehicle through the throngs of savvy locals. You can still experience the adrenalin of a ride through the busy streets, book a tour where you’ll be safely seated on the back and all you’ve to worry about is watching the city go by.
If you’re adamant a spin on a motorbike is a must on your visit, make sure you have the appropriate health and travel insurance beforehand and always wear a helmet.
Smart Traveller recommends all visitors take out comprehensive travel insurance to cover overseas medical costs, including medical evacuation.
Where to stay
It’s hard to get a sense of the scale of this city from your possie on the ground. To see just how far the streets sprawl, head to the 68-storey Bitexco Financial Tower, a glass-walled skyscraper that towers over the rest of the city’s structures. On the 49th floor you’ll find the Saigon Skydeck, which provides an incredible view of the 24 different districts.
Most travellers opt to stay in District 1, close to key attractions such as the Reunification Palace and the Notre Dame Cathedral. Backpackers and budget travellers head to Pham Ngu Lao, a favourite street in the neighbourhood for its abundance of bars, countless cheap mani-pedi spots and cheap eats. There’s also more upmarket options in downtown District 1, which has more of a French colonial vibe, including the Hotel Continental and Caravelle.
District 3 is a little less touristy than District 1 and home to the gran pink church you’ve come across on Instagram. Book an Airbnb close to the Turtle Lake hub, Le Thi Rieng Park or Ta Xa Palace and choose your dinner from the restaurants that line Nhieu Loc - Thi Nghe Canal, a formerly grungy waterway that’s been transformed into a food hub.
Phu Nhuan District, in between districts 1 and 3, is where loads of expats set up their home away from home among a bevvy of hidden cafés, while District 5 is a good option if you want to be among the bustle of the city’s Chinatown.
Phone calls and mobile data
Before you land, disable data roaming and don’t answer incoming calls on your mobile phone if you want to keep your monthly bill in check. Invest in a prepaid travel SIM card if keeping in touch with home is important, or buy a prepaid Vietnamese SIM card.
Most hotels, tourist sites and cafés have free wi-fi for guests.
To call Australia, dial +61 followed by the phone number – including the area code minus the zero. So, to call a Sydney landline telephone, you would dial +61 2 then the phone number. To call a mobile phone, use the same country code and dial the mobile number minus the first zero.
Power sockets in Vietnam use the same frequency as in Australia, the voltage can vary. Check with your hotel if you’re worried about plugging in your smartphone or laptop. You’ll need an adaptor to fit Australian plugs in Vietnamese sockets.
Handy apps and websites
XE for up-to-date currency conversion.
Travel Doctor for pre-travel health advice.
Smart Traveller for up-to-date safety information.
The Vietnamese Embassy in Australia for visa information.
Coc Coc Map or easy-to-navigate maps.
SEE ALSO: One Perfect Day in Ho Chi Minh City