SAIGON ON A SHOESTRING – A BUDGET TRAVEL GUIDE
“Money’s too tight to mention” warbled Mick Hucknall, on Simply Red’s cover of the 1982 Valentine Brothers song of the same name. I am not sure if Britain’s red-haired exponent of blue-eyed soul had a budget trip to Ho Chi Minh City in mind at the time (probably not as Vietnam was effectively closed to tourists until 1986) but let’s assume he might want to visit on a shoestring some 30 years later. If you’re reading Michael – this is how to do it.
Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, The Pearl of the Orient, call it what you will but do visit if you can. Vietnam’s largest city, it’s financial heart, a city of innumerate construction cranes and shiny new high rise towers, a city you can literally watch growing before your eyes. In 2016 alongside the wide tree lined boulevards and the fast disappearing old colonial shop-houses, you can now see steel and glass monoliths standing tall watching over the incessant buzz of motorcycles down below. In Vietnam’s liveliest city there is something for everybody, and even in the rush towards the capitalist dream in this still one-party communist state, Saigon remains a wonderful place that can be enjoyed on the smallest of budgets.
For the majority of people getting to Vietnam and HCMC is going to be the most expensive part of your trip. If you are doing a multi stop in SE Asia and arriving from Thailand or Cambodia, not so much, but if you are flying straight here it will be the bulk of your cost – unless you are staying in a five-star hotel and fine dining of an evening – and if that’s the case what on earth are you reading this article for? Did the title not give it away?
There are direct flights from a few major cities in Europe, America and Australia too, Oz also benefits from some of the better value flights. Taking an indirect flight can reduce your costs, as can being flexible about when you fly. See below for the cheapest currently available one-way (returns will not be double the cost but the price will depend on which days you can travel) flight costs for June 2016, my thanks to Skyscanner for the info.
Cheapest Flights in June
|NYC – SGN||27 hours||Singapore Airlines||Singapore||$731|
|London – SGN||30 hours||Aeroflot||Moscow||$466|
|LA – SGN||28 hours||Singapore Airlines||Singapore||$692|
|Paris – SGN||20 hours||Jet Airways||Bombay, BKK||$411|
|Sydney – SGN||13 hours||Air Asia||Kuala Lumpur||$234|
|Auckland – SGN||17.5 hours||Air Asia||Kuala Lumpur||$332|
|Bangkok – SGN||1.5 hours||Nok Air||Direct||$32|
|Hanoi – SGN||2 hours||JetStar Asia||Direct||$55|
So we have quite a range of prices, the standout ones are BKK – SGN – that’s a steal at $32 (I could spend that on a pizza – and I probably wouldn’t share it either), and the value you can get from Australia as opposed to Europe looks good, these are not recommendations or the most comfortable flights – just the cheapest one way I could find in June. So now that you know about getting here – where are you going to stay hmmm?
One thing that always strikes the visitor to Vietnam is the popularity of the Eagles 1976 hit ‘Hotel California’ – it’s played in coffee shops, bars, fashion shops and many other places besides. And I just don’t know why. To my knowledge though there isn’t an actual Hotel California in HCMC, so you don’t have to worry about checking in and then never leaving. You also won’t have to worry about finding a hotel in Saigon – the city is packed with them, catering to all budgets. If you have ever had to travel last minute and found yourself struggling to get a hotel in your price range or even get a room at all, I can promise you that will NEVER happen in HCMC. We have the whole range here from a bed in a dorm up to penthouse suites at the Sheraton and everything in between.
Most tourists are going to want to stay in one of two places, either Central HCMC in the area around Ben Thanh Market in District 1 or what is known as the Backpacker area (Tay Ba Lo in Vnese if you’re interested) around Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien Streets – it’s still in D1 but around 1km to the west of the centre. If you should want to stay in outlying districts for any reason (maybe near the airport) you will not struggle to find a hotel in ANY district, I can’t emphasise enough – they are literally everywhere.
So what’s this going to set you back and what kind of ding do you get for your Dong (Dong is the currency of Vietnam – did you see what I did there?). From personal experience budget hotels in Vietnam are ok, the least you expect is cleanliness and security and you will get that even at the cheapest places. A bed in a room with a fan, a working shower and a door that locks is pretty much the minimum I would want. A good thing in Vietnam is pretty much every hotel is going to give you free wi-fi too. The absolute lowest night in your own room you will get is around $10 per night. That might not guarantee a window in your room and probably won’t include breakfast. But hey what’s that? A couple of lattes from Starbucks? let’s not grumble here. If you really want to squeeze every last cent/penny out of your trip you can go for a bed in a dorm, and this is something a lot of backpackers do – however this is going to run you about $6 – 8, for me I’d rather pay the extra 4 bucks for my own room and save elsewhere.
Should you book in advance or try and score a cheap room by going for a walk up rate at a place that has rooms to sell? Good question! In my experience you can get some deals this way – and if you arrive in the backpacker’s area in HCMC on the bus or even on foot, you are more than likely going to be approached by someone trying to fix you up a room. Now if you have the patience you can make this work – ask to see the room, enquire about the rate, and there’s nothing to stop you asking for a reduction – if they have a lot of rooms spare they might compromise with you. If not head on to the next place – this place has hundreds of hotels in just a few streets. One thing I will say is try and keep it polite, and remember this is their living.
Let’s have a look below and see what we can get (and yes I did personally ask for the walk up rate at each hotel!!)
|Rating||Name||Address||Room Type||Internet Rate||Walk up rate|
|1 star||My My Arthouse||219/8 Pham Ngu Lao street, district 01, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City,||Standard Double with Fan (no ac)||$12.70||$15|
|1 star||Blue River 2||54/13 Ky Con Str., District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
|Double with air con, TV and Breakfast!!||$10.44||$12|
|2 stars||Hotel Sunny||232 De Tham Str, Dist.1, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam||Double with Air con, window but no view||$13.78||$16|
|2 stars||Thien Hong Hotel||241/34 Pham Ngu Lao, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam||Double with Air con, TV and Wifi||$14||$14|
|3 stars||Bali B Hotel||65G Nguyen Thai Hoc, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam||Double with Air con, TV and Wifi||$14.40||$14|
|3 stars||Lien Thanh Hotel||37-39 Le Anh Xuan street, Ben Thanh ward, District 1, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam 700000||Superior Double, TV Wifi, Air Con ans Breakfast||$19.40 (was $135!!)||$30|
Some appealing deals there but the star rating system can be a bit arbitrary. All prices were found on internet booking sites on the weekend of 16th April. I don’t believe for a minute that the standard cost of the Lien Thanh Hotel is $135. For a gauge of quality you will be much better off checking a review site such as Tripadvisor as opposed to trusting the star rating – but you knew that already didn’t you? You scamp! In summary you will not struggle to find a good room for a reasonable price with even the smallest of effort.
Eats (and drinks!)
“You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I’m not hungry enough to eat six” – Yogi Berra
HCMC was recently voted as one of the ten best cities for street food by Forbes Magazine. It is one of the main reasons people visit. Here in Saigon it’s not like London or Rome with statues and churches and all manner of architectural delights. The thing that draws people here is the innate “alienness” of the culture, so different to our western ways of living, eating, drinking and, well, just being.
Have you ever heard the old cliché about English people talking about the weather (its true though – it really is), the same can be said for Vietnamese and food. It’s a constant topic of conversation, where it’s from, how its cooked, how much did it cost. Its ingrained in the language – a traditional and still used Vietnamese greeting to a friend is “An Com Chua?” This translates as have you eaten rice yet?
But enough of the waffling what about the scoffing? Well the good news is like hotels, there is something for everyone – all flavours, styles and prices. The hard part here is getting it down to a few recommendations. Oh and one other thing – fans of nose to tail (snooter to tooter) cooking will be served well here, nothing gets wasted. And if you are veggie? We’ve got your back.
Let’s keep it simple and recommend a few dishes and some snacks, how much to pay, where to get them.
The achingly hip darling of the sandwich world it seems. I imagine you have heard of this by now, a baguette lined with pate and Vietnamese style mayo, stuffed with several different types of meat and veggies, coriander and the ubiquitous chili. No fish sauce though – possibly one of the only Viet dishes that doesn’t have it. Banh Mi carts are everywhere in the city, helpfully identified by the words ‘Banh Mi’ written in various shades of dayglow colours on the front. Expect to pay between 12,000 to 20,000 dong for your butty.
p.s Banh Mi is probably not the best choice for veggies, but you can have ‘Banh mi op la’ which is omelette, and if you say “khong pate” you won’t get the meaty spread on it either.
p.p.s My Vietnamese wife saw a shop selling ‘Chicken Teriyaki Banh Mi’ in London. So that will be a Teriyaki sub then. She was livid. I thought she was going to start windmilling.
Banh Mi Huynh Hoa, 26 Le Thi Rieng, District 1, HCMC
I’m going to be a bit of a hypocrite now, this Banh Mi place is one of the pricier ones, but it is far and away the best as the nightly queues will testify. The big difference here is size, most Vietnamese eat Banh Mi as a snack or a light breakfast but get one from here and it’s a meal in itself, its sits heavy in your palm and could probably break a jewellers window if hurled with enough force. Interesting fact alert: the nickname for this place among locals is Banh Mi O Moi, which translates as Lesbian Banh Mi, because the owners are rumoured to be a Lesbian couple. And in a way only the Vietnamese can, some bright spark has opened a chain of Banh Mi shops officially called Banh Mi O Moi – but not connected to the original.
Com Tam / Com Binh Dan
Its rice time. Com Tam is broken rice where the grains are smashed up to take on an almost couscous like texture. This is usually served with a marinated pork chop (Com Suon) and veggies. Pretty much always served with sweetened fish sauce (nuoc cham)
Com Binh Dan means rice for the commoner, reflecting its status as a simple no nonsense meal. Can be served with fish, chicken, tofu and and many other things. A standard dish of either com tam or com binh dan will be in the region of 20k to 25k dong. That’s about a dollar for a balanced meal, some places will give you free iced tea (tra da), some will charge you 2000 (10 cents – what’s that? a nickel? Or is it a dime? I’m not American, I know it’s not a quarter though) dong for a glass. Here’s a tip too – you will probably be given a small wet towel in a plastic wrapper and if you use it you will be charged for it, again its only likely to be 10 or 15 cents. On the subject of tips (smooth ha?) you are not really expected to tip here in Vietnam, at some of the high end restaurants maybe but certainly not the places we are looking at. Good news for us stingy Brits because we never tip anyway and a welcome change for our cousins from the US of A.
I won’t recommend a place for rice – there are places everywhere they are very much of an equivalent standard and those that do set themselves apart reflect that in their pricing. To find one simply look for a street side stall or cart or small shop with the words Com Tam / Binh Dan and you are good to go. There are no menus and the food is usually cooked out back ahead of time and brought to the glass cart at the front and you can just point at what you want.
Probably Vietnam’s most famous dish, you have long ribbons of rice noodles served with Beef or Chicken in a big bowl of piping hot stock which has all sorts of greenery (cilantro, beansprouts, mint etc) crammed into it. There is greater variance in quality and cost of Pho places compared to banh mi or rice, going from roadside mobile cart operations with a couple of plastic chairs and tables that will charge under $1, to upmarket restaurants charging seven or eight times more. Expect to pay on average 30,000 vnd which is about $1.50. As usual use of cold towels will be charged and the cheapest option for a drink is iced tea, some places don’t even charge for it.
My recommendation for Ho Chi Minh City Budget Travel guides
413- 414 Nguyen Trai Street in District 5 and 303 Vo Van Tan in District 3.
The one in D3 on Vo Van Tan is about a 20 min walk from the tourist areas, but it’s worth the trip. A standard bowl here costs about $2.50 which I know isn’t the rock bottom cheapest but its great value nonetheless.
Another Vietnamese favourite which is gaining notoriety is Café Da (Iced Coffee). It’s absolutely cracking stuff and is sure to give you a jolt in the morning or whatever time you drink it. When prepared individually the grind is placed in a filter called a phin and the hot water slowly drips through to the glass below, sugar is usually added and then the whole thing is poured over ice. Also available is Café Sua Da (Iced Milk Coffee) which has the added ingredient of sweetened condensed milk, this produces a lovely velvety drink which is bit like a booze free Bailey’s. A glass from a roadside cart will be around 8,000 dong (35 cents) in an independent coffee shop around 20,000 dong (90 cents) but this will get you free iced tea, wifi and air conditioning (very useful here in HCMC) and some of the bigger chains charge around 35,000 dong ($1.60) for your Café Da.
I’m not going to recommend a place for two reasons – all my favourite places are near my house out in the ‘burbs so not really useful for tourists and there are good places everywhere. However please see the article below for an interesting discussion of Saigon’s coffee shops.
Beer, Beer we want more Beer
Saigon is a great place to knock the top off a cold one. The Vietnamese are fond of their beer too. Beer here is usually consumed with food and there doesn’t really exist a pub or bar scene outside of the bars aimed at tourists. There is Bia Hoi, which is fresh draught or keg beer (much more popular in Hanoi) and there is a popular place for this on Bui Vien Street in the heart of the backpacker area. Something to keep you ‘hopsters’ happy is a burgeoning craft beer scene here in HCMC, notably at Pasteur Street Brewing Company, 144 Pasteur Street, District 1 and BiaCraft at 90 Xuân Thủy, Thảo Điền, District 2. Note the beers at these places are really good but that is reflected in the price.
Regular beers found in most places are Bia Saigon and Bia Saigon Export, known respectively as Saigon green and Saigon red, Beer 333 which is a quite strong 5.2% and the ubiquitous Tiger Beer and Heineken. The great thing about beer in HCMC is the lack of an extraordinary mark up in restaurants, and if you are eating at a fairly budget restaurant you should be paying around 20,000 vnd for your brew, which is only a fraction more than the price in the local circle K convenience store.
If you are wanting to get refreshed on a budget a few of the bars in the tourist area of Bui Vien have regular happy hours and there are a couple that operate an all you can drink for a set price offer. I haven’t tried this so can’t comment on the quality or service, but I am sure it’s worth a go.
Things to Do
Here is the thing about HCMC for tourists, it’s not a tourist magnet like Paris, London or Rome. I have written elsewhere that it’s not about this church, that statue or an amazing fountain, the draw here is the culture, the food and the people. Having said that there are some must see places but literally you can see them in 2 days at a relaxed pace. What places and how much do they cost?
The reunification palace or independence palace as it also known, is most famous for being the site of the end of the Vietnam war on April 30th 1975, when a North Vietnamese tank crashed through the gates.
The palace in its current form has been on the site since 1962, when it was used as the home and workplace of the South Vietnamese president until the end of the war. It is now kept as a monument to the end of the war and a tourist attraction, and is like a step back in time to the 1960’s. It’s an interesting and pleasant way to spend a couple of hours. You can walk here easily if you are staying in the central tourist area and the backpacker district.
Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street, District 1, HCMC
Admission: 30,000 vnd (approx. $1.50)
Opening Hours : 7.30 – 11.00am, 1-4pm
Notre Dame Cathedral and Saigon Central Post Office.
These two fragments of Vietnam’s colonial past, stand next to each other in the centre of Saigon. Built in the 19th century by the occupying French – they are well worth a visit for those interested in architecture or history, and the good news campers is t
hat there is no admission charge, both are still working buildings. I won’t go in depth into their origins and facts as that is not the point if this guide, but be assured they should be on your itinerary.
Han Thuyen Street
Mass on Sundays – open mornings Monday to Saturday
Central Post Office
Dong Khoi Street, District 1, HCMC
Opening hours: 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
War Remnants Museum
The war remnants museum is a sobering way to spend a morning or afternoon in HCMC. There are many thought provoking exhibits which, naturally, focus mainly on the American War and do so from the North Vietnamese perspective. Information is dual language Vietnamese and English. Getting here easy as it is walking distance from the tourist areas. Should you not fancy walking in the heat – a taxi will cost around 30,000 vnd from Ben Thanh Market area.
28 Vo Van Tan Street
7.30am-noon & 1.30-5pm
Ben Thanh Market
I have included Ben Thanh as it’s a) free and b) most likely to be right on your doorstep. It’s a fine place for shopping for souvenirs, clothes and gifts, however, should you wish to see an authentic Saigon market in operation you won’t find it here. I am not saying there is anything wrong with that but Ben Thanh is almost now a tourist market only with a few stalls selling goods for locals.
Tran Hung Dao Street
Daily 8am – 6pm
Tao Dan Park
Parklife!! A great way to spend a morning is to take a leisurely stroll through the park, maybe get a café da and take some pics. Tao Dan Park is the biggest park in the centre of HCMC and great place for a spot of people watching. People come here to do Tai Chi, teenagers practice dance moves and young couples come to walk together amongst the trees. Very pleasant and costs nothing. Getting here from the tourist areas is super easy as it’s a short 15-minute trip on shanks’s pony as my old grandma used to say – if you are not familiar with old northern lady slang – that’s walking.
Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street
And that folks is all that she wrote. I hope the information is useful – please, like, share subscribe, tweet, comment or whatever else it is you crazy kids do to convey approval. Any questions will receive a reply so post away.