Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, is Vietnam’s largest and most chaotic city. It is also the most populous and the most visited, served by the country’s busiest airport. It is a bustling metropolis. It has all the key signs of a big city in a developing world: noise, crowds, chaos, pollution, and an energy that can’t be contained. Life here seems to move at a much faster pace.
How to Get to Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City is served by Tan Son Nhat International Airport (IATA: SGN), Vietnam’s busiest airport. It’s designed to accommodate 25 million passengers, but in 2016, a record number of passengers hit over 32 million, so expect some congestion if this is your gateway to the city.
Part of the reason why Ho Chi Minh City is popular among tourists is its proximity to other destinations, not just in Vietnam, but also Cambodia. Making it a compelling entry point for those planning a multi-city or multi-country backpacking tour. From Ho Chi Minh City, you can easily reach Mui Ne and Da Lat, and even Phnom Penh in Cambodia.
Best Time to Visit
Unlike Hanoi in the north that sees climate changes akin to the four seasons, Ho Chi Minh City only has two seasons – dry (Dec-Apr) and wet (May-Nov). It stays warm throughout the year with an average temperature of about 28°C. Dry season: Ho Chi Minh City’s dry season is from December to April. It’s considered the best time of the year to visit Saigon even though it’s also the warmest. Wet season: The wet season in Ho Chi Minh City is from May until November. Humidity is at its highest and tropical storms are more frequent.
When we visited Ho Chi Minh City in early May, the weather was hot, sticky and humid. Weather-wise, January to March seems like the best time to visit Ho Chi Minh City. The skies are clear, temperatures are relatively mild, and humidity is at its lowest.
How Long to Stay
For many travelers Ho Chi Minh City is just a stopover city before moving to less urban destinations, like Mui Ne or Da Lat in the next day or two. We stayed three full days in this bustling and chaotic city to see the best of Ho Chi Minh City, this included one day tour to Mekong Delta and half day tour to Cu Chi Tunnels before moving on to other parts of the country.
Ho Chi Minh City Airport to City Center
A trip from the airport to downtown Ho Chi Minh takes around 45 minutes to over an hour, depending on your mode of transfer and traffic conditions.
- By private transfer: We used private transfers going in to Ho Chi Minh City as this is the easiest way to get to our hotel from the airport, though they won’t be the cheapest.
- By uber/grab: Grab and Uber are popular for convenient & safe rides to/from the airport & around the city. As you know, you will need mobile internet to use ride-sharing apps. So, get a data sim card or 3G/4G pocket Wi-Fi.
- By taxi: As you exit the terminal, you’ll be greeted by taxi drivers offering their services. To avoid getting ripped off, don’t pay any attention to them. Drivers operating at the airport are notorious for overcharging clueless international passengers. Be sure go with the two most reliable companies – Mai Linh (white and green) and Vinasun (white).
- By bus: Bus #152 – these are the older green buses. The cheapest way to reach the city center. After exiting the terminal, turn right and you’ll see the airport’s bus station. A bus departs every 15-20 minutes until 6 pm only. Another option is you can take Bus #109 – these are the yellow airport shuttle buses that are in much better condition than the green ones. It leaves the airport for Pham Ngu Lao Street every 15-20 minutes from 5:30 am-1:30 am.
Where to Exchange Currency
The best places to exchange currency in Vietnam are at banks and gold/jewelry shops. Almost every single jewelry store in Ho Chi Minh City will exchange your money. Jewelry stores in Ho Chi Minh City are known to give you the best rates.
I’ve read that you can exchange currency at some hotels as well, but the rates generally aren’t as good or they charge you an additional fee for the service. If you just arrived at the airport, there are rows of money changers after the custom check where they scan your luggage. These money changers do not have the best rate but it is essential to change some money for taxi’s to the city.
Rent a Pocket Wi-Fi Device
Staying connected in Ho Chi Minh City will prove useful when going around because of the language barrier. Therefore, a constant Wi-Fi connection is a must when traveling these days. You’ll need it to do research, convert currencies, use ride-sharing apps, stay connected on social media, etc. You can rent a pocket Wi-Fi from Klook. It can be delivered to your hotel, so there is no need to worry about going out of the way to pick it up. Just ask the front desk if there is a pocket Wi-Fi for you upon check in.
These are the top 3 districts in the city: District 1 – Pham Ngu Lao (best for nightlife), District 1 – Dong Khoi Street area (best for first timer), District 2 – Thao Dien (best for upscale cafes and restaurants), and District 5 – Cholon (best for local wholesale market).
If you want particular hotel names per district, I advise you read our ‘Where to Stay in Ho Chi Minh City’ article.
Be Confident While Crossing the Street
Motorbike traffic in Ho Chi Minh City is insane, every day is a battle with the countless motorbikes. They are speedy, reckless, and oblivious to the crossing pedestrians. Find a pedestrian lane and look to your left and right before crossing. When you do, commit to it. Don’t stop or hesitate in the middle because drivers expect you to keep on walking.
What to Pack
When packing for Vietnam, less is more. You will be thankful you packed light when walking around with your bag in the tropical heat. Casual, beach styles clothing and athletic ware will be your favorite clothing staples in this humid country.
Here are some Vietnam-specific items we’d recommend packing:
- Bug repellent
- Insulated water bottle
- Hat and sunglasses
- Loose, lightweight clothes & layers
- Swim suit
- KEEN sandal (we’d recommend these instead of hiking boots as they are less bulky and are good for walking through water)
- I hope that you find this guide useful. I’m only sharing some of the things I learned from our trip.