Ho Chi Minh City Travel Guide for the First Time Visitors 2024

Ho Chi Minh city Independence Palace

Ho Chi Minh City, commonly known by its former name Saigon, is the largest and most exciting city in Vietnam. As the country’s commercial and financial hub, it’s a bustling metropolis filled with cars, scooters, and people. For first-time visitors, the sheer chaos of the city can be overwhelming. But with some preparation and knowledge, you can have an amazing time exploring all that this dynamic city has to offer. Here is a comprehensive travel guide to help you make the most of your first trip to Ho Chi Minh City.

How to apply for a Visa to Vietnam?

There are several options for obtaining a visa to visit Vietnam:

Apply e-Visa

The easiest option is to apply for an e-visa online. This allows you to get pre-approval and receive a visa on arrival at the airport. You can apply for an e-visa here up to 30 days before your trip. The cost is $25 USD and approval is usually granted within 3 working days. You must have a passport valid for at least 6 months beyond the end of your trip.

Apply Visa on Arrival (VOA)

Another option is to get a visa on arrival (VOA) when you land at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City. The VOA process is relatively quick and easy. You’ll need to fill out an application form, submit a passport photo, pay a stamping fee ($50 USD) in cash, and provide proof of onward travel. Approval is given on the spot.

Apply Visa at Vietnamese Embassy/ Consulate

You can also apply for a Vietnam visa by submitting an application at your nearest Vietnamese embassy or consulate. This takes 1-2 weeks for processing so you need to plan in advance. Fees start from $80 USD. You’ll need passport photos, completed application forms, passport, proof of travel, and processing fees.

Where to Exchange Currency?

The official currency of Vietnam is the Vietnamese Dong (VND). You can exchange currency at the airport, banks, official money changers, and many hotels in Ho Chi Minh City.

Always check exchange rates first and avoid illegal money changers on the street. Many hotels, restaurants, and shops in tourist areas will accept US Dollars and major credit cards, but you’ll need local currency for transportation, markets, street food, and attractions.

Some good places to exchange money in Ho Chi Minh City are:

  • Banks – Major banks like Vietcombank offer fair exchange rates and multiple branches.
  • Money exchanges – Professional exchanges at jewelry stores, gold shops or travel agencies often have better rates than banks.
  • Hotels – Many large hotels have currency exchange services with comparable rates to banks or money changers.
  • Tan Son Nhat Airport – There are exchange counters after clearing customs, as well as ATMs. Rates are usually not as good.

Always ask about the exchange rate and commission fees before conducting any currency exchange transaction. It’s also a good idea to exchange a small amount of money before your trip so you have some Dong on arrival.

Mobile Data Plan in Ho Chi Minh City?

Getting a local SIM card with a data plan is highly recommended for your stay in Ho Chi Minh City. This will allow you to use Google Maps to navigate, look up information on the go, use ride sharing apps, and stay connected.

Some top mobile providers in Vietnam are:

  • Viettel – This state-owned operator has the widest coverage and fastest 4G speeds. Their SIM cards start from 50,000 VND ($2 USD).
  • Vinaphone – Another reliable provider with good urban coverage. SIM cards start from 100,000 VND ($4 USD).
  • Mobifone – A third state-owned provider with competitive rates and speeds. SIMs start around 100,000 VND.

All three carriers offer prepaid data packages, including weekly unlimited plans from 100,000-200,000 VND ($4-8 USD). Bring your passport to purchase a SIM card. Top-up data vouchers are sold everywhere.

Alternatively, you can rent a 4G WiFi hotspot device at the airport on arrival. Prices start from $5 USD per day. This allows multiple devices to connect.

How to move from Tan Son Nhat airport to center city?

There are several transportation options to get from Tan Son Nhat International Airport to central Ho Chi Minh City:

Airport Shuttle Bus: The cheapest option is the public shuttle bus (152) which runs to the city center every 15-20 minutes and costs 5,000-10,000 VND ($0.20-0.40 USD). Tickets can be bought on the bus. The journey takes around 1 hour depending on traffic.

The drop-off is at the bus station on De Tham street in District 1. From there you can take a taxi or walk to your hotel. This bus can get crowded with luggage, so keep valuables close.

Public Bus: There are also public city bus routes 109 and 49 that run between the airport and the city center for around 5,000 VND per ticket. These can take up to 90 minutes with stops along the way.

Taxi or private car service: Taking a taxi from the airport is the fastest and most convenient option. Vinasun and Mai Linh taxis are reliable choices. Expect to pay around 200,000 VND ($8-10 USD).

You can also book a private car transfer in advance which will meet you at the airport arrivals hall. The cost is around $20-25 USD. This is worth it if you have a lot of luggage or want door-to-door service. Xanh SM and Grab are also readily available.

Best Time to Visit Ho Chi Minh City

The best time to visit Ho Chi Minh City is during the dry season from December to April. This allows you to avoid the hot, humid weather and heavy rainfall of the summer monsoon season.

Key things to consider for when to go:

  • December to February is the peak tourism season with comfortable temperatures around 25°C (77°F). Hotels tend to fill up quickly.
  • March to April sees temperatures starting to rise toward 30°C (86°F) but lower humidity. Fewer tourists, good airfares and hotel deals.
  • May to November is the rainy season. Showers are frequent and humidity is high. Attractions are less crowded but flooding can occur.
  • Tet Vietnamese New Year (late January or early February) is a big national holiday when most businesses close. Book accommodations well in advance if traveling at this time.

The shoulder seasons of March-April and November-December are good times for first-timers to visit Ho Chi Minh City. You’ll avoid the peak crowds and rain while still having warm, sunny weather.

Best location to stay for your first time in Ho Chi Minh City

For first-time visitors, the best area to stay in Ho Chi Minh City is District 1. This is right in the heart of the action with easy access to key attractions.

Some notable neighborhoods to consider:

  • Around Dong Khoi Street – Upscale area with high-end hotels, shopping and restaurants. Close to Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon River, and Municipal Theatre.
  • Near Ben Thanh Market – Lively area with budget hotels, street food, and market stalls. Good transport links. Noisy and chaotic.
  • Along Pham Ngu Lao Street – “Backpacker district” with inexpensive guesthouses, travel agencies, and tourist services. Lots of budget eateries. Can be noisy.
  • Around Nguyen Hue Walking Street – Modern boulevard near Saigon River. Trendy shops, dining, and luxury hotels. Very central location.
  • Near Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens – Greener, more peaceful area with mid-range lodging options. A short taxi ride to downtown.

For proximity to attractions, choose a hotel near Dong Khoi, Ben Thanh Market, or Nguyen Hue Street. Budget travelers tend to stay at Pham Ngu Lao. Verify location reviews and transportation access when booking.

Must-see attractions for your itinerary

For a great first visit to Ho Chi Minh City, be sure to include these top attractions in your itinerary:

  • Notre Dame Cathedral – Neo-Romanesque cathedral dating from 1880. Take in the impressive architecture and stained glass.
  • Central Post Office – Historic French colonial building near the cathedral. Great photo spot.
  • Reunification Palace – Former residence of the South Vietnamese president during the Vietnam War. Fascinating guided visits.
  • War Remnants Museum – Comprehensive look at the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese perspective. Moving exhibits.
  • Ben Thanh Market – Vast market selling everything from souvenirs to local dishes. Get lost in the maze of stalls.
  • Bitexco Financial Tower – 68-story skyscraper with observation deck providing great city views. The Helix wine bar is on the 52nd floor.
  • District 1 Street Food Tour – Experience local dishes like pho, banh mi, Vietnamese coffee at street stalls with a guide.
  • Cu Chi Tunnels – Day trip to the impressive 250 km underground tunnel network used during the Vietnam War.

With 1-3 full days, you can hit most of the highlights. Extend your stay to go further afield like the Mekong Delta.

Side trips from Ho Chi Minh City

To expand your Vietnam experience beyond Ho Chi Minh City, consider these popular day trips and excursions:

  • Mekong Delta – Take a boat tour of Vietnam’s massive river delta. Float along palm-lined canals, visit floating markets, and see traditional villages.
  • Cu Chi Tunnels – Tour the vast underground network of tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. Try crawling through some tunnels.
  • Cao Dai Temple – Marvel at the colorful architecture and observe the unique midday prayer service of this indigenous religion.
  • Vung Tau Beach – Relax on the beach and enjoy water sports like jet skiing and parasailing at this coastal city 2 hours from Ho Chi Minh.
  • Day trip to Dalat – Ride through mountainous landscapes to visit the French colonial hill station of Dalat. Tour pagodas, flower gardens, lakes, and waterfalls.
  • National Park day hikes – Trek through lush rainforests filled with exotic wildlife and waterfalls at Cat Tien or Lo Go Xa Mat National Parks.

Side trips can be booked through any travel agency in District 1. For the Mekong Delta, one day is sufficient, while overnight stays work better for farther destinations like Dalat.

Recommended food & drink to taste in Ho Chi Minh City

As a food-loving city, Ho Chi Minh offers plenty of incredible local dishes and flavors to savor. Here are top foods and drinks to try on your first visit:

  • Pho – Mouthwatering rice noodle soup with beef or chicken. A national staple.
  • Banh mi – Baguette sandwich stuffed with meats, pâté, pickled veggies and chili.
  • Vietnamese coffee – Rich, strong coffee dripped through a filter. Drink it over ice with condensed milk.
  • Spring rolls – Crispy rolls wrapped with shrimp, pork, rice noodles and herbs. Dip in nuoc cham sauce.
  • Banh xeo – Savory crepe filled with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts.
  • Goi cuon – Fresh rice paper rolls with vegetables and vermicelli.
  • Banh Khot – Mini savory pancakes with shrimp, served with fish sauce and herbs.
  • Broken rice dishes – Com tam plates of fried or grilled pork chops or chicken over broken rice.
  • Seafood hot pot – Shellfish, fish, vegetables and noodles cooked at your table in steaming broth.
  • Cao lau – Thick noodles mixed with pork, greens, and croutons. A Hoi An specialty.

Don’t miss the street food scene around Ben Thanh Market either. Locals are very welcoming if you want to sample new things!

How to Get Around in Ho Chi Minh City?

With over 9 million motorbikes crowding the streets, getting around Ho Chi Minh City can be daunting but there are plenty of options:

Walking: Walking works well to see the main downtown District 1 attractions, which are close together. Just watch out for motorbikes when crossing streets.

Taxi: Taxis are easy to find everywhere. Stick to reputable Vinasun or Mai Linh taxis and insist on the meter. Uber and Grab rides can also be booked through apps.

Motorbike Taxi: “Xe om” motorbike taxis offer quick, cheap rides but drive aggressively. Agree on a price beforehand and wear a helmet. Useful for shorter distances.

Public Bus: Public buses reach all corners of Ho Chi Minh City but routes are confusing for visitors. If you’re adventurous, apps like BusMap HCMC help navigate. Fares are around 7,000 VND ($0.30 USD).

Cyclo: These bicycle rickshaws can be fun for shorter trips but negotiate rates before hopping aboard. Around 30,000-50,000 VND ($1.30-$2.15 USD) per hour.

River Ferry: Ferries along the Saigon River cost a few thousand VND per ride but are mainly used by locals. Good way to see the cityscape if you have time.

How many days should I stay/Itinerary in Ho Chi Minh City?

For a fulfilling first visit to Ho Chi Minh City, plan to spend at least 3-5 days. This allows enough time to experience all the key attractions without feeling rushed.

Recommended itineraries:

3 Days in Ho Chi Minh City

  • Day 1 – Walk around Downtown District 1 (Notre Dame, Post Office, Reunification Palace). Do a street food tour.
  • Day 2 – Visit Cu Chi Tunnels and Cao Dai Temple on a full day group tour.
  • Day 3 – Shop at Ben Thanh Market. Do the War Remnants Museum and City Hall. Enjoy the nightlife.

5 Days in Ho Chi Minh City

  • Day 1 – Downtown District 1 attractions plus street food tour.
  • Day 2 – Mekong Delta group tour.
  • Day 3 – Visit more attractions like Saigon Skydeck, History Museum. Evening Vespa tour.
  • Day 4 – Day trip to Cao Dai Temple and Cu Chi tunnels.
  • Day 5 – Relax or shop, visit more museums, enjoy a rooftop cocktail bar.

Add extra days to take more side trips, like a 2-3 night Mekong Delta cruise, or trips to Dalat, Vung Tau, and the national parks nearby.

Common scams to avoid when travelling to Ho Chi Minh

As in any major tourist city, travelers should be aware of common scams and petty crimes when in Ho Chi Minh City:

  • Rigged taxi meters – Only use reputable, metered taxis like Vinasun and Mai Linh. Ignore touts offering fixed-price rides.
  • Currency exchange scams – Avoid shady money changers on the street. Use airport kiosks, banks, hotels, or reputable exchanges. Check rates first.
  • Inflated prices – Always negotiate prices for cyclo rides, motorbike taxis, and souvenirs before committing. Ask for the prices in writing.
  • Pickpockets and bag snatchers – Watch out for drive-by and foot snatchers, especially at crowded sites, markets, and bus stops. Carry bags away from the street.
  • Spiked food and drinks – Beware of accepting snacks, candies, cigarettes, or even nail care from overly friendly strangers. It could be drugged.
  • Fake hotels – Book only trusted hotels with multiple positive reviews online. Avoid places “recommended by a taxi driver”.
  • ATM and credit card scams – Check for tampering and cover your PIN when using ATMs. Only use those at banks or guarded areas.

Stay alert in crowded tourist areas and follow your instinct if an offer seems too good to be true. Ask your hotel or restaurant staff if unsure.

Safety trip Ho Chi Minh City for the first timers

Ho Chi Minh City is generally safe for travelers who take some basic precautions. Here are top safety tips for first-timers:

  • Keep valuables in hotel safe, use RFID-blocking bags when out.
  • Only take licensed taxis like Vinasun, Mai Linh with working meters.
  • Avoid poorly lit areas and deserted streets at night. Stick to main districts.
  • Carry small amounts of cash, leave passport in hotel safe unless needed.
  • Be vigilant of snatch thieves in crowded markets and transport hubs.
  • Research and book tours only through reputable agencies and companies.
  • Drink water only from sealed bottles to avoid illness. Be wary of ice.
  • Here are some additional safety tips for first-time visitors to Ho Chi Minh City:
  • Always check both ways when crossing the street – scooters come from every direction. Cross with locals if possible.
  • Don’t walk alone or display expensive cameras/phones in less touristy areas.
  • Get a local SIM card – this allows you to access Google Maps to navigate and stay on main streets.
  • Arrange airport transfers through your hotel – don’t take rides from touts.
  • Learn some basic Vietnamese phrases – this helps build rapport with locals who appreciate some effort.
  • Be cautious of petty crimes like drive-by bag snatching and pickpocketing. Keep bags away from the street side.
  • Avoid accepting food, drinks or cigarettes from overly friendly strangers – it could be laced with drugs.
  • Only drink sealed, bottled water and be wary of ice – best to avoid until you adjust.
  • Research non-tourist restaurants before going using review sites like TripAdvisor. Or ask hotel staff for recommendations.
  • Motorbike traffic is chaotic – look both ways, cross with locals, and avoid rush hour if possible when walking.
  • Always negotiate prices clearly for cyclos, motorbike taxis before getting on. Better to take trusted taxis like Vinasun.
  • Visit attractions as part of a tour group if venturing far outside the main tourist center until you orient yourself.
  • Register with your embassy/consulate and have emergency contacts on hand in case of issues with money, health or safety.

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