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Useful Tips

Arrival in and departure from the Ho Chi Minh International Airport;
immigration and visa-on-arrival

For comprehensive information about the Tan Son Nhat International Airport (SGN) and flight status, please click.

Please note that the airport departure tax for domestic flights ($2) and international ones ($14) are included in the air tickets; even low cost carriers like Air Asia often include the airport tax so you do not have to worry about paying extra.

The airport is conveniently located about eight kilometres from the heart of the city. The international terminal used to offer duty free shopping after you landed, but that ended in early 2010 – purchase such items at the airport from which you are departing to visit Vietnam. Both terminals have limited food offerings at high prices once you pass immigration on your outbound journey. Note that airport shops and food outlets past immigration list prices in US-Dollars, and will take your Dong at grossly unfavorable rates. Thus, do not plan on spending any leftover dong at the airport.

Immigration protocols at the airport are not very streamlined, and if your flight happens to arrive at the same time as another flight with many non- Vietnamese citizens, be prepared for a long wait at the visa approval desk. Staff members do not speak much English and they process visa requests in random order - many times just taking whichever request form happens to be on the top of the pile. Visa-seekers are advised to stand close to the visa approval desk and ensure that their request form is not continuously being shuffled to the bottom of the pile.

If you need a visa on arrival you must go to the counter marked Landing Visa to the left of the immigration lines before queuing for immigration control.
For most passengers it is no longer necessary to fill in any immigration or customs declaration cards (the latter may be necessary if you are intending to stay in Vietnam for a long period, or carrying unusual goods.)

Attractions and Hallmarks

Today, the city's core is still adorned with wide elegant boulevards and historic French colonial buildings. The majority of these tourist spots are located in District 1 and are a short leisurely distance from each other. The most prominent structures in the city centre are the Reunification Palace (Dinh Thống Nhất), City Hall (Ủy ban nhân dân Thành phố), Municipal Theatre (Nhà hát thành phố, also known as the Opera House), City Post Office (Bưu điện thành phố), State Bank Office (Ngân hàng nhà nước), City People's Court (Tòa án nhân dân thành phố) and Notre-Dame Cathedral (Nhà thờ Đức Bà). Some of the historic hotels are the Hotel Majestic, dating from the French colonial era, and the Rex and Caravelle hotels are former hangouts for American officers and war correspondents in the 1960s/70s.

The city has various museums including the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, Museum of Vietnamese History, the Revolutionary Museum, the Museum of south-eastern Armed Forces, the War Remnants Museum, the Museum of Southern Women, the Museum of Fine Art, the Nha Rong Memorial House, and the Ben Duoc Relic of Underground Tunnels. The Củ Chi tunnels are north-west of the city in Củ Chi District. The Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens, in District 1, dates from 1865. The Đầm Sen Tourist and Cultural Park, Suối Tiên Amusement and Culture Park, and Cần Giờ's Eco beach resort are three recreational sites inside the city which are popular with tourists.

Aside from the Municipal Theatre, there are other places of entertainment such as the Bến Thành theatre, Hòa Bình theatre, and the Lan Anh Music Stage. Ho Chi Minh City is home to hundreds of cinemas and theatres, with cinema and drama theatre revenue accounting for 60–70% of Vietnam's total revenue in this industry.[citation needed] Unlike other theatrical organisations found in Vietnam's provinces and municipalities, residents of Ho Chi Minh City keep their theatres active without the support of subsidies from the Vietnamese government. The city is also home to most of the private film companies in Vietnam.

Banks and money

Money

The official currency in Vietnam is Dong. The Dong is non-convertible and in October 2015 trades at approximately 22,300 to USD. You can use the website of Vietcombank to see the daily exchange rate. The US dollar, preferably crisp clean bills, is widely accepted among major shops and restaurants. The downside to this is that the prices will be converted from Dong at the vendor's chosen exchange rate, which may or may not be close to the official exchange rate, and will be rounded up to the nearest USD, making it more expensive than the cost in Dong.

Please note that you’ve got to make sure that the Vietnamese notes you receive are not torn, this is because many shops and restaurants will not accept them. The largest denomination is currently 500,000 dong (approx. USD 24). Be careful, the 20,000 notes look only slightly different from the 500,000 one but the value is a big gap. Handy tip: Keep 500,000 dong notes separate from your other dong notes. Less chance of confusion then. Other paper notes are 100, 200, 500, 1,000, 2,000, 5,000; 10,000, 20,000, 50,000, 100,000, 200,000, 500,000 Dong. Most are clearly identifiable by color. You can get a reference from Wikipedia or doing a search for Vietnamese currency.

Please note it is illegal to list prices or ask for payment in any currency that is not the Dong.

The Euro, Pound and various other currencies are also easy to exchange. If you intend to exchange your home currency for Dong, ensure your notes are clean and undamaged, as banks and other exchanges will not accept any notes which are torn, excessively crumpled or have writing on them.  Visa and Master card are becoming more accepted in many of the bigger hotels and restaurants, especially in the larger cities with usually a surcharge of 3%.
When you are agreeing prices with Taxi drivers or shops, always use Dong to save arguments later about the exchange rate you were expecting.  While most will use the official rate of the national banks, some do try to argue differently.  Always double check the conversion rate you have been offered.

Also with such high denominations of note, be careful of common scams run by street sellers where you are short changed by a factor of ten (eg as part of your change, you may receive five 2000 dong notes as "100,000 VND!").

Please note that outside Vietnam the Dong is normally not accepted (excluding Cambodia and Laos), so before leaving the country remember to exchange any Dong left. In Saigon airport you can change before immigration at two bank booths that use the standard rate plus 2% fee. After immigration there are two more small booths that charge no fee, no receipt and standard rate. On arrival there are two exchange booths with a normal exchange rate and a bunch of ATMs outside turning right.

Banking

There are a number of international banks operating in Ho Chi Minh City with 24hour cash withdrawal facilities. Most ATMs enables you to get cash from VISA, MASTER CARD, Cirrus, Maestro, Plus and JCB network.
In HCM City the best choice may still be (November 2015) Commonwealth Bank (Australia) with a 40,000d fee and a max limit of more than 10.000.000d, 4 ATMs around Bui Vien St, no plan to extend the net ouside HCMC. ANZ and HSBC have a 10.000.000d and  4,800,000d but with high fees.

Citibank ATM at HCM Airport permits withdrawals of 8,500,000 Dong. Donga can go up to 5.000.000 Dong but it only accepts card from the Visa circuit, no MasterCard.
There is nothing to stop you putting your card back in to get more money out, but remember you are still subject to your own bank's daily cash withdrawal limits. Also, ensure you tell your bank before travelling to Vietnam if you intend to use your card to withdraw cash from ATM's. The machines here use the magnetic strip not the more secure chip technology.

Dining

Ho Chi Minh city is not a place where you will easily go hungry, regardless of your budget.
Like many of Vietnam's smaller cities, the city boasts a multitude of restaurants serving typical Vietnamese dishes such as the world-famous phở soup or rice vermicelli. On-a-budget travellers most often frequent the "Western Quarter" on Phạm Ngũ Lão Street and Bùi Viện Street, District 1.
A glut of foreign business people with expense accounts has created plenty of elegant, albeit overpriced restaurants. Many of these places are pretentious and offer only passable food, though.
Most of the Vietnamese restaurants which cater to the business community are quite Westernized. If you insist on a crisp, white table cloth, the best of these is Blue Ginger, housed in a former journalists’ club at 37 Nam Ky Khai Nghia. Viet Nam House upstairs at 4 Nguyen Thiep Street is under the same ownership. Both are magnificently decorated. You can expect fabulous service and live music.

Lemon Grass, at 93-95 Dong Khoi Street, is a bit more modest and relaxed, but still fairly good. On most nights, a string quartet entertains diners.

But for those who want to enjoy real Vietnamese food and contemporary Saigon living, forget about all the tourist restaurants with their white linens and bloated prices, and instead dine where the Vietnamese do. Thanks to cheap food and local whisky everyone makes merry in the city every night.

Don't leave Ho Chi Minh City without trying one of the banh xeo (pancake) places on Dinh Cong Trang Street, one of the most unusual eating experiences in the city. About one block down this little alley you will find hundreds of people eating outdoors around an open-air kitchen. While you may receive a menu which includes a variety of banh xeo and other specialties, it's just as easy to look at what other people are having and point. Except for some seafood dishes, the food is very cheap. Just keep ordering one dish at a time until you have had enough.

The small and sumptuously decorated Phu Xuan offers the traditional culinary specialties of Hue, Vietnamese cooking’s equivalent of Imperial court cuisine. Unlike most Saigon, flavors are rich and subtle, and dishes are beautifully presented. Although a bit more spendy than street food, Phu Xuan is a wonderful and relaxing place for a romantic supper or a small party. In District 3 at 128 Dinh Tien Hoang.

A final culinary curiosity is the Binh Soup Shop at 7 Ly Chinh Thang, in District 3. Before North Vietnamese tanks rolled down the streets in 1975, Viet Kong infiltrators used this little dive as their secret headquarters. While serving up helpings of noodle soup to thousands of unsuspecting Vietnamese and Americans, cooks and waiters here plotted sabotage, and ultimately, the fall of Saigon.

Electricity

As far as electricity standards, Vietnam is a special place with a great number of options, depending on your hotel or other facility’s choice. Check out for typical options and make sure you have an adaptor(s) (also available in the country) to charge/use your devices.

Getting around the city

For foreign visitors, getting around Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) by taxi is more convenient if you don't know the language or are unfamiliar with the city.
During day time it can be quite hot, so waiting for a bus and walking after getting off the bus is tiring. If you want some fun though, you can travel the whole day in the city by bus and it will cost you very little. Almost every bus is air conditioned and many are quite new.

There are more than 30 companies registered to operate public transport with over 2,500 buses on more than 115 routes to all districts in Ho Chi Minh City and to nearby provinces Dong Nai, Binh Duong, Tay Ninh and Long An.
Fare for one time use starts from VND6,000 per person. Small denomination bank notes are better for buses. Some of the city bus routes can be found at http://www.saigonbus.com.vn/vi.html

Popular routes:

Train can be used if you want to travel to other provinces. The Vietnam Railways website

Internet access and mobile phones usage

Please check out a great resource for more information.

Places of worship

The city has no shortage of places to worship. There are churches, pagodas and mosques sprinkled throughout the city, including:

Popular Entertainment and Night Life

If Ho Chi Minh has things to win the rivalry against Hanoi, it is the colorful night-life. Bars are open late and vary in style. Adding to that, Ho Chi Minh has many tea-houses which hosts live music performance of both Vietnamese and international artists. For a change, you can also go local for one night or two, hop into one of the street food stalls, order some drink and roasted peanuts and chat until midnight.

Tourism

If you have an afternoon or two to escape the frenetic pace of Ho Chi Minh City, several nearby places make interesting day trips. Within sight of Saigon, the Cu Chi Tunnels are part of an extensive network of underground passages which extend as far as Cambodia. Built by the Viet Cong, the tunnels played a strategic role in the Communists’ victory. Since the vast network included hospitals, kitchens, dormitories, weapons factories and even classrooms, thousands of guerillas could move themselves and their weapons undetected for great distances. A section of the tunnels is open to visitors. If you are small enough, you can try to wiggle through some of the narrow passageways. Another tunnel system at Ben Duoc was constructed just for tourists to crawl around in. If that’s not enough wartime nostalgia, you can even fire a variety of automatic weapons.

Another fascinating day trip is to Tay Ninh, the center of the Cao Dai religion, which has perhaps two million followers in Vietnam. Cao Dai is a 1920’s invention which took the best of Catholocism and Asia’s great religions, plus a dab of Hollywood. (The sect has bestowed sainthood on Victor Hugo and Winston Churchill, among others.) Visiting the ostentatious but breathtaking cathedral is the highlight of the trip to Tay Ninh. The noon worship service is open to visitors has been compared to a scene from Disney’s Fantasia.
Travel agencies around town offer a somewhat-hurried combination Cu Chi and Cao Dai Temple tour for just a few dollars.

Shopping

As corny as it sounds, the city is a paradise for shoppers. Beautiful handicrafts and deliciously tacky tourist junk are in endless supply. If you love to shop and have at least elementary bargaining skills and a good eye, your money will go a long way and you can enjoy virtually endless retail entertainment. Your bargaining skills will come in handy everywhere except major tourist shops. Generally speaking, anything not marked with a price sticker can be had for about two thirds the price first quoted.

While there are fine shops throughout District 1, there are several streets which are especially good for shopping, particularly Dong Khoi, and Le Thanh Ton behind the Rex Hotel. Many shops here sell jewelry, amber, ceramics, antiques, furniture, silk and apparel. The stalls along Le Loi Street between Ben Thanh Market and the New World Hotel sell all kinds of war surplus and hardware items.

Lacquerware made here is practically the best in the world and is still a real bargain. Scores of shops around District 1 sell boxes, trays, desk accessories, vases and other lacquerware items. Rosewood boxes and bowls are especially lovely. These make wonderful gifts.

If your friends at home love tacky tourist crap, you are in luck! You will find an astounding array of toy helicopters made from Coca Cola cans, fake Zippos and cigarette lighters made from hollow M-16 ammunition, and Good Morning Vietnam T-shirts.

HCMC's tailors are reminiscent of Hong Kong's before the seventies. Custom made shirts usually take three to four days and cost seven to ten dollars, not including the fabric.
Last but not least, if you are a coffee lover, buy enough to fill those empty corner of your luggage. Vietnamese coffees are among the best in the world, and very inexpensive. Because Saigonites drink so much of it, the beans on display in scores of shops around District 1 are always quite fresh. Whole beans sealed in a plastic bag will last quite well until you return, and provide a lingering souvenir of your visit to Ho Chi Minh City.

Visas

Most nationalities need visa to visit Ho Chi Minh city, check out the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visa_policy_of_Vietnam for more information.
The latest updates on visa-exempt nations are available here.
An increasingly popular alternative is to arrange a visa on arrival, which is convenient to those who live far away from an embassy or do not have time to send their passport by post.


© APTLD, 2017