First Impressions of Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

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Since I had booked my flights from Taiwan for this vacation in early January, I had to make do with some shitty flying times, including many red-eye flights, which left me exhausted the following day.

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My flights to Vietnam weren’t so bad but I cleared customs at about 2:30am. If you are planning on coming to Vietnam, don’t change your own currency into the Vietnamese Dong until you land. Since I was getting in very late, I did change a bit of money into Dongs and lost 30% or so in the exchange rate. The currency exchange stalls in the Saigon airport are open until 3am or so. That and relying on a credit card or ATMs seems the way to go. There are Citibanks here. The local currency can be confusing, especially because the 10,000 Dong bill and the 100,000 Dong bill look the same. Be careful, and don’t display too much cash in front of others.

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The other annoyance was the cost of the visa. I had applied for an evisa from the Vietnam embassy for multiple entry for $25 US but was told that I had to pay another $65 US for the stamping fee. The lowest cost you’re looking at is $15 US (letter) + $45 US (stamping fee) for a single entry visa.

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A friend had recommended the Ohana Hotel, 85 Nguyen Cong Tru, and I was pleasantly surprised upon checking in. It was recently constructed and quite luxurious for the price ($24 US/ night), accepts all major credit cards, including JCB, and PayPal through Agoda, but with extra fees.

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But before that, I met some Filipino travelers who were also going to wait for the bus. The 152 can be taken right in front of the airport and will cost you 5000 Dongs. A taxi from reputable companies like Vinasun (white with red lettering) or MaiLinh (green with white lettering) will cost you 140,000 + Dongs. Be wary of taxi scams. You’ll need to walk on the right side of the terminal to get to the domestic terminal where all the legitimate taxis are queuing up. Right in front of the airport, you’ll find private taxis and hire cars, who will try to get as much money as they can out of you.

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We walked by the big market and then went to the War Remnants Museum. It was interesting. I liked the vintage communist propaganda posters. It opens at 7:30am even on weekends. Entry is 15,000 Dongs.

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After that, I walked to my hotel, left my bag, and met my triip.me guide, which I had booked to kill the time between 9am and 1pm.

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She drove me to a mobifone store to get a SIM card (80,000 Dongs for 2.5Gb, which can be topped off for more). The ones the airport were a lot more expensive, 290,000 + Dongs, but promised unlimited data at high speeds.

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We then drank some street coffee (12,000 Dongs), which was excellent, and then she showed me the reunification palace, the cathedral, and the post office. There were hundreds of Vietnamese girls dressed up in traditional clothing taking selfies, and hiring photographers to take photos of themselves. It was quite strange. In Taiwan and probably in all Asian countries, people take a lot of selfies, but this was taking it to a whole new level.

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We had some great pho (65,000 Dongs) and then visited the pagoda temple before heading back. I took a rest and met some friends for dinner before turning in.

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Traffic is very aggressive here in Saigon. The drivers seem quite angry compared to the Philippines and Taiwan. Getting around is problematic. Motorcycle taxis are available and should cost half of what a reputable taxi ride costs, but you’ll have to bargain and know how far you are going. Taxi rides can get expensive quickly and I don’t think that taking a bicycle is an option because of the constant aggressive traffic. There are no cheap tricycles or jeepneys available.

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I noticed that Twitter was censored through my hotel’s WiFi but not in coffee shops, the 3G data service provider of my SIM card, and other places. Just be aware of this. The WiFi is a lot better than in the Philippines, and I’ve had no trouble streaming videos. Saigon feels quite modern. Expect free WiFi at any coffee shop you spend time in.

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I’ve received strong warnings from my tour guide and my friends about pickpockets, who operate in largely populated areas. Be wary of bumps and grabs, keep your valuables in zippered pockets, or if you are carrying a backpack, make sure that the front clasp is done up so that no one can simply grab it off you.

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Motorcycle rentals are available as well, though I have not seriously considered this option.

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If you are not dining in restaurants, and eating from stalls, stands, and other cheap options, you can get by at about 30,000-50,000 Dongs per meal. In most eateries, there will be extra food around you on your table, but they aren’t free or don’t come with your meal. You’ll have to pay if you eat them. I’ve seen pork wrapped in leaves, bananas, puddings, etc on my table.

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I generally will choose places where there are plenty of locals eating, meaning that generally the food will be good and well prepared. I’ve had food poisoning once on this trip, but this was in the Philippines. The coffee and food situation in Saigon seems a lot better, but a friend living here had gotten food poisoning the day before from vegetables. Apparently, most of the white noodles here are bleached, so carcinogenic. You should definitely try the Vietnamese meal pancakes. There is a whole ritual to eating them here, as is with many other dishes. You’ll share a pancake with friends, because they are quite large (110,000 Dongs at 46A Banh Xeo,
46 Đinh Công Tráng, Tân Định, 1, Hồ Chí Minh). You take a piece off with chopsticks, wrap it in lettuce, and then dunk it in a chili sauce that you’ve prepared. It’s quite good.

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ranjitwithkinginbehand.jpgI'm Range, your host. On the menu, photos, art, stories, entertainment and reviews. Links, maths, education and social issues. I'm in Quebec (Canada) or Taiwan (R.O.C.). Follow me on Twitter.

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