Ho Chi Minh City orientation

Ho Chi Minh City orientation

Around 2,100 square kilometres, 8.5 million people—22 million if you include the greater metropolitan area—and 7.5 million motorbikes. Not daunting at all, right? Ho Chi Minh City is big and it can be overwhelming to the first-time visitor. Here’s what you need to know.

More on Ho Chi Minh City

The districts
Backward L-shaped District 1 is considered the centre of Ho Chi Minh City. It's home to most of the historic landmarks, the city’s tallest tower and and Pham Ngu Lao, the Khao San Road of Vietnam.

Pham Ngu Lao is a backpacker hub where you’ll find a concentration of budget accommodation, travel agents, tour companies, bus companies and bars/restaurants catering to foreign travellers. Though once known for its cheap rooms and seedy watering holes, like Khao San, the neighbourhood is slowly undergoing gentrification. Footpaths have been made over and Bui Vien is now a walking street on weekends; boutique hotels and hip cafes now appear alongside the dives and hovels.

The old French colonial heart is today’s downtown core and commercial centre. Dong Khoi Street, formerly Rue Catinat, connects Notre Dame Cathedral and the Saigon Central Post Office down to Majestic Hotel at the river. Historic buildings like the Saigon Opera House and Caravelle Hotel are now interspersed with high-end department stores and shopping malls. One street parallel is Nguyen Hue Boulevard, now a walking street, dominated at the top by the former Saigon City Hall and a statue of Ho Chi Minh.

Parts of District 3 are also considered downtown. District 3 occupies District 1’s western borders and fits into the L-shape like a puzzle piece. Here you’ll find the War Remnants Museum and Turtle Lake, an artificial pond that’s a popular evening hangout spot.

To see “the real” Ho Chi Minh City, visitors must venture outside the sanitised world of District 1. Some of the outlying areas are worth exploring, especially Cholon, the Chinese quarter in District 5 and 6. Here you’ll find Binh Tay, one of the city’s biggest wholesale markets, as well as atmospheric temples and miles of narrow back alleys to explore.

Across the river, Districts 2 and 7 are where many expats have settled—a foreign city within a city. These bubbles, like the neighbourhoods of Thao Dien and An Phu, have modern housing complexes, shopping centres as well as a bumper crop of trendy Western-style cafes, bars and restaurants at Western-style prices. You will also find international schools, food chains and grocery stores catering to Western tastes.

Addresses in Ho Chi Minh City can be mildly confusing. An address reading Dong Khoi 220/12 means that the location is not on Dong Khoi but rather down an alley (hem) at Dong Khoi 220. Like Inception, the layering can go deeper: Dong Khoi 220/12/5 would mean down the alley at 220 Dong Khoi, then another alley at 220/12 Dong Khoi, building #5. 14/5 Ky Dong, Phuong 9, Quan 3 means down the alley at 14 Ky Dong St, building 5, Ward 9, District 3. This, by the way, is the address to Pho Mien Ga Ky Dong, a delicious chicken pho joint.

Be warned too that street names can change after a cross street or through a roundabout.

Safety tips
Before becoming overwhelmed and alarmed by this thorough, extensive list, keep in mind that very few violent acts have been reported against foreigners. Ho Chi Minh City is quite safe when compared to cities of a comparable size. However, like any metropolis, travellers should remain aware of some things. City-smarts, common sense and awareness of your surroundings go a long way in ensuring your safety. Exercise a healthy level of vigilance.

The most virulent threat are bag, phone and jewellery snatchings. Thieves especially target women with purses or any one-strap bag. Saigonese don’t wear a purse while on a motorbike; everything is stored in the bike's compartment or they use backpacks. Thieves will grab the purse while trying to knock the person down, sometimes even ruthlessly cutting the strap with a knife without concern for the victim. Many motorbike tour operators do not allow passengers to carry any bag. Don’t let yourself be a target.

The theft en vogue these days is snatching phones as people stand on street corners, foot paths or in front of tourist attractions. A motorbike whizzes by; bye bye to the iPhone. Before taking a photo, answering a message or watching the progress of your Uber taxi, be aware of your surroundings. It also can be stealthily lifted from your cafe table as you sit distracted by your book or laptop.

Don’t walk around flaunting wealth by wearing valuable necklaces, earrings and expensive watches. Thieves may rip off jewellery and flee. Also, expensive jewellery screams big wallet to vendors so going without could help get a better deal. Pickpocketing never goes out of fashion. Anything in your pockets or open purse is subject to be lifted.

Never stop for street children or crowds. Children selling postcards, flowers or books are a common diversion tactic. While one child may push themselves into you showing you their goods, another will be in your pockets. The children can be well dressed so it doesn’t seem so suspicious. Being bumped in any crowd, especially from behind, may be a distraction technique as someone is lifting your wallet.

If you are the victim of theft, attempt to contact police immediately though don’t be too hopeful. Optimistically, the local police want to reduce crime on tourists and a quick alert could mean the return of your stolen items. Remember, always try to stay calm as shouting, aggressive behaviour, anger or crying could lose you respect with the locals who could be trying to help. If you do not have a phone, a hotel or Western-friendly establishment may be willing to help you contact the police and translate.

When it comes to Pham Ngu Lao, beware the usual dangers and scams of backpacker hubs. Phone and bag snatchings are particularly rife in this area as the alleys are narrow and it is hard to manoeuvre away. Thieves also like to catch travellers off guard as they leave their accommodation with phone and bag in hand. Secure belongings before exiting.

In bars, never leave your glass unattended, watch out for your friends and don’t do bar tabs; pay as you go so there are no nasty surprises. Men: buy that flirtatious pretty woman drink after drink and you can get stuck with an enormous bill, both woman and bar cashing in. And the more you let that woman ply you with alcohol, the more likely you are to lose your wallet entirely. Gangs target tourists leaving bars, especially inebriated males. One person, like a woman pretending to sell something, will distract by blocking or groping the person while others remove his wallet. Other gang members prevent the victim from chasing. It all happens in seconds.

Women travellers, here’s a disturbing trend that has been happening in Vietnam’s large cities, including Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Danang: Men, often on motorbikes, have been known to sneak up on women walking or driving alone to grab their breast, grab between the legs or force a kiss. It is shocking and upsetting, not to mention dangerous if you are driving. It’s been known to happen in broad daylight, too. It may be a distraction technique to then steal your bag or it may be just plain stupid sexual harassment.

Safety is your main concern. So if you are driving, do what is safest, be it continue to drive or pull over. If you can keep your wits about you, immediately scream, yell, cause a commotion so he flees—they expect women to be shocked and silent. Try and remember the license plate, type of bike and any distinguishing features he has. Find safety, then find a local who can translate and help you report it to the police. It is unlikely that the police can or will do anything—Vietnam has a macho culture and blase laws on sexual harassment. However, an increase in reports, especially from foreigners, mounts pressure on officials to act. You can also report it to your country’s embassy.

Unwanted advances and groping have also been known to happen with xe om and on buses. You may want to avoid taking a motorbike taxi or riding a motorbike late at night.

Vietnam isn’t a touchy-feely society and is still relatively conservative when it comes to how men and women who are not related should behave. So if you’re in a public place like a bar or club and someone starts grabbing your arm or clothing, touching your leg, trying to hug you, this should immediately raise alarm bells.

Avoiding scams
The most common scam is with taxis and dodgy meters. There are only two meter taxi companies you should use in Ho Chi Minh City: Vinasun (white and green) or Mai Linh (green). Do a quick check of the car before getting in: the vehicle should be correctly branded, there should be an ID and meter on the dashboard. Scam taxis will even decorate their cars in the same colour or have the same name minus a letter. Scam taxis hang around Pham Ngu Lao, the tourist attractions and the airport. At the airport, know that you can choose whichever taxi company you want, so disregard any pressure tactics.

Even the locals can fall victim to taxi scams, which is why more and more Saigonese are using apps like Grab and Uber.

A scam to watch out for, especially in Pham Ngu Lao, is overbooking of accommodation. Travellers book online and when they arrive, they are shuffled to a different location. Sometimes the new location is comparable, but more often than not it isn’t any good. Generally speaking, places that do this will have developed a reputation for it online. If something doesn’t seem right, before you hand over your passport and agree to check in, ask to see the room. There should be no issue with being able to see the room beforehand so if you get the run-around, walk away.

A notorious scam in Vietnam (and elsewhere in Asia too, like Phnom Penh) is played out in a high-stakes card game. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Poker 21 scam’ or the ‘Blackjack scam’, this intricate hustle has an unsuspecting, solo traveller approached by a well-spoken man. After a great conversation, you will learn that this man’s niece/daughter/sister just so happens to be moving to your particular country of origin. In order to calm her fears about the dangers and the move, you will be invited over for a home-cooked meal and to meet this young woman so you can tell her about how awesome your country is.

Once at the house things begin to go sour. First, the woman in question won’t be home. Then there’s a story of a sick relative and they need money to cover her medical expenses. Then you meet the nephew/uncle/brother who happens to be on leave from his job as a cruise ship card dealer. The story and lure may vary—perhaps he will teach you a new kind of Blackjack game and how to cheat, or you’ll be offered the opportunity to join a high-end operation to cheat ultra-wealthy gamblers out of their riches—a surefire bet. Don’t have any money to raise the stakes? Hey, they’ll loan you that money!

Whatever the tale, essentially it is a hustle. No matter how many games you win, you will eventually lose big and be intimidated into paying up. The scenario seems ridiculous but these scammers are extremely charming, well spoken and bank on travellers feeling grateful for being invited to a local’s home/not knowing how to extricate themselves even with inner alarm bells going off as they tumble deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole. Bottomline: Avoid going off with charming strangers! Don’t engage in any informal gambling. Don’t tell strangers what hotel you’re staying at.

Cyclos are notorious for overcharging tourists. Even if you negotiate and agree to a price before you take a seat (as you absolutely should), they have been known to aggressively demand more at the end of the trip. Every so often the government makes noise about banning them altogether because they’ve become such a nuisance. In Saigon, the price for Vietnamese is 50,000 dong, or no more than 20,000, for a short journey, but foreigners are expected to pay more. Be prepared for a high asking price which can be bartered down to something more realistic; aim for 50,000 to 100,000 dong. Write down the agreed price (so there is no pretend miscommunication), choose a specific destination (such as the Reunification Palace) and ensure you are dropped off in a busy area—perhaps these steps will prevent being asked for more. Another way to protect yourself is to arrange the ride through a travel agent or hotel, paying a bit more for the comfort of having someone else culpable if things go awry. In fact, most cyclos these days aren’t hanging out at street corners like they used to; instead they are working freelance when the tour companies call.

Approached by someone at a bus station? Take whatever they say with a grain of salt—your bus is delayed, tickets are all sold out but I can help you get a new ticket, and so on. Buy tickets directly from the windows.

Travel agents can purchase train tickets for you. One scam is paying the price for the best category (soft sleeper air-con with four beds in a berth (nam mem dieu hoa) and ending up with a cheaper seat, with the agent pocketing the difference. Check and decipher the ticket. You can also familiarise yourself with the seat options/verify on the Vietnam Railways website: Do a search and you can find details on the scheduled train, car # and what kind of seat/sleeper it is.

Friendly vendors with their bamboo yoke and baskets of coconuts hang around tourist attractions like Reunification Palace. They’ll try to place it on people’s shoulders—it could be a distraction while someone reaches into pockets. Or it’s more often so people will laugh and use it as a photo op—just be aware you are expected to pay for it after, be it a tip or the suddenly not-so-friendly vendor bullying you into buying a coconut for 10-20 times what it should be. Want a photo? Negotiate the price before you take that snap. A coconut (not a photo of one!) on the street should cost 10,000-30,000 dong.

It's not a scam but foreigners are unaccustomed to this practice: Any extras such as a plate of peanuts, packaged wet towelette or iced green tea that is placed on the table is not free. It will usually cost a few thousand dong. In rare instances, some of the local joints that have become popular with tourists will try to take advantage by loading the table up with an excessive amount of extras. You shouldn’t be charged if you don’t consume so either refuse it when it comes or point it out when it’s time for the bill.

The police emergency number is 113. Try to find someone who can translate for you before you dial. Expect a different service from what you're used to in developed countries. Your hotel should be able to assist in contacting the tourist police—again, don’t have high expectations but it is important to report crimes nonetheless.

Whether a small ailment or medical emergency, the city has several privately owned and Western-run medical centres, hospitals and clinics, some open 24/7. We hope you have travel insurance because Western-standard medical care does cost money. For general practice (food poisoning, flu, blood tests) head to Family Medical Practice. For anything serious, we suggest flying out to Bangkok or Singapore. Their top-notch hospitals far surpass what is available in Ho Chi Minh City.

Family Medical Practice: Diamond Plaza, 34 Le Duan St, District; 1 T: (028) 3822 7848; http://www.vietnammedicalpractice.com/; open 24 hours.
Family Medical Practice District 2: 95 Thao Dien St, District 2; T: (028) 3744 2000; open Mon-Fri 08:00-17:00, Sat 08:30-12:30.
FV/Franco-Vietnamese Hospital: 6 Nguyen Luong Bang, District 7; T: (028) 5411 3500; http://www.fvhospital.com/
FV Saigon Clinic: Third floor, Bitexco Financial Tower, 2 Hai Trieu St, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1, T: (028) 6290 6167; http://www.fvhospital.com/fv-saigon-clinic/
International SOS/Raffles Medical Clinic: 167 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, District 3; T: (028) 3824 0777; https://www.rafflesmedicalgroup.com/international-clinics/locations/vietnam; open 24 hours.
Yersin International Clinic: 10 Truong Dinh St, Ward 6, District 3; T: (028) 3933 6688; http://www.yersinclinic.com/en/home; open Mon-Sat 07:30-17:00.
Cho Ray Hospital: 201B Nguyen Chi Thanh, District 5, T: (028) 3855 4137; http://choray.vn/

Vietnamese Currency
The official currency of Vietnam is Vietnamese Dong (VND). It is largely non-convertible meaning it is difficult to exchange outside the country. Convert any leftover dong you have before departing the country.

Vietnamese currency comes in the following denominations: 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000, 100,000, 200,000, 500,000. The trickiest are the 10,000 and 100,000 dong notes because of their similar yellow-green colour and the numbers can be mistaken at a glance. The 20,000 and 500,000 dong notes are both blue. Double check the denominations before handing or when receiving money to avoid a costly mistake.

The 500 dong note is a rarity. If owed that amount in change, shops usually give a candy instead.

In Ho Chi Minh City, credit cards are widely accepted at higher end hotel, shops, bars and restaurants. For everything else it’s cash.

Save smaller denominations for taxis and xe om because they seem to never, ever have change.

ATMs are plentiful, almost at every corner, and there’s a crop to greet the newly arrived at the airport. While other parts of the country still have a frustratingly low limit of 2,000,000 dong with a 20,000-40,000 dong withdrawal fee, some local banks in Ho Chi Minh City have upped it to 3,000,000. It’s also possible to find ATMs (usually attached with foreign banks) that dispense 4,000,000 dong like Citibank and HSBC; the withdrawal fee tends to be higher. ANZ will dispense 5,000,000 and up, and we’ve heard reports of as much as 20,000,000 dong being allowed. As in any country, be mindful of your surroundings when using the ATM and cover the pad when entering the pin, the simple way to prevent skimming.

Post Office
Saigon’s Central Post Office (Cong xa Paris Square, District 1) is one of the city’s tourist attractions, and it is still a working post office. Open Mon-Fri 07:00-19:00, Sat 07:00-18:00, Sun 08:00-18:00

There are small post offices all over the city. Look for the yellow, white and blue “Buu Dien” sign.

Mobile phone and SIM cards
SIM cards and plans are extremely inexpensive. The three major Vietnam telecom providers are MobiFone, VinaPhone and Viettel—stick with these ones. We’ve used all three and they are comparable in terms of price, service and speed, with 4G available in the cities and 3G outside of metropolitan areas.

If arriving into Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport, it’s easy to get a sim from one of the many booths right outside the arrivals exit. Otherwise, purchase them at mobile phone/electronic shops, shops in Pham Ngu Lao and most post offices, including the one attached to the exterior of the domestic airport building.

Most sellers will help to register the SIM and add the plan, which can be tricky as it involves SMS messages in Vietnamese. Plans are relatively cheap. For example, a Mobifone SIM and 12GB of data for a month costs 200,000 dong. A SIM for domestic calls for a month costs 100,000 dong. Alarm bells should go off if someone tries to sell a SIM and plan for more than 400,000-500,000 dong. To top-up funds, most convenience store-type places sell scratch cards.

There’s massage, and then there’s massage.

Despite the fact that prostitution is illegal in Vietnam, parts of Ho Chi Minh City such as Pham Ngu Lao and the Japanese neighbourhood have a reputation for massage, a euphemism for other services. It’s usually not difficult to tell at a glance what kind of establishment the place is and what they are in fact trying to sell.

On the other side of things, regular massage or treatment—no funny business—can be had at reputable spas and hotels around the city.

One of the best professional massages in Ho Chi Minh City is Golden Hands, run by Ms Hieu, an expert at kneading out knots and treating chronic problems. It’s a no frills treatment room and a massage by Ms Hieu costs 600,000 dong per hour while a massage with one of her trained, perfectly capable assistants is 250,000 dong per hour. Appointment required. Ensure you make it to the correct location as there are several joints in town with the same name. Golden Hands is at 31/3 Nguyen Dang Giai, Thao Dien Ward, District 2. T: (09) 0390 0690; http://goldenhandsvn.com/

The favourite saying is that Ho Chi Minh City has two seasons: hot and hotter. Located just north of the equator and only a few metres above sea level, the city is firmly planted in the tropics, with an average temperature of 32 Celsius, the heat and humidity exacerbated by traffic pollution. Weather can be broken into two seasons: the wet and the dry.

Dry season runs from December to April and is the season of choice for most travellers with December and January being the coolest months—it’s even possible to not break a sweat during this time. As the season progresses, it becomes increasingly dryer and hotter, with April highs hitting 40 degrees Celsius. That’s why locals, many who still go without air-con, get up at the crack of dawn and have a productive morning before a long mid-day siesta.

Wet season does make life in Ho Chi Minh City interesting. Running from May to November, high temperatures and high humidity culminate in an almost daily heavy afternoon downpour. The pattern is so predictable that it’s easy to time it with a lazy drink at a cafe or a museum stop. It usually lasts for an hour or two and afterwards, evening temperatures can be blessedly cooler (relatively speaking). The rain does create traffic headaches and it’s impossible to find a vacant taxi. We find it quite scary to ride a motorbike in the rain because if we can hardly see, how can others? We suggest to wait until it stops but most Saigonese just don a rain poncho, keep calm and motor on.

Flooding does occur in districts near the rivers and canals like District 2, and it can be severe. Ho Chi Minh City’s position at sea level, high tide and poor infrastructure mean that every year, ridiculous photos emerge of people waist deep in water pushing their motorbikes or people watching TV in their flooded homes. In all seriousness, there can be strong currents and downed electrical wires. If it looks bad, stay in. The airport has issues with flooding due to faulty drainage so expect delays.

Rainy season shouldn’t deter people from visiting. It is largely business as usual and it is low tourist season, which means there are great deals on hotels. Tours and attractions can also be less crowded.

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 the department at 196 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai St, Ward 6, District 3; T: (028) 3829 9398

Visa on arrival at Ho Chi Minh City airport Obtaining a Vietnam visa in advance is not always practical. If you are flying into Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport, one option is getting a visa approval letter through an agent. Having this government document will allow the person to pick up the Vietnam visa on arrival at the airport.

There are many agencies offering this service online, though it is not easy to tell which are legit. We have used both https://www.myvietnamvisa.com and https://www.vietnam-visa.com/ and they have worked exactly as advertised.

Applicants have to fill out a form, pay the fee (for the service, not the visa itself) and within a week they will receive the letter and instructions on what needs to be presented at the airport. At the airport, before passport control, there is a desk for this visa on arrival. There’s another form to fill, payment made in US dollars for the visa stamp (amount depending on what kind of visa, single vs multiple entry, number of days) and a wait. It can take anywhere from 15 minutes to over an hour.

What we don’t like about this system is that the visa approval letter from the agent has you and other applicants on this document, everyone’s full name, nationality, date of birth and passport number. It appears the companies/government deal with the requests in bulk. In this age of identity theft and hacking, it’s not a reassuring feeling. If this is a concern, obtain a visa from an embassy prior to your trip.

Reviewed by

Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you’ll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.

Further reading

4 other destinations in Saigon and surrounds

Learn more about Con Dao Islands
Con Dao Islands

What a getaway

Learn more about Nam Cat Tien National Park
Nam Cat Tien National Park

For nature lovers

Learn more about Tay Ninh
Tay Ninh

Home to the Cao Dai Holy See

Learn more about Vung Tau
Vung Tau

Saigon’s beach