What with the ever-growing options for budget flights in Southeast Asia, with a bit of planning and a bit of cash, there's no real reason why you can't jet off to another city for a weekend, and where better than Saigon?
This trip is based around a Friday early evening arrival and a Sunday evening departure, giving you two nights and two days in Vietnam's busiest and most frantic city. You could of course do this any day you wanted, or perhaps just go all wild and crazy and stay longer.
If you're looking at skipping in from another country on a low-cost flight, look to book well in advance to make sure the low cost flights are actually low cost flights. AirAsia, Jetstar and Tiger Airways all offer cheap flights into Ho Chi Minh City, with the bulk of these coming in from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. Keep an eye out though for special deals from long-haul carriers that are allowed to drop off on the short-hop. One Saigon resident raved about an Etihad to Bangkok flight that cost "next to nothing" ... though I've been unable to find any evidence of that deal online at the moment.
In most cases you will need a visa for Vietnam. The visa is available at Vietnamese consulates and embassies around the world, but as there wasn't one in Bali, I used the online services of Vietnam-visa.com. For a fee of US$21 paid online by credit card, I was able to get a visa on arrival (for another $25). The service was seamless, straightforward and I wouldn't hesitate to use it again (even though it seemed odd the paper I was issued with had a list of other people's names and details -- it was all still legitimate). There are a gazillion Vietnamese travel agents offering this service, I used Vietnam-visa.com and was very happy with them, www.guidevietnam.com has also received good reports from Travelfish.org readers.
If you're already travelling you'll have this already (I hope). If you don't, then get it. We recommend using World Nomads. Without wanting to beat it up, across my weekend while walking I was side-swiped twice by a car and once by a motorbike (suffering nothing more than bruised pride luckily) and I saw one snatch and grab where a tourist lost a digital SLR. Separately, I met a traveller who was recovering from having half his spleen removed after a motorbike accident. Make sure you are insured.
Not that many people on the road today.
If you are travelling on a budget and are somewhat flexible with your standards, there is absolutely no need to book a room in advance in Saigon. I'd guess there are at least 200 cheap hotels within spitting distance of De Tham (the heart of the backpacker quarter) and there is precious little to separate one from another. I didn't bother to book and instead doorknocked, settling on the second place I checked out, which had a spacious though somewhat dumpy room with hot water, air-con, TV and WiFi for $12 a night. If you do want to book online, loads of budget hotels in Saigon let you do so.
A typical budget hotel line-up.
For midrange and upper-end travellers, booking can be more worthwhile -- not only to secure a better rate, but also if you want to organise airport transfers and so on.
We've written about getting into Saigon from the airport previously. In my experience I grabbed a Vinasun cab from the airport (115,000 VND) and a Vinasun cab from De Tham back to the airport for 145,000 VND. The trip took about 45 minutes in, and an hour back. Hotels will offer private pick-ups and drop-offs -- prices vary considerably and I had a xe om (motorbike taxi) offer to take me for 90,000 dong.
So that's the logistics. Now the fun.
Once you've settled in it's time to eat, and eating is one thing Saigon excels at. At risk of over simplifying, Vietnam has two main modes of eating -- streetside or at restaurants -- and we'll be trying a bit of each. If you're woried about the safety of streetside in Saigon, here is a good primer.
My preference leans towards the former, so if you're that way inclined I'd be inclined to walk out of your hotel and walk in any direction till you reach a busy food stall. Chances are the vendor will have limited (if any) English, so be prepared for some sign-language, or just do what I do -- point at what someone else is having (if it looks tasty of course) and give that a go.
Once sated, hit the town. Sax N'Art is on Le Loi in downtown and gets regular jazz acts for a nominal door fee, while if you're over in backpackerville (Pham Ngu Lao), Thi Cafe on De Tham is right in the centre of things and gets very busy -- I especially liked the vomitting guy in the bathroom -- every live music venue should have at least one of those.
If you're after cold drinks without the cover charge, and are looking to meet up with other travellers, a couple of streetside options on Bui Vien do large Saigon beers for 10,000 VND a bottle -- a good deal less than the 45,000 you'll get charged at the flash bar just up the road on the intersection with De Tham. You'll find them just before Hotel 97 -- look for the sign reading "Beer 10,000".
Boozing on Bui Vien
Many choose to do a cyclo tour in Saigon, but the drivers can be quite overbearing and sorting out a fair charge can sometimes prove to be a challenge. The thing is, once you master crossing the road in Ho Chi Minh City, it is actually a great walking city -- or at least District One is, anyway.
The many tree-lined streets of District One are also where you'll find the best museums, galleries and parks, so that's how you'll be spending Saturday -- of course if you would prefer not to walk you could just as easily follow this route by cyclo, motorbike or taxi.
As most people will be staying either in the backpacker quarter or downtown, we're going to start roughly midway between the two at Ben Thanh bus station. On the way there, pick up a stuffed baguette (8,000-12,000 VND) and sit down at a streetside coffee joint for breakfast before continuing on to the bus station. From there it's a short walk south on Pho Duc Chinh to the Fine Art Museum. There are two main buildings and they're an attraction in their own right. Allow an hour.
Work in progress?
Backtrack back up to the bus station and cross (slowly but surely) to Ben Thanh Market, arguably Saigon's best-known market. It's a bit of a tourist trap in parts -- and watch out for pickpockets -- but it's good for souvenir shopping (bargain hard) and there's a good eating area as well. Allow an hour, two hours if you're shopping. Once you're done, try the bun bo hue from one of the stalls or, if you'd rather a restaurant, Ben Thanh Market is flanked by Pho 24 on each side -- it's not the best noodle soup in town but it is air-con, accessible and has an English menu.
From the rear of Ben Thanh, walk east along Le Thanh Ton. You'll want to take a left on Pasteur, but before you do, do one block further along for a quick photo shoot at Hotel De Ville, then backtrack and head up Pasteur and visit the Ho Chi Minh City Musuem. Allow an hour.
After the museum, strike east along Ly Tu Trong till you reach Dong Khoi, where you take a left and approach Notre Dame Cathedral. This is a very, very popular spot for wedding photos but what we like even more is the Central Post Office which sits to the east. Check out the ceiling, the lovely period maps and the odd assortment of time-zones. Allow 30 minutes.
Street murals and coffee
From here, head down Le Quan for the best approach to the Reunification Palace. You'll need the best part of two hours here to really take everything in. Once you're done, the War Remnants Museum is just a block north -- it used to be called the Museum of American War Crimes and while the name has changed, the tone of the displays has not. Allow an hour.
By now the day should be getting on and our suggestion would be to break the evening in two. First head back to your hotel to rest and recover then head back out to enjoy one of Saigon's many rooftop bars. For dinner we're thinking a little bit fancy. Try the fabulous yet affordable Cuc Gach Quan or if you'd rather combine dinner and a view, take a stroll up to the open air Shri Restaurant, on the 23rd floor of the Centec Tower. This is a great spot to have a drink while you watch the sun go down, and their Japanese cuisine is good although on the high end of Saigon's dining price range.
Still looking for more fun? Karaoke. You know you want to.
As with Saturday, we'll be kicking this off near a market: Binh Tay in Cho Lon, in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City's Chinatown. You'll need to get a ride over to here as it is too far to comfortably walk.
This multi-level market is our favourite and really does have everything, often in an incredible range of varieties. There's also a large fresh produce (vegetables and meat) section along with another good spot to try everything from pho bo to hot vit lon (though we passed on the latter). While there are tourist souvenirs available, the far more interesting section is the general wares. As with Ben Thanh market, extra care should be taken regarding pickpockets. Allow at least two hours.
Who said hats?
Leave the market and it is but a few blocks to Cha Tam Church -- walk it and have your transport meet you there. This is the church which President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother sought refuge in 1963 -- and it was also where they surrendered unconditionally from, only to be picked up and shortly thereafter murdered. The church is worth a visit because of this historical footnote, but Notre Dame is otherwise the more impressive building. Allow 30 minutes.
Cho Lon is home to many pagodas but our favourite (and certainly one of the most photogenic) is Thien Hau Pagoda on Nguyen Trai. Look for the spirals of incense and the detailed friezes near the roofline. This is a popular temple with groups but is worth putting up with the crowds to visit. Allow an hour.
Slow burning incense
There are many other pagodas in Cho Lon, with Quan Am (on Lao Tu) and Phuoc An Hoi Quan (on Hung Vuong) being the two other most visited, but time is short and we've got to eat!
We're heading back towards Distict One for a last meal, but on the way, take a quick swing through Thai Binh Market on Pham Ngu Lao to see how a very typical Vietnamese fresh produce market works.
Assuming you've got to be at the airport by early evening, a quick meal at Barbeque Garden (at corner of Le Thanh Ton and Nam Ky Khoi Nghia) is a solid downtown option. Tables are fitted out with their own barbecues and you cook your own dinner. We crashed a meal here and didn't try it, but Tim of Come & Go Vietnam (whose dinner we crashed -- do check out their highly regarded tours of the Mekong Delta!) raved in particular about the cheese wrapped in beef. If you'd prefer a barbecue with a view, 3T comes highly recommended.
Watch your money. Early on I mixed up the 50,000 and 500,000 VND notes and paid a taxi driver 1,000,000 VND when it should have been 100,000 dong. Unfortunately he also missed it, or opted not to tell me I had overpaid.
Snatch and grab robberies are a problem. Don't leave your iPhone or digital camera sitting on your streetside table. We saw a snatch and grab where the thief ran over, grabbed the camera and ran to an accomplice's motorbike and was off before the victim was even out of his chair. The thieves are brazen and well-practiced.
If you've read our piece on enjoying Hanoi, you'll know one of the best ways to enjoy a Vietnamese city is to just sit back and watch it unfold before you. The above itinerary is a very full one -- especially Saturday. If you have more time, spread out the sights over more days and allow a good amount of time to just sitting on the pavement drinking coffee, soaking up the sights and sounds of a vibrant city.
Where to go, how long to stay there, where to go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long do you need? Itinerary planning can be almost as maddening as it is fun and here are some outlines to help you get started. Remember, don't over plan!
Burma lends itself to a short fast trip with frequent flights thrown in or a longer, slower trip where you don't leave the ground. There isn't much of a middle ground. Ground transport remains relatively slow, so be wary about trying to fit too much in.
Roughly apple-shaped, you'd think Cambodia would be ideal for circular routes, but the road network isn't really laid out that way. This means you'll most likely find yourself through some towns more than once, so work them into your plans.
How long have you got? That's not long enough. Really. You'd need a few lifetimes to do this sprawling archipelago justice. Be wary of trying to cover too much ground - the going in Indonesia can be slow.
North or south or both? Laos is relatively small and transport is getting better and better. Those visiting multiple countries can pass through here a few times making for some interesting trips.
The peninsula is easy, with affordable buses, trains and planes and relatively short distances. Sabah and Sarawak are also relatively easy to get around.The vast majority of visitors stick to the peninsula but Borneo is well worth the time and money to reach.
So much to see, so much to do. Thailand boasts some of the better public transport in the region so getting around can be fast and affordable. If time is limited, stick to one part of the country.
Long and thin, Vietnam looks straightforward, but the going is slow and the distances getting from A to B can really bite into a tight trip plan. If you're not on an open-ended trip, plan carefully.
This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.