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Saigon

A First-Timers Travel Guide to Saigon

Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it’s also known, is the hub of southern Vietnam and is often the first places visitors experience in Vietnam. The sprawling metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City can be overwhelming to first-timers; the city has an energy that can appear chaotic but scratch below the surface and you’ll see the charm of Saigon, from the grandeur of the tourist sites to the back alley boutiques, pagodas and endless street food to feast upon. It can be overwhelming to visit a city so energetic but this travel guide to Saigon is here to help you plan your own trip.

I’ve lived in Saigon for over 5 years now, and love the city dearly. While I have many blogs and guides to both travels and life in Saigon, this guide is reserved for first-timers to the city. I really hope this helps you plan an epic trip to Saigon and you come away loving the city as much as I do.

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links, all marked with * Booking through these links generates a small commission for me at no extra cost to you.

Saigon at a glance

The city has two names, that are often interchanged; Saigon is the historic name for this city and is commonly used to describe the inner city, however, the official name is Ho Chi Minh City (changed from Saigon after the fall of Saigon in 1975). Ho Chi Minh City is the largest metropolitan area in Vietnam, located just north of the Mekong delta. With Saigon located at the bottom of the country, it is often the start or end destination for visitors to Vietnam.

How long to stay – I recommend 2 days in Saigon; one for hitting off the main tourist attractions and another for digging a bit deeper and exploring beyond District 1.

Best time of year – Nov to April is dry season with temps exceeding 30°C, while May to Oct is monsoon season and you can expect daily rain showers interspersed with sunshine. Temperatures remain above 28°C even in monsoon season.

Things to see in Saigon

Saigon has several historic sites to see, as well as museums and suburban districts to explore. Here are the top things to see and do in Saigon.

Send postcards from the Central Post Office

Take a stroll through the historic centre of Saigon, stopping at Central Post Office. The building retains its grand facade from the French occupation and is still fully operational. So hit the gift store and pick up postcards to send home (or grab one on book street nestled to the side of the post office). There are some nice cafes nearby, like Katinat, where you can sit to write.

Saigon Central Post Office📍 2 Công xã Paris, Bến Nghé, Quận 1

Visit the War Remnants Museum

The war remnants museum houses many exhibitions that detail some of the key moments and atrocities of the Vietnam-America war. A trip here will help you learn more about what happened on the ground during the war, though it is a sobering experience. Outside there are a series of tanks and fighter jets.

💰 15k
The War Remnants Museum📍 28 Võ Văn Tần, Phường 6, Quận 3

first timers travel guide to saigon ho chi minh city Vietnam

Hunt for hidden apartment cafes

One of the best places to see Saigon’s youthful side for yourself is in the cities old apartment cafes and malls. These are a series of boutique shops and quirky cafes hidden behind the facade of regular apartments, the most famous being the apartment building on Nguyen Hue walking street.

Apartment Cafes📍 42 Nguyễn Huệ, Bến Nghé, Quận 1

Explore the Pagodas of Cholon

South of the city centre lies District 5, home to Cholon, Saigon’s Chinatown. This area of Saigon is dotted with pagodas, ancient buildings and bustling markets. My favourite pagoda is the super colourful Quan Am. Be sure to stop by Hao Sy Phuong street to see the ancient, communal-style apartments that Saigon is home to.

✍️ For a more guided exploration book one of the interactive murder mystery tours with Urban Tales

How to get to Saigon

As the largest city in Vietnam, Saigon is extremely well serviced. The easiest ways to travel into the city are via the airport and bus.

Ho Chi Minh City airport, called Tan Son Nhat airport, has both a domestic and international terminal. The airport is located within the city, about 25 mins from the city centre making it cheap and easy to get to-and-from the airport. I normally book using Grab for efficiency, but there are also shuttle bus and public bus options into the city centre.

✍️ Taking the shuttle bus from Tan Son Nhat into Saigon

The bus is undoubtedly the cheapest option for travelling to Saigon, with routes from all major hotspots in the south. It is also the cheapest way to travel into Vietnam from Cambodia, with coaches passing through the Moc Bai border. I’ve found the easiest way to book transport in advance is through Baolau*, a search engine that compares all travel options to find the best one for you.

From Dalat

⏰  6.5hrs
💰  250k

From Mui Ne

⏰  5hr
💰 150k

From Can Tho

⏰  3.5hr
💰 150k

From Vung Tau

⏰  2hrs
💰 160k

The main connection into Saigon train station is from Phan Thiet, next to Mui Ne. I’ve found the easiest way to book transport in advance is through Baolau*, a search engine that compares all travel options to find the best one for you.

From Phan Thiet

⏰ 3.45 hrs
💰 160k

Getting around Saigon

While District 1 area of Saigon is very walkable, the heat and humidity can make it challenging. Most people use taxis and ride-hailing apps, like Grab (motorbikes and cars), GoViet (motorbike only) and Be (motorbike only), to travel around the city. Saigon is also serviced by an extensive and cheap public bus service. You can use BusMap to find routes and fares. The majority of buses operating in the inner city are clean and most have air conditioning.

Unless you are living in Saigon or planning to take a day trip out of the city, I don’t recommend renting a motorbike here. The roads are always busy with motorbikes and driving without any experience of the roads is unwise. For more information on motorbiking in Vietnam, check out my Complete Guide to Motorbiking Vietnam.

What to eat in Saigon

In addition to the popular dishes that can be found all over Vietnam, the south has a few dishes that you should try while you’re here. Two of the most popular (and my personal favourites) are bun thit nuong and com tam, both of which are not common in the north of Vietnam.

Bun Thit Nuong

Bun thit nuong claims that spot as my all-time favourite Vietnamese dish. This dry noodle salad is prepared with a selection of herbs, a bed of vermicelli noodles and topped with grilled pork, spring rolls, peanuts and a drizzle of sweet and spicy southern fish sauce. You can find this dish all over Saigon from street vendors, normally in the morning and up until lunchtime, but rarely after 2pm.

Chi Tuyen📍 175C Cô Giang, Phường Cô Giang, Quận 1
My favourite street vendor📍 55 Võ Văn Tần, phường 6, Quận 3

Com tam

Com tam is one of the most common street foods in Vietnam, though it is more commonly eaten in the south and I’ve even had northern friends ask me what it is. Com tam translates to “broken rice”, describing the broken grains that are cooked. Normally it’s served with grilled pork and veggies, my local spot serves it with kimchi and cucumber. But the beauty of com tam is that you can pick whatever meat or veggie topping you prefer, from chicken to fish, tofu to veggie-filled omelettes.

first timers travel guide to saigon ho chi minh city vietnam

Where to eat in District 1

These are my recommendations to try some nice, dine-in Vietnamese food in the heart of the Saigon.

📍 Bep Me In
📍 Quan Bui
📍 Rice Field

Where to Drink in District 1

These are some of my favourite spots to go for a nice cocktail in the city centre. For a backpacker party vibe check out Bui Vien street.

📍 Bananamama rooftop
📍 Layla Eatery and Bar
📍 Drinking and Healing

Where to stay in Saigon

For your first time in Saigon, I always recommend staying within District 1 as not only are you near to places of interest but you will find that a lot of stores and restaurants can speak a little English, making it all-around easier to explore and communicate.

The main backpacker area is around Pham Ngu Lao street (this is where most buses stop) and is perfect if you’re looking for hostels, bars and cheap food. I would recommend staying off of Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien streets, as these have lots of bars and clubs and the music goes on all night. For a restful night, stay on a quieter, nearby street.

For a more local area yet still within walking distance of the main sites, I recommend the Da Kao area of District 1 (it’s one of my favourite neighbourhoods in the city) and District 3.

I always book my accommodation with Booking.com* as their genius membership gets you deals with selected hotels in each destination. As I live in Saigon I haven’t stayed in many hotels in the city, however, based on the location and facilities these look to be great options:

Meander Saigon* (design hostel with sleek and quirky design)
The Hammock Hotel* (fun hipster vibe just a block away from Ben Thanh market)
Bare Chic* (boutique studios in the heart of district 1)
AYA Homestay 3* (beautiful private rooms, slightly removed from the tourist hotspots)

Daily Budget

Saigon is a city that can be experienced on any budget, from shoestring to luxury. Keep costs low by eating street food and staying in hostels. If you have the budget for it, Saigon is the perfect place to experience the luxuries of modern Vietnam, with cocktail bars, guided tours and high-class food.

🚗 <$10

Aside from your transport into the city, getting around Saigon is extremely cheap. If you are basing yourself in district 1 you’ll find almost everything within walking distance, and I recommend using Grab app to book cars and motorbikes for trips further away. Book transport into Saigon here*.

🍜 ~$15

Street food can be found easily for less than 50k ($2). If eating in a restaurant you can expect to spend 300k+ ($13), though of course, this depends on the restaurant.

🛏 ~$6-10

Saigon has accommodation to suit all budgets and can be kept extremely cheap by staying in a hostel near the backpacker district. Dorm beds start from as little as $3 and privates from $10. Browse all accommodation options here*.

📸 <$10

Many of the things to see and do as a first-timer in Saigon are free or cheap to enter keeping your costs low.

War Remnants Museum 💰 40k ($1.75)
Independence Palace 💰 40k ($1.75)

Daily budget: ~ $30 per day

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Meet Frances; Scottish lass turned Vietnam expat, and creator of this space. She can be found sippin’ ice tea’s and writing about her adventures from her sunny base of Saigon, Vietnam’s southern metropolis. All with a healthy side of researching her next road trip. With 5 years of living, travelling and scooting around Asia under her belt – let Frances be your guide to travelling the region.

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