Sprawled more than 800 square miles along the Saigon River, Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, is Vietnam’s largest and busiest city. The whirlwind of people, motorbikes, and sights feels overwhelming the first day or two, but travelers quickly slip into the city’s unique rhythm. Unsurprisingly, Ho Chi Minh City has an entirely different energy, culture, and climate than Hanoi, a thousand miles to the north. Although the French left Saigon in 1954 and the Americans in 1975, some of their influence lingers on.
Use this guide to become better acquainted with Ho Chi Minh City and find in-depth resources covering local customs, where to stay, how to save money, and more.
Planning Your Trip
- Best Time to Visit: The best time to visit Ho Chi Minh City is from December to April , when the weather is sunny and pleasant. The weeks before and during Tet, the Lunar New Year celebration in January or February, are the busiest time to be in Vietnam. Typhoons and heavy rainfall can cause flooding between September and November.
- Language: Vietnamese is the official language . Many residents also understand some French or English.
- Currency: The Vietnamese dong (VND) is the national currency. Prices in tourist areas are often quoted in U.S. dollars; some shops and hotels prefer dollars.
- Getting Around: Until the underground metro is finished, taxi is still the default way for travelers to get around Ho Chi Minh City. Buses are an inexpensive option. Grab, the local ridesharing service, is an excellent alternative to hailing taxis.
- Travel Tip: Although a lot of short-term visitors don’t wander too far from Pham Ngu Lao and District 1, there are many exciting neighborhoods to walk in Ho Chi Minh City! Get lost in Chinatown, wander former French colonial areas, and explore even farther afield for a bigger sample of Saigon.
Things to Do
Ho Chi Minh City is as diverse and rich with things to do as you would expect a city of 9 million to be. Busy Ben Thanh Market gets all the attention, but there are smaller markets for shopping and sampling street food. The museums around Ho Chi Minh City are an excellent option for waiting out afternoon thunderstorms, but once the weather clears, retreat to one of the many peaceful parks or pagodas around town for reflection.
- Water puppet shows are a unique, memorable thing to do in Ho Chi Minh City. Although there are other theaters offering shows, the Golden Dragon show is a long-running favorite. Make reservations in advance.
- Visiting the parks in Ho Chi Minh City is an enjoyable way to escape the scooter traffic, particularly in the mornings, when local residents are socializing and exercising. Grab a cup of local coffee and sit—someone will probably join you!
- Ben Thanh Market in District 1 is an obligatory stop for most tourists, but shopping opportunities abound in Ho Chi Minh City. Shopping isn’t relegated to chaotic markets; you’ll find luxurious malls, too.
What to Eat and Drink
Who cares about the tropical heat—enjoy as much steaming, delicious pho as you can in Ho Chi Minh City! A large bowl typically costs less than $2. Banh mi with various fillings are also abundant, and the fresh Vietnamese spring rolls (goi cuon) might make you want to give up fried egg rolls for good.
Ho Chi Minh City is notoriously known as the epicenter for nightlife in Vietnam, and no trip is complete without sampling bia hoi (“fresh beer”) in a crowded, streetside beer hoi bar. A cup of the light lager brewed daily usually costs 50 cents or less. Pham Ngu Lao, Bui Vien, and the streets between are home to many beer hoi bars; look for a scattering of plastic chairs or stools facing the street.
Where to Stay
District 1 is the default place to stay in Ho Chi Minh City for most tourists. Although the district is highly congested, the most popular historical sights along with Ben Thanh Market, parks, and nightlife are all within walking range. Many eateries and businesses cater to tourists, so communicating and finding what you need is less challenging. Travelers backpacking along the so-called Banana Pancake Trail opt for Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien, while travelers with higher budgets may choose the nicer hotels and colonial architecture in the Dong Khoi neighborhood.
Of course, District 1 is by no means the only place to stay in Ho Chi Minh City. You can find a completely different vibe in Cho Lon (Chinatown) or some of the expat-oriented areas such as Thao Dien in District 2 across the river.
See some of our recommendations for the best hotels in Ho Chi Minh City.
Tan Son Nhat International Airport (SGN), Vietnam’s busiest airport, continually operates over its maximum capacity. A massive new airport (Long Thanh International Airport) is under construction. Still, until it becomes operational, you’ll have to fight through the congestion at SGN when flying into Ho Chi Minh City.
Depending on the time of day, plan on up to 45 minutes for getting from SGN airport to District 1. Booking airport pickup service through your hotel will save the potential hassle of dealing with airport taxi drivers, mainly when arriving late at night. The frequently running airport shuttle buses are another way to get to Ben Thanh Market in District 1.
Read about where to fly into Vietnam to begin your trip.
Culture and Customs
The concept of "face" is important in all interactions with local people. Avoid causing someone to become embarrassed and "lose face" by losing your cool or discussing delicate topics. One such topic to avoid bringing up with strangers is the Vietnam War, or as it's known locally the "American War."
Like most of Asia, tipping is not expected in Vietnam. In some circumstances, an unexpected tip could even cause embarrassment. That said, there are a few instances when you may wish to leave a small token of appreciation. Big hotels and restaurants invariably add a service charge onto the bill; you can still leave a few coins on the table to ensure your server knows they did an excellent job. Tipping low-wage workers such as masseuses and bartenders is common practice, but never make a show of your generosity. A discreet way to tip someone without causing loss of face is to round up the bill a little (50,000 dong or so) when paying.
Ho Chi Minh City has suffered from taxi scams beyond the usual rigged meters; some unscrupulous drivers have been known to hold passengers or luggage captive until more money is paid. Fortunately, there is an easy solution! VinaSun and Mai Linh are the two most reputable taxi companies. Stick to using only those two, and be aware that a few rogue companies use similar colors and logos to dupe travelers. You can also opt to use the Grab app, a rideshare service, for booking safe rides.
Money Saving Tips
- Although many hotels, restaurants, and shops accept U.S. dollars, using them usually puts you at a disadvantage. Always opt to pay with the local currency when you have a choice.
- The beautiful parks in Ho Chi Minh City are free—take advantage! You'll get to watch daily life whirling by and enjoy some interesting interactions with local residents. Along with helping someone improve their English, you can learn about local culture and maybe even where locals go for the best bowl of pho.
- Unless arriving late at night, the airport shuttle buses are an inexpensive way to reach District 1. You can then walk or take a quick taxi the rest of the way to your hotel.
- As with many places in Southeast Asia, you'll need to do a little good-natured haggling when shopping in Ho Chi Minh City. Even if the money saved feels trivial, paying the first price encourages inflation and cultural mutation long after you leave.
- ATMs are the best way to get local currency in Ho Chi Minh City, but they vary widely—get to know which banks are best. Fees range from $1-5 per transaction, and some machines have low withdrawal limits (less than $90). The ATMs at the airport tend to have higher limits for taking more cash at once.
- Negotiate and agree upon a price before taking a cyclo tour, motorcycle taxi, or any other means of transportation that doesn't have a working meter. Be clear about the total cost and which currency will be used for payment; stay firm on the agreed price at the end of the trip.