Ho Chi Minh City: THE Travel Guide


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Ho Chi Minh / Saigon: Vietnam’s Busy Capital

Busy, hectic, Ho Chi Minh

Suitable for : 2-3 days

Ho Chi Minh was honestly a tad boring, unlike other cities. Besides the Cu Chi tunnels, the educational war museum and the Mekong, there isn’t really much . I really preferred other places like Hoi An and Hue. While others may find the commotion in this hectic city endearing, I found that it was just a combination of pollution, and people making unnecessary noises. But, I still travelled here, and here are some tips to help you explore what there is to see and do here.


Getting to Ho Chi Minh City

Flying into Ho Chi Minh
Unless you’re somewhere close by in Asia, in which you take a bus across the border, most people fly by plane into Ho Chi Minh. Various budget airlines such as Jetstar and Airasia bring direct flights into HCMC via other major cities like Bangkok, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. The flight times are also manageably short, and you can expect the prices to be reasonably cheap as well, considering the distance. I returned to Singapore via Laos thus I only went one way.

Airline: Jetstar
Costs & Durations:

Singapore to Ho Chi Minh [ 2 hours direct]
Departure Timing from Singapore : 0710
Airline
: 3K555

Total: SGD 89 /person (I might have booked this pretty late – 3 days before departure, it might be cheaper if you do it a few weeks before) (I also do suggest you watch out for Jetstar’s Friday Frenzy sale, or Scoot’s Take off Tuesday sales, Airasia has random sale timings (usually approaching some event- Valentines etc.)

*Prices do not include check-in luggage, seat allocations or in-flight meals, all of which will incur extra charges  


Accommodation

Long Hostel

The cosy single beds, believe me, the mattresses were thick and comfortable

TripAdvisor Reviewhere
Booking.com linkhere 
Hostelworld linkhere

Price: SGD 12 / night (dorm room)

My hostel in Ho Chi Minh looked like a hostel on the exterior, but a hostel in the interior (the rooms). Ho Chi Minh has a backpacker’s area – Pham Ngu Lao –  that all the pubs and hostels are located at. Its also recommended to stay in this area if you’re a backpacker as almost all the shops providing transport to other countries / cities in Vietnam are located here. 

one part of the common area

The room was fantastic, the only downside was that it was located on the 5th floor without lifts (but which hostel has lifts in SEA?) Besides that, we had SINGLE beds, which was pretty amazing for a hostel in my opinion. The toilets were sparkly clean, and the air-conditioning and hot showers were perfect. I loved the range of activities that the hostel offered at the front desk – the Cu Chi Tunnel tours (I’ll tell you more about what I did later), as well as the Mekong River tours, and the staple city tours (that I omitted from my list).

En Suite Bathrooms in every dorm

They had a large common room for people to mingle and have the complimentary breakfast every morning, which usually provided a few new friends – of which some might be your new companions for the day! It was also the only hostel I stayed in that had a Singaporean, a rare sight in the world of solo traveling and backpacking.

View from the top floor

The hostel also has a large luggage storage room for you to put down your heavy backpacks or luggage while waiting for your room to be ready / waiting for your flight to depart, making it easy for one to explore the city without lugging their baggages along.

Sim Card

Price: 110000 VND (9GB / 30Days from Vinaphone – tourist price at HCMC airport) , unlimited packages were also available for a little more cost.

Getting your SIM card in HCMC is easy. After getting off the airplane, head to the one of the nearest SIM card counters in the airport itself before exiting. This is because most of the vendors in HCMC’s airport provide value for money tourist prices only at the airport.

Apparently,  Vinaphone is the recommend operator for most travellers. You should also consider Viettel if you want to use the same SIM card in Cambodia and LaosYou should also avoid Mobifone if you’re goinginto the rural areas, and Vietnamobile is cheap but compromises on its 3G connectivity away from the major cities. 

To top up, you purchase credit in the form of little cards from convenience stores or street stores that sell the data cards.  If the vendor is unable to help you, you type *100*<code on the top-up card># to add the credit, then send an SMS to 888 to activate the call/data package you want to use.

Activities

Visit markets & historic sights

My Route: War museum -> Independence Palace -> Ben Than Market -> Pham Ngu Lao

The sights are all located near each other so there is not much difficulty in getting between the places, except the market perhaps. Hire a GrabBike if you’re lazy, it’ll only cost you a few cents. Lazy me basically Grab-biked my way around the city. My route took me the entire afternoon after my flight arrived in HCMC at around 10am.

War Remnants Museum

War Remnants Museum building

TripAdvisor Reviewhere

Price: SGD 1 (one time entry fee)

This was heartbreaking. It creeps onto you slowly, like a disease progressing into its terminal stage. The exterior doesn’t look so bad, the museum has life-sized tanks and other war vehicles on display at the start. For those interested in some (olden) war vehicles, this will definitely be captivating as each fighter plane or tank has a sign introducing its specifications and previous usage in the war.

Walk on in, and thats when the tragedy starts. First, do not miss out the Tiger cells at the side (its still located on the outside). A row of displays portraying war crimes greet you when you first enter the exhibit. The tiger cells were the worst of all. Measuring little more than an animal’s enclosure, the Vietnamese were left to survive in these little cells, without adequate food or water, or sanitation, for that matter. You’ll also find the ancient guillotine here, where prisoners were beheaded for simple matters like disobedience.

Small enclosures, I think these were the tiger cages

The museum is non-airconditioned except for its upper exhibits. The first floor was not that interesting as it was composed of some souvenir shops and other miscellaneous things. The upper floors were the ones that tore down your facade of bravado. Gory pictures depict the wrongdoings and the horrors of war. Torture methods and killing scenes were shown and enacted on the walls around me.

The worst of them all, Agent Orange, involved the US spewing down a toxic radioactive chemical onto the innocent villagers in Vietnam in a bid to poison the supplies of South Vietnam, and end the war. To what cost? Generations of children, born by those who had been exposed to the chemical, were deformed, and most of the time, in immense pain and suffering. I couldn’t continue going on , after some time, I needed a breather.

Walking down the stairs reflecting on all those terrible crimes

The museum’s purpose was to showcase the monstrosities and terrors of war to the future, and I think, it served that purpose well. Its a brutal reflection of human nature, but its necessary to prevent such crimes from happening again. I tried not to put the more gory pictures on this blog, you will need to travel there to find out for yourself.

Do check it out, even if you’re uncomfortable about it. It tells a deep story. 

Independence Palace

looking from the exterior was enough for me!

TripAdvisor Reviewhere

Price: SGD 2

I don’t really fancy architecture a lot. Thus, the palace didn’t really appeal to me, as much as the rest. I didn’t really understand why so many people wanted to see the interior. To me, just the exterior was more than enough. It looked grand, and thats it. But, if you want to explore the interior, its said that the reunification of Vietnam was decided here . It’s still used occasionally, but is more often than not used as a place of interest nowadays. The admission price includes a 1-hour guided tour. .Apparently, there are limited tickets per time slot so it would be best to purchase this in advance (perhaps a few hours before entry).

Ben Thanh Market

I literally love these Asian desserts. anything starchy, really.

TripAdvisor Reviewhere

Price: 130000 VND (Luwak Coffee 500g from Ben Thanh (I might have been ripped off so pls read my instructions below))

these flowers were beautiful!
local delights (at prices 3x usual)
Menu sample

I’ve actually been to Thailand quite a bit, and this reminded me of the massive night markets they have there. Except for the fact that Ben Thanh also has flower and wet market zones. It was pretty cool to look at the various goods (they have such a wide variety of coffee here) but DO NOT PURCHASE THEM HERE. They’re very overpriced since there seems to be more tourists than locals here. Instead, head down to Binh Tay or Tan Dinh, which are more local markets, where prices are usually slashed by a third. You can further bargain down the price there if you like the game. Scratch that, always bargain down the price in South-East Asiaexcept for Singapore maybe 😛

Shopping for clothes, anyone?
Various spices, liquor and coffee

Cu Chi Tunnels

I’m pretty small built, and yet I had difficulty weaving through these man made tunnels

TripAdvisor Reviewhere

Prices: 26000 VND (round trip for bus ride there), 90000 VND (entrance fee to Ben Duoc Tunnels), 100000 VND  (entrance fee for Ben Dinh Tunnels) , 200000 VND (half day tour organised by my hostel to the Ben Dinh tunnels which doesn’t include entrance fees)

ticket counter

A staple to visit in Ho Chi Minh, these tunnels bring to life the rich history Vietnam had during the war. These tunnels were the homes of many soldiers, in which they devised their own underground city, complete with medical rooms, meeting rooms, even recreational rooms in which they watch TV. These days, they’re still being excavated and preserved,  alongside passionate guides relate to you the horrors of war.

life-sized shells? I don’t know whether they were used before…
hidden traps in the tunnels
meeting rooms
medical tents

Most tour groups will bring you to the Tunnels at Ben Dinc, but I opted to go for the lesser-known tunnels at Ben Duoc that I had read about online from other travel bloggers. The Ben Dinh site apparently displays tunnels that have been enlarged/reconstructed for tourists and it is unclear whether any of it is original.

making our way via public transport to Ben Duoc tunnels
My company for the day! One American, one Spanish, one Canadian, one Australian and one Singaporean, what a mix of cultures!

Getting to Ben Duoc requires you to take your own transport there but boy, was it worth it. We had the place to ourselves, and the tour literally had 13 people in it, a stark contrast from touristy and overcrowded Ben Dinc, as told by other hostel mates who went.

entrance of Ben Duoc tunnels
vibes
started to rain just as we were going to walk towards the tunnels (the bus stop is still located a distance (not too long) from the tunnels)

The tour was very informative and we even got fresh sugar cane juice refreshments at the end! You get to see how olden (and grotesque) traps worked, enter the tunnels personally and get a taste of claustrophobia (imagine living in there, 365 days in a year, with no exposure to the upper grounds) and even trek around some hidden traps (which your guide will show to you, don’t worry).

They let you try entering one old tunnel via a hidden entrance (I didn’t try, I saw how muddy their clothes were after that)
traps that springs when you walk on top
fresh sugarcane! not even the juice, the actual plant itself was given to us mhm

How to get there (Ben Duoc)

  1. Take Bus 13 and alight at Cu Chi Station (the last stop.) [1.5 hours]
  2. At Cu Chi Station, change bus to Bus 79. [50 minutes]
  3. Alight at the stop outside the tunnels (It will not be directly outside, you will still have to walk in a little). Just ask the driver & locals to confirm which stop you’re going to stop at. Google Maps / Maps.me sure helps as well.
    1. Tip: This route actually passes by the mainstream Ben Dinh tunnels on the way. If you’re interested, ask the driver & locals, again.
  4. Take the same route back. Do note that bus 79 stops operating at 5.30pm so you will want to catch it back to the city before that. I recommend giving yourself an hours leeway (catch 79 back at around 4-4.30pm). Bus 13 stops operating at around 10pm, you should have enough time for this.

Tip: My instructions might be outdated, so do confirm with your hostel / hotel staff on the route to get there.

We were so hungry out in the rain, we asked this kind woman whether she had any foo and she kindly cooked for us
it wasn’t much (tom yam instant noodles), but at the moment, it was downright delicious (and I do not even eat spicy food normally)

Boat Trip down the Mekong

Another popular trip with backpackers and other tourists alike, this tour composes of a boat trip down the Mekong. The journey there takes around 1.5 hours and your guide will explain to you more about the history of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh). You will pass by certain sights along the way, including Vinh Trang Pagoda. After boarding the boat for a gentle cruise down the Mekong, your next destination would be some coconut farms where they produce coconut candy (you’ll be able to sample it). After walking a period of time, they’ll usher you into a small long tail boat surrounded by half-submerged flora.

After having lunch at a river stop, you’ll see how the locals built farms on the river itself. You will experience some element of traditional local life, and this tour ends in the evening around 4pm. Because of the rainy season, I opted not to do this tour as there was this guy who did this tour and returned drenched and muddy (with bad reviews of it) the day I arrived. But, it is a possible and popular option to get a quick look at the Mekong.

However, take note that you can also go for a tour on the Mekong in other areas of Asia like Luang Prabang in Laos. No need to restrict yourselves, y’know.

Pub Crawl

Activities at Hangout

Saigon Main Pub Crawl Websitehere
Hideout’s Pub Crawl Websitehere

Prices: 110000 VND. (Price for Guys for Saigon Main Pub Crawl), 20000 VND (Price for Girls for Saigon Main Pub Crawl), 30000 VND (Hideout Pub Crawl), SGD 4 (Tequila Sunrise), SGD 1.50 (Can of Saigon Beer)

Ho Chi Minh City is definitely known for its pumping nightlife. Booze was also relatively cheap here. The main pub crawl is held every Friday and Saturday at 9pm. Hideout and Hangout hostels actually hold a joint pub crawl on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays starting at their respective hostels so its a suggestion if you miss the main one!

Not surprisingly, the main nightlife area is also located near the backpacker’s area. Well, they really drive the incomes of the pubs there. I didn’t actually join a pub crawl, but I went out with a few friends that I met at the hostel and we had a great time. Most of the pubs / clubs will have special deals that touts will offer near the entrance(1 for 1 shots, half priced drinks etc.) , take your time and choose, they’re plenty of them.

Do a Massage

TripAdvisor Review (Massage Enjoy): here
Massage Enjoy’s Websitehere

Price: 280000 VND (Full Body Massage for 1 hour)

What better way to rest after a long day of walking than to have a relaxing massage. There are plenty of massage parlours in Ho Chi Minh but make sure you read the reviews for the reputable ones. The Vietnamese method of massaging is indeed different from that in Thailand, or Laos. The Thai mostly knead the muscles by applying firm pressure and just pressing in general, but the Vietnamese really localise and apply pressure to the muscle knots themselves, which was rejuvenating and helped to smoothen out my sore muscles even faster than usual.

I tried a Body Massage at Massage Enjoy alongside a few other hostel mates and was impressed by the hospitality of the shop.  Clean environment, excellent service and overall a professional massage.

Transport

Grab / Uber (just use this!)

plenty of motorbikes in Saigon (the economical option is to use GrabBike or UberMotor)

Price: SGD 0.60 (approximately for each city around the city) on UberMotor / GrabBike

The one advice I would give to all tourists: download the “Grab” App and use it. It works the same as Uber in other countries, except that most Asian countries use Grab instead. It gives you heavy discounts on riding, and you even get a a discount after riding your first 5-10 rides.

For solo travellers, do use the Grab-bike or UberMotor function as its convenient, fits one, and its super duper cheap.

For families, just use the normal UberEconomy / GrabCar function to get the transport.  I can assure you that it will be cheap as well.

Scooter

Price: SGD 6-8/ day

This is downright dangerous, but cost effective if you’re riding to another place, or if you’re experienced. I have more than a few people suffer skid marks as a result of incompetence while riding. If you’re a newbie to riding a scooter, I suggest you learn in less crowded places in Vietnam (Hue, Hoi An etc.) rather than the major cities (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City).

Do take pictures of the bike before you rent it as some rental shops are known to provide pre-damaged bikes and then accuse you of causing those damages (thus incurring extra charges)

Note: Most shops accept either your passport or a large sum of money as a deposit.

Food

Banh Mi

From the renowned Banh Mi shop in HCMC,

Price: SGD 1-3 (depending on where you purchase them)

Its a staple in Vietnam, this bun/sandwich in which you get from putting together a delectable combination of vegetables, meat and sometimes a piping hot fried egg. It is sold most commonly as street food and serves as a good midnight snack (perhaps after a pub crawl?) when all other restaurants have closed their shutters.

Bahn Mi Huynh Hoa

signboard

TripAdvisor Reviewhere 

Prices: 35000 VND  / Bahn Mi (you can choose whether you want it spicy /non-spicy as well)

Apparently, this is the epitome of Banh Mi in Ho Chi Minh City. I just had to try it. As you see from the picture above, their Banh Mi has a lot more ingredients than usual Banh Mi, which makes the price worth it as well. Its also a family run business, so you know that their Banh Mi is made with tender, loving care.

family members hard at work

Pho

Price: 60000-75000  VND (depending on where you purchase it)

Another speciality in Vietnam, these signature beef/chicken noodles can be found all around the city.  It is made mostly using  broth, rice noodles, a few herbs, and either beef or chicken. It is fantastic for a quick & cheap tasty meal. A common street food, it can also be found in most restaurants around the city. It was what I used most of the time to sustain myself. Its good on a backpacker’s budget too!

A few recommended places for Beef Pho in HCMC can be found here

Pho Hung

Pho here was amazing

TripAdvisor Reviewhere

The shop that we tried Pho at was called Pho Hung, recommended by hostel staff as a brilliant place to have some traditional Vietnamese Pho. The ambience was really cosy and you could tell it was popular just by the ratio of locals : foreigners in the restaurant. The pho was more expensive than usual (75000 VND), but worth every single dong. The pho I had the night before paled in comparison. I don’t recommend that you get their soy milk though. Definitely isn’t like the one in Singapore, that’s for sure.

Sui Bingsu ( Kem Han Quoc)

aesthetic much

Foodie Review Vietnamese-based Websitehere
Google Reviews: here (View the reviews on the right hand side)

Price: SGD 5 / bingsu (really affordable compared to those in Singapore)

We chanced upon this place as we were walking back to our hostel after dining at Pho Hung. The Bingsu made here is by a very eloquent well-spoken English-speaking owner who had honed his baking skills in Korea, and returned to set up his own dessert cafe. Besides Bingsu, this place offers tons of other desserts like cakes and pies. The peanut Bingsu that we had here was really well done, the ice melted easily, the portions were great and there was sufficient toppings on top. You should take a look if you’re around the area!

Overall

HCMC is a busy capital, and full of noise and . You might get used to it after a short while, but I definitely wasn’t during my 2 days here. I was going to recommend visiting other attractions like the Saigon Zoo, Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica etc, but on second thoughts, they didn’t really appeal to me, thus I shouldn’t really be giving my opinions on it. Saigon was an insightful experience, but I would prefer not to return anytime soon, instead heading to better places in Vietnam like Mui Ne, Hoi An and Hue.

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