Ho Chi Minh City's best bargains revealed
Vietnam's most populous city is well known for being a great-value destination, but it can be a daunting place for the uninitiated. Here's how you make your money go further.
The worst way to exchange currency is to do it at home before you go—the rates you’ll get in Vietnam will be better. Avoid exchanging money at the airport or at hotels; shop around and use a currency conversion website or app such as XE opens in new window to find out the mid-market rates. The main banks—Vietcombank, ANZ, BIVD among them—don’t usually offer the best deals. For better rates and no fees, make for the smaller exchange shops on Mac Thi Buoi and Nguyen An Ninh in District 1.
You’re likely to get better rates by using ATMs and credit or debit card transactions. Check your bank’s international transaction fees, taking into account both the withdrawal fee (likely to be a flat fee) and the currency conversion fee (usually a percentage of the total withdrawal). Vietnamese banks will usually add a withdrawal fee of around VND 20,000 (around AUD $1). Keep in mind that many banks allow a maximum withdrawal of VND 2 million (around AUD $120), with international banks such as HSBC and ANZ allowing withdrawals up to between VND 4-10 million (AUD $240-600).
Credit cards are widely accepted, even in smaller, cheaper restaurants and bars—although you’ll always need cash for markets, food stalls and taxis. When you pay by credit card you may be offered the choice of paying in your home currency or local currency. Always choose local—your credit card company will give you a better rate.
How to get around
Taxis are affordable and efficient (although you’ll wait if you need one in rush hour or rainy weather). In the city centre, you’ll be able to get to most places for less than VND 80,000 (around AUD $5). Scams are not uncommon; avoid them by riding only with a trusted brand like Mai Linh or Vinasun and making sure the driver switches on the meter—never accept a fixed rate. Drivers don’t usually speak English, so carry a map and the name of your destination written in Vietnamese, and always carry smaller notes to pay the fare.
Motorbike taxis (xe om) are another option, if you’re brave enough (make sure your insurance covers motorbike travel). Make sure you agree on a fare before you set off, and don’t be afraid to haggle hard!
The city’s public bus system is a bargain, with tickets ranging from VND 3000 to VND 10,000, depending on distance. The routes can be tricky for a first-timer, but you can download a handy map opens in new window of the system onto your smartphone. Many buses depart from Ben Thanh Station, where you can also pick up a route map.
Where to eat
A modest budget is all you’ll need to enjoy the finest of Vietnamese cuisine—you can eat incredibly well here for very little. Locals are justifiably proud of their street food, which is where you’ll discover the best of the local fare. This unbeatable culinary adventure is also an unbelievable bargain, with most dishes costing VND 20,000 to VND 60,000 (around AUD $1-4). Look for places that are crammed with locals—a top place to start is the food stalls at the back of Ben Thanh Market. But there are street food hubs scattered liberally around the city—follow your tastebuds and this handy guide opens in new window
If you need to step up the comfort level and get off the street, great restaurants are literally everywhere. As with the street food stalls, follow the local crowds. Or try the barbecue restaurants on Nguyen Trung Truc in District 1, all of which do a great line in grilled ribs and cheap bottles of local beer.
If for some reason you need a break from Vietnamese food, the backpacker district around Pham Ngu Lao street is good for budget dining with a world cuisine focus, with reasonably priced and (usually) high quality restaurants offering everything from Indian to Mexican to pizza. But for the best value, stick to the delicious local fare.
Where to shop
With its growing range of high-end malls, these days Ho Chi Minh City is giving Bangkok and Singapore a run for their money. Nevertheless, it remains a treasure trove for bargain hunters with everything from kitsch trinkets to hip fashion available at markets, shopping enclaves and discount malls. Most of these are congregated in District 1, so you can enjoy shopping a range of genres without having to travel across town.
The best place to start is Ben Thanh Market, one of the city’s most popular sights. It’s geared towards tourists and not the cheapest, but it’s a great place to browse the gamut of Vietnam’s souvenir possibilities opens in new window. Le Cong Kieu Street just opposite is a fascinating jumble of (mostly fake) antiques and memorabilia well worth a slow wander. If it’s real bargains you’re after, try the quirky VietS Corner Flea Market on Suong Nguyet Anh Street or the Russian Market on Vo Van Kiet Street, good for cut-price brand gear.
Saigon Square, HCMC’s most frenetic fashion mall, has hundreds of stalls selling clothes and accessories—the quality isn’t always the highest, but with dresses at VND 60,000 (AUD $5), it’s hard to complain. An Dong Market, just outside the city centre in District 10, is primarily a fashion wholesaler, but stalls on the top floor showcase the skills of Vietnam’s lacquerware and woodwork artisans.
Whichever markets you hit, don’t forget to haggle! opens in new window
Drinking in Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnam’s legendary bia hoi, the pale lager regarded as the world’s cheapest beer, is originally from Hanoi. But the city’s southern rival has some choice spots to try the brew, for the princely sum of around AUD $0.50 cents a glass! It’s best sampled in the tiny, plastic-stool beer bars on Bui Vien in the Pham Ngu Lao backpacker enclave.
Ho Chi Minh City is an all-round paradise for beer drinkers with bottles of local brands such as Bia Saigon and 333 at around VND 20,000-VND 40,000 (AUD $1.20-$2.40) in bars around the city. Also worth seeking out (though a little more pricey) are local craft beer brands such as Heart of Darkness and Pasteur Street.
If beer isn’t your tipple, don’t worry. Happy hour opens in new window (often a large chunk of the afternoon between the hours of 3pm and 8pm) is a big deal in this town and you’ll find deals on everything from rooftop cocktails to slick wine bars.