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Ho Chi Minh City


The L shaped District 1 covers several square kilometres and includes the Pham Ngu Lao backpacker area as well as being home to the majority of the city's landmarks. It is a peninsula, with the Thi Nghe Channel as a northern border, the Saigon River in the east, and Ben Nghe Cannel to the south. The western border is defined by the District 3 border streets of Hai Ba Trung and Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, and the District 5 border street of Nguyen Van Cu. The focal points of the district, which receives the most tourist traffic, are the area surrounding Central Saigon and the back packer area of Pham Ngu Lao.

Central Saigon is the heart of the district. The areas loose borders are defined by the streets of Dong Khoi to the east, Le Loi to the south, Nguyen Thi Minh Khai to the north, and CMT8 to the west. Here you will find the majority of the city's landmarks, including Notre Dame Cathedral and the Reunification Palace. The area is also home to a majority of Ho Chi Minh City's luxury hotels and fine eating establishments. Many shopping opportunities present themselves in Central Saigon as you can find everything from small boutiques, selling anything from oil painting to wooden model ships, Vietnamese markets, including the famous Ben Thanh market, and modern shopping centres, including Vincom Centre.

The backpacker area of Pham Ngu Lao refers to an oblong-shaped area bordered by its namesake street to the north and Bui Vien to the south. The area is host to a vast number of hotels, ranging from budget mini-hotels to mid range establishments. On De Tham you can find several travel agencies, where you can purchase tours and bus tickets, as well as several popular bars, including the Crazy Buffalo. This area gets its fair share of traffic noise and is particularly popular with organised tour groups.

Some outlying districts of Ho Chi Minh City are also of interest to most tourists. District 5, or Cholon, is the Chinese quarter of the city. It is home to several attractive pagodas, which are easily and cheaply visited by way of the numerous cyclo taxis that fill the district. Cholon is also home Binh Tay market, the largest market in the city, where you can find better deals and less tourist traffic than you would in District 1.

Further from central Saigon, Districts 2 and 7 are home to the majority of the city's expat community and give a glimpse of the future plans for the city. These districts are home to many modern housing complexes and shopping centres as well as many restaurants. You will also find several western food chains inhabiting these districts and grocery stores catering to western clients.

Addresses in Ho Chi Minh City can be mildly confusing; an address reading Dong Khoi 220/12 means that the location is not located on Dong Khoi but rather down an alley after Dong Khoi 220. This can intensify if you get an address that expands this method, such as Dong Khoi 220/12/5 would refer to a location that is down an alley after Dong Khoi 220/12 (which itself is an alley). Streets can be a hassle in and of themselves as the name of a street may change after a cross street and often through a roundabout. Luckily, odds and evens are still on opposite sides of the street.

Common scams & things to watch out for
Saigon is an extremely safe place to visit and for the most part it's up to the individual to keep out of trouble. For example, frequenting late night bars in Pham Ngu Lao may attract the company of sex workers, who may not be as friendly as they seem. A common ruse is to be plied with alcohol and then pick-pocketed, with missing money and phone not noticed until morning. Pickpockets are known to operate at Ben Thanh market as well, so keep unnecessary valuables in the safe at the guesthouse.

When travelling by motorcycle keep bags secured or at least make them unreachable. Most motorbikes have compartments underneath the seat which can store your valuables. All else fails, sit on your bag. Although rare, motorbike drive-by thefts are not unusual -- especially, if you're advertising the fact you have a digital camera and probably a load of other goodies.

Other than that, the overwhelming method foreigners are robbed is by being overcharged. So check your bill. Also, note that those lovely wet tissues that are given are not free. If that starts getting under your skin, read some of the crime reports from Thailand or Cambodia. One great thing about the cops in Vietnam is that, as a rule, they don't hassle or shake down tourists. This has created a relaxed climate for expats and travellers that is second-to-none in Southeast Asia. It is possible to be stopped and charged a fine of up to 500,000 VND for driving without a helmet (and this goes for the passenger, too). But you knew you should've worn a helmet anyway.

The police can, however, be a little slow off the block when it comes to petty crime. This can be frustrating, but it won't help to scream and stomp your feet and threaten to call your embassy. Be patient and polite at all times. All they are really going to do is fill out a report, which you'll need to claim the loss on your insurance (and only if you insist on it). This situation changes however if the crime is serious, especially if you have concrete information about the perpetrator. Then, they snap into action.

The emergency telephone number for the police is 113 but make sure you have someone that can translate for you.

The police emergency number is 113, but expect a different service from what you're used to. On Pham Ngu Lao, just near the junction with De Tham on the park side of the road, there is a small 'tourist security' office. If you're taken seriously then the boss may be called.

For a medical emergency, the city has several privately-owned and Western-run medical centres. Try International SOS ( 167 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, District 3 T: (08) 3829 8520) or Family Medical Practice (Diamond Plaza, 34 Le Duan, District 1 T: (08) 3822 7848). Better get that travel insurance as it's not cheap — even an appointment with the GP costs US$60. FV, or Franco-Vietnamese Hospital (6 Nguyen Luong Bang, District 7), may be needed for more complicated problems. Their emergency number is (08) 5411 3500. FV also have a small clinic in the city, a good option for routine checkups (45 Vo Thi Sau, District 1, T: (08) 6290 6167). Cho Ray hospital (201B Nguyen Chi Thanh, District 5, T: (08) 855 4137) has a trauma unit. For anything serious, we suggest you fly out to Bangkok or Singapore where medical care is top-notch.

International SOS: 167 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, District 3 T: (08) 3829 8520
Family Medical Practice: Diamond Plaza, 34 Le Duan, District 1 T: (08) 3822 7848)
FV, or Franco-Vietnamese Hospital: 6 Nguyen Luong Bang, District 7 T: (08) 5411 3500
FV Clinic: 45 Vo Thi Sau, District 1, T: (08) 6290 6167
Cho Ray hospital: 201B Nguyen Chi Thanh, District 5, T: (08) 855 4137

Visa extensions
Most travel agents can get a visa extension for you. Typically a 30-day extension will set you back US$25 and usually takes one week, while an express two-day service costs around US$40. A six-month extension is also available for tourist visas and costs US$75. Chi's Cafe (40/27 Bui Vien St, District 1, T: (08) 920 4874) provides as good a service as any.

Immigration office
Saigon's immigration offices are open Mon-Fri, closed for lunch 11:00-13:00. Save yourself the hassle of waiting in lines and dealing with bureaucrats by using a visa extension service through a travel agent instead. To process the visa by yourself, the first step is to pick up the correct form from an office at 161 Nguyen Du, District 1, T: (08) 3829 9398 or 254 Nguyen Trai St, District 1, T: (08) 3839 2221.

International ATMs are dotted all over District 1 and aren't hard to find. If staying in Pham Ngu Lao, make use of the 24-hour ATM at Sacombank (211 Nguyen Thai Hoc). In the city centre, HSBC sits next to the Notre Dame Cathedral (235 Dong Khoi) and ANZ is down by the river (11 Me Linh Square). Public ATMs are in the Tax Shopping Centre on the corner of Nguyen Hue and Le Loi, and at the Caravelle Hotel directly opposite the city Opera House.

ATMs generally have a withdrawal transaction limit of 2 million VND (roughly US$120). You can withdraw this amount as many times as you want up to your limit back home -- but be aware your own bank will charge for each transaction. Reliable counters for changing your bucks can be found at 82 Mac Thi Buoi St (Dong Khoi area), and De Tham (Pham Ngu Lao area). Places such as this have no commission, but charge a US$2 bank fee for traveller's cheques and a US$3 fee for credit card advance. Inside a bank, the charge on your traveller's cheque will be between 1.5 and 2.0%.

Post office
Saigon's main post office (Cong Xa Paris Square, District 1) doubles as a tourist attraction due to its architecture and the large portrait of Uncle Ho overseeing proceedings. Next to Notre Dame Cathedral this post office along with all others opens 06:00-22:00 daily. Smaller offices are all over the city — look for the 'Buu Dien' sign.

DHL 4 Phan Thuc Duyen, Tan Binh District T: (08) 3844 6203 http://www.dhl.com.vn
FedEx Express 6 Thong Long, Tan Binh District T: (08) 3948 0370 http://www.fedexpac.com/vn
UPS 74 Nguyen Van Troi, District 1 T: (08) 3997 2888 http://www.ups.com
TNT 39B Truong Son, District 1 T: (08) 3848 6822 http://www.tnt.com

Fahasa is the largest and only real chain of book shops in the city, with three District 1 locations. The 40 Nguyen Hue Street and 185 Dong Khoi Street locations are good places to buy the all-important city map, though the English-language selection is limited. Another option is to sit in a Pham Ngu Lao cafe and wait for sellers with their book stacks and catalogues of available titles. These are not original books — they've been photocopied so be prepared for the occasional missing or wonky page. Prices are around 80,000-120,000 VND depending on your bartering skills.

Cell service
The major Vietnam cell service providers are Viettel, MobiFone and VinaPhone. There are other smaller ones, but it's probably best to stick to these three as shops that can provide more minutes and data are more widely available. Both cell phone and internet data service works reasonably well throughout Ho Chi Minh City and beyond.

Normal or micro SIM cards can be purchased at most convenience shops, but some try to take advantage of travellers so it's best to compare prices at a few before purchasing. Alternately, SIM cards can be purchased direct from cell phone shops, some of which are branded by a given carrier, or post offices. A SIM card can cost anywhere from 50,000-500,000 VND depending on how loaded with minutes and data you want it. When you need to top-up, simply stop by any shop with the "SIM" sign.

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