Travel Guide to Saigon, Vietnam

Saigon is the old name of Ho Chi Minh City, the largest city in Vietnam and its center of finance and trading. It is located in Southern Vietnam and closer to other Southeast Asian destinations such as Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos. 

Saigon is one of the most charming cities in Southeast Asia where warmth of an old world can still be felt. I personally love Saigon among the Asian places I have visited. It's so cool and lovely, and the tourist spots are easy to access.

Travel Guide to Saigon, Vietnam
Typical day in Saigon, Vietnam
Successful Fight for COVID-19
While the rest of Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, struggled to contain the spread of the virus, Vietnam appeared to have won the war against an unseen enemy.

Despite its closest location to China, the epicenter of the virus that gripped the world at the start of the year, and continue to ravage nations until today, Vietnam has amazingly prevented the worst spread of the disease in the country.

Home to 97 million people, Vietnam's response to COVID-19 impressed the world. As of May 2020, it has only 328 confirmed cases and zero deaths!

How they managed to keep the virus at bay considering the country has a less advanced healthcare system compare to other nations in the region?

According to an article in CNN, Vietnam started preparing for the virus outbreak long before Chinese authorities admitted that there's a human to human transmission of the disease and long before the World Health Organization declared it as a global emergency.

"We were not only waiting for guidelines from WHO. We used the data we gathered from outside and inside (the country to) decide to take action early," said Pham Quang Thai, deputy head of the Infection Control Department at the National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology in Hanoi.

Travel Guide to Saigon, Vietnam
Motorbike is their primary mode of transportation

In the middle of January this year, the aviation authorities in Vietnam cancelled all flights coming from Wuhan after two Chinese Nationals living in Vietnam tested positive of the virus after visiting Wuhan.

By February, with only just six cases of the virus in the country, the government declared it as a national epidemic, all flights between Vietnam and China were halted.

Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam was ordering government agencies to take "drastic measures" to prevent the disease from spreading into Vietnam, strengthening medical quarantine at border gates, airports and seaports.

Now, the country is just one of the fewest nations in the world with zero death case of COVID-19. They only had three weeks nationwide lockdown, social distancing rules were lifted in April, classes and business reopened and life is gradually returning to normal.

Moreover, the country is exercising motorbikes as its primary mode of transportation long before the health crisis began. And Vietnam has no jeepney in mass transport, they only have buses, taxis and motorbikes.
Travel Guide to Saigon, Vietnam
Strolling in Saigon in 2015 January

The Resilience of Saigon

Saigon itself is a survival of many atrocities and crisis. They stood and survived the harshest test of times in the past. 

It endured many struggles, poverty and political tensions and was once the subject of a proxy war between the Soviet Union and the United States.

For more than nine centuries it was under the foreign rule. France took position of Southern Vietnam in 1862, and made Saigon its capital. It was put under the French Indochina rule with Cambodia and Laos.

The French rule ended in 1955, and Southern Vietnam became a socialist government, but political tension against Northern Vietnam, which was under the communist regime of the Viet Cong, led by Ho Chi Minh, continued.

The conflict blew off into a war, known as the Vietnam War, with Southern Vietnam supported by the United States, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia while the North was supported by the Soviet Union, known today as Russia, and China.

However, on April 30, 1975, the North communist party gained control and defeated the South. The defeat was known as The Fall of Saigon. In 1976, Saigon name was changed to Ho Chi Minh City but the central business district today is still known as Saigon.

Travel Guide to Saigon, Vietnam
At the public park during my visit

Memories of the past

Today, Saigon is a bustling city of unique charm, beauty, and interest. Westerners frequented the city, intrigued with its storied past and elegant French architecture. Saigon became the subject of so much curiosity when West-End musical, Miss Saigon, was launched.

Though they had fully recovered from the war, memories of the past still linger in the city. Classical Western buildings dominated the entire landscape. Structures of shops, boutiques and restaurants are still very much French in style.

Travel Guide to Saigon, Vietnam
Strolling around District 1 in Saigon

It's a place stepped in history but where one can still enjoy the life of the old times. The entire city of Saigon is spruced up with trees, flowers and beautiful public parks. It's a quaint city where loveliness of a relaxed place is truly felt.

It is an ideal place to visit for those who like motorbikes. Vietnam is one of the fewest remaining countries in the world that still utilized motorbikes as a primary mode of transportation.

Locals prefer scooters than cars. It's so amazing to see riders crunching across the city with their motorcycle whole day.

During our visit, I was amazed with this scene because it was my first time to be in a place that has motorbikes as transportation. It felt like an old world! There's a siklo for tourists to try, a two-wheeled bike similar to "padyak" in the Philippines.

Travel Guide to Saigon, Vietnam
On our way to the Notre Dame Cathedral

I have visited Saigon with two female friends in 2015 on New Year's day and it was such a fascinating experience. Beautiful, quiet, relax, and cool. I was so impressed with the unique charm of the city.

Blooms in season, public parks, and French colonial buildings are everywhere. District 1 is just a small area and tourists can even explore it on foot without any fear of getting lost. Souvenir's shops can be found everywhere.

There are street vendors just like in the Philippines, we even tasted a fresh buko juice while walking on our way to the Diamond Plaza, a shopping mall just across the Notre Dame Cathedral.

Travel Guide to Saigon, Vietnam
Notre dame cathedral

Saigon boasts a beautiful scenery of nature, the canopy of trees covered almost every major thoroughfare, and ancient trees dominated its public parks.

Formerly, the capital of Cochinchina during the French occupation, Saigon has rich history and fascinating culture.

Though often associated with the horror of war, the city has greatly recovered from the atrocities and now considered a tourism magnate in Southeast Asia. It's a lovely place to visit!

Here are 12 Reasons why you should visit this charming city.
1. Unique Culture of the Old World
Saigon still boasts the atmosphere of an old world, as though you are stepping back in time. Quaint streets, classic architecture, languid atmosphere. 

So relaxing! And when you visit this place, it feels like you're striding back in time, back to the warmth of the forgotten world.

Travel Guide to Saigon, Vietnam
Street in Saigon

Though public bus and taxi are available, the primary mode of transportation among locals is still motorbike. And this is what I love most about Saigon, the motorbikes dominated the avenues of the city, making the streets not super congested with bus and cars. Traffic is not terrible and environmental pollution is not worst.
2. The Paris of the Orient
Saigon has been colonized by France in the late part of the 19th century and the French influence is still very much alive in the city. 

French colonial buildings are everywhere and the city retained this type of architecture among its most recent buildings.

Travel Guide to Saigon, Vietnam
Central Post Office building

Most of the city's popular landmarks are designed under the French architecture influence. And the old buildings during the pre-Vietnam war had been preserved.

The opera house, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Central Post Office and the Independence Palace. These are located in district 1. Due to its classic French buildings and boutiques, Saigon is dubbed as the Paris of the Orient.

Travel Guide to Saigon, Vietnam
Notre Dame Cathed

Notre Dame Cathedral is one of the most popular attractions in Saigon. It's thoroughly French. Patterned after the Notre Dame Cathedral in France, the entire materials used in the construction were imported from France.

3. Cheaper Lifestyle

Saigon, despite its burgeoning economy and the most modern among Vietnam's cities, remains very affordable. With a cheaper lifestyle that is very much oriental and relax, a DIY (do-it-yourself) trip here on a budget is so much easier and stress-free.

Benh Thanh market, which is probably Vietnam's largest drygoods market, offers cheaper products, from authentic local handicrafts to imported goods. Shoppers can haggle for lower prices, even on imported items.

At night time, Benh Thanh rises into life and vibrancy. Night market stalls began its operations and more affordable goods are on display. Outdoor dining is also popular at this district.
4. Gateway to French Indochina Tour
Saigon is in Southern Vietnam, and therefore closer to other Southeast Asian countries with blossoming tourism industries. 

If you want to embark into a French Indochina tour (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar) then to Bangkok, Thailand by land, Saigon is an ideal starting point.

It is just eight hours away from Phnom Pehn city, the capital of Cambodia, and roughly 16 hours away from Angkor Park in Siem Reap, Cambodia. 

Traveling by land around the French Indochina is so much cheaper than by air. Though you have to endure the long travel, the road is safe and not bumpy.
5. Visit The Miss Saigon District
Every soul in Southeast Asia is probably aware by now that the world famous broadway musical, Miss Saigon, is actually inspired by a fictional scene during the Vietnam War at one of the glitzy pubs in Saigon.

The story is about a young Vietnamese girl who worked in a bar and fell in love with an American soldier, just as the city was about to be liberated by the North from the Americans.

Parallel to the story of Miss Saigon, the city indeed has a vibrant night life with its streets and bars being are filled with tourists. During our visit, I've seen street pubs sprung to life at night time.

This Miss Saigon storied life is still on a roll among Saigon's bar and night clubs, but some of it are not as tragic as those stories in bars during the Vietnam war.
6. The Siklo and Motorbike Rides
Saigon is still very much attached to the old tradition of its forefathers of riding a motorbike during the colonial days. In fact, despite the modern lifestyle of the world, the city is still relying on siklo and motorbikes as transportation.
Travel Guide to Saigon, Vietnam
Siklo ride around Saigon

Siklo is like a trisikad version in the Philippines only that the passenger is sitting in front. This is one of the most interesting local rides to try in Vietnam. I was able to try it and the feeling was surreal, both exciting and thrilling haha!

Siklo drivers are everywhere in the city, offering tourists with a city tour, but at a slighter expensive rate. You need to have a clear agreement with the driver before hopping in for a tour because most locals can hardly speak and understand English.

Locals prefer to ride in their motorbike when going to work or just going around the city. Motorbikes filled the street more than buses and taxis. Saigon has no jeepney.

Travel Guide to Saigon, Vietnam
On our way to Independence Palace

7. Not Overly Crowded

Unlike Metro Manila in my home country Philippines, Saigon is a very relaxing place where streets and avenues are not overly crowded. Rush hour is not terrible and people in the streets seem not in a hurry. They're just walking normally as if the day stands still.

During our visit, we just walked around by foot, roaming around district 1 and visiting tourist landmarks on our own. We just asked the locals with the direction and just proceeded to each destination without too much worries.

8. See the Independence Palace

Probably Saigon's center of glamour and history, Independence Palace showcases Saigon's interesting past, especially during the colonial days and wartime.

Travel Guide to Saigon, Vietnam
Inside the Independence Palace

Unique in its existence, this elegant palace in district 1 is a former home to the president of the Southern Vietnam. Today, the palace is a state owned museum where artifacts during the French occupation are on display.

This is one of the highlights of a Saigon tour where visitors will have a chance to learn Saigon's rich history through the palace's curated state rooms, banquet rooms, precious treasures and building design. Entrance fee is $2.00 and opens from 8Am to 4PM daily.

9. Cultural Heritage of the Orient

Saigon is a melting pot of the unique culture of the east and the west, an orient cultural heritage combines with the glamorous atmosphere of the French. Though very oriental in nature, the lovely city is still very much French in its architecture and boutique styles.

Travel Guide to Saigon, Vietnam
One of the oriental restaurants in Saigon

10. Eat and Shop

Saigon is Vietnam's premier city where shopping is made cheaper. The city is filled with shopping centers, night markets and boutiques selling high-end goods at very affordable prices.

Hand-woven items, embroideries and tapestries are everywhere and tourists can haggle at even lower prices. One of the best in Southeast Asian region!

Saigon is also home to tasty cuisine of the orient but authentic French food is very much available, even in food stalls. It is integrated in their local cuisine due to the influence of the French during colonial days. Common staples sold in the street food stalls have French twist like baguettes.
11. Home of the best coffee in Southeast Asia
Vietnam is the world's second largest producer of coffee next to Brazil, no wonder the country offers the best variety of coffee compared to other countries in Southeast Asia.

Asian Dolce Latte of Starbucks was inspired by one of the local coffee concoctions in Saigon, ca phe sua da. It's a traditional Vietnamese coffee recipe made form coarse ground dark roast coffee mixed with steamed condensed milk.

It's tastier and yummier when you are in Saigon. No wonder Starbucks was threatened when it opened its first store in Saigon in 2013. 

They made their own versions to lure locals to try Starbucks, the Asian Dolce Latte. Starbucks concocted it by mixing a double shot espresso with dolce sauce (made from steamed milk).

Asian Dolce Latte is my favorite hot coffee variety in Starbucks because it is very much Asian, it best suits to my palate. District 1 in Saigon is filled with many coffee shops serving authentic Vietnamese coffee. A great place for all coffee lovers.

12. A Unique Place To Chill

If you're extremely weary from the hustle and bustle of the city, fed up with smog and traffic in a dense urban place and longed to relax in a park filled with blooms and plants, or just want to take a walk in the street, Saigon is a perfect destination.

It's a quiet place without so much drama in the environment, no rush hour, people are not in a hurry. It's a beautiful place to feel the day just rolls into evening without getting stress on heavy traffic. And where daredevil bus drivers have no place in major thoroughfares.

Travel Guide to Saigon, Vietnam
Relaxing in a public park

How To Get To Saigon

There are daily flights from Manila to Ho Chi Minh city offered by major airlines. Cebu Pacific schedule going to Saigon is usually shortly before midnight. 

Although I haven't checked the new flight schedules of major airlines in the country if they had changed it following COVID-19 safety measures.

Travel time is just two hours and thirty minutes. Vietnam Standard Time is one hour behind the Philippine Standard Time.

Traveling around Saigon is very convenient. Taxi, bus, motorbikes are the common public transportation in the city but the cheaper means is bus. At the airport, bus #158 is the most common route going to district 1 and Benh Thanh market. Fare is VD5,000 (2015 rate).

Our Saigon Itinerary and Budget

Vietnam has no visa for Southeast Asian passport holders. Upon entering the country, Southeast Asian residents are given 30 days free of visa stay.

Day one of our visit

  • Departure, NAIA in Manila 11:45PM
  • Arrival, Ho Chi Minh city 1:45 AM
  • We slept at the airport until 7AM
  • Departed airport by 7:30AM through a bus ride (#158) going to Ben Thanh market in district 1.
  • Disembarked at Ben Thanh market.
  • We just walked to Lanlan hotel, just across Behn Thanh market.
  • Left our bags at the concierge of the hotel to start our day tour.
  • We just walked by foot visiting popular landmarks: Central post office, Notre dame cathedral, Diamond Plaza, Reunification palace.
  • The only entrance fee we paid was at the Reunification palace.
  • We haven't visited War Museum, but this is a good place to discover the history of Vietnam during the war.
  • Cu Chin channel and opera house are other interesting landmarks in Saigon.
  • Temples and pagodas are some of the most beautiful landmarks you could visit in Saigon.
  • Budget: Round trip airfare from Manila via Cebu Pacific - Php5,000
  • Bus ride from airport to Behn Thanh market - Php10.00 (VD5,000)
  • Breakfast and lunch - Php250.00
  • Reunification palace entrance - Php75
  • Hotel for one night - Php800.00 with complimentary breakfast
  • Dinner - Php120.00
  • Souvenir shopping - Php3,000
  • Travel tax from Manila - Php1,500
  • Siklo ride - Php250.00

Total budget: Php11,500 approximate

Important Reminder

Like most third world countries, pickpocketing is prevalent in Saigon. So secure your bag and wallet while walking around the city. However, assistance is within reach as the place has police visibility.

Before hopping in for siklo and motorbike rides, make a clear arrangement with the driver to come up with a precise rate on rides. Most of them are not good in English so propose for a clear agreement before taking a ride.

Saigon is ideal for DIY travelers, look for backpacker hostels and rooms around Pham Lau Street or in district 1. However, a two-star hotel in Saigon is already a nice accommodation with complimentary breakfast and very much affordable.

Saigon is cheaper and the city has plenty of markets for shopping. Haggle for a better price when you shop at night or day market. It is also a good place to shop for handicrafts and imported goods. A lot of option to choose from.

When you cross the border to Cambodia by land, don't book your ticket elsewhere, try to make an arrangement with the hotel concierge to reserve you a bus ticket. It is very convenient and less stress than booking online.

Bus companies will dispatch a shuttle to pick you up an hour before the trip to Cambodia so it's very convenient and hassle-free. You just wait in your room at the hotel and the staff will just call you up.

A Php15,000.00 or US$300.00 is enough for a 3-day tour in Saigon including airfare and hotel. During our visit in 2015, I only spent Php12,000 for our Saigon trip for 2 days. Currency of Vietnam is Vietnamese Dong.

Best Time To Visit Saigon

Unlike Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam located in the northern part of the country, Saigon is typically tropical where weather can be at its warmest. And coldest during wet season.

The best time to visit this city is between December to April where the weather is balmy, not warm nor wet. We visited Saigon on New Year's day and it was a very mild weather.

May to November is their wet season while December to April is the dry season in Southeastern Vietnam.

Vietnam is a predominantly Buddhist country but they do celebrate New Year, even Christmas as there are Christians living everywhere in the country, so expect some festive mood at the beginning of the year in Saigon. In fact, during our visit we still saw Christmas and New Year ornaments displayed in establishments.
Check our Budget Travel Guide for Saigon
This travel to Saigon commenced in 2015 January there might be changes in rate and packages and bus schedules in the present time. More travel story also about Saigon during our trip, click below links:

Saigon is so charming and lovely, it's my favorite city in Southeast Asia. An ideal place for budget travelers and people who just want to go on a day in a quiet place and just relax.
Travel Advisory in Vietnam due to COVID-19
Vietnam has lifted its social distancing rules since April 23 as no further community transmission of the virus has been recorded. Business and schools were reopened since then, they only had three-week lockdown, but safety measures are still in place.

The country remains close to foreigners, only local travel is allowed. For further travel advisory for tourists in Vietnam, CHECK THIS LINK
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