What you need to know before going to Ho Chi Minh City
From its stunning Buddhist temples to its mouthwatering street food, this bustling metropolis has a lot to offer. Here’s what you need to know before visiting Vietnam’s capital city.
- October 2019
From sunrise to beyond nightfall, the Ho Chi Minh City opens in new window of today is a vibrant and dynamic metropolis filled with the colourful sights and sounds of nearly nine million people and 8 million motorbikes.
Formerly known as Saigon, the city is Vietnam’s economic nerve-centre, but amidst its striking highrises, you can also find incense-laced Buddhist temples, impressive colonial French architecture and museums laden in rich history.
The yellow 109 airport bus departs every 30 minutes from outside both domestic and international terminals between 5.30am to 12.30am, for the 45 minute ride into District 1 - the heart of downtown Ho Chi Minh City. It only costs around AUD $3.
Alternatively, you can take a cab by heading to the main taxi queue located on the ground floor outside the international and domestic terminals. Use one of the two most recognisable taxi companies to avoid haggling - Mai Linh opens in new window or Vinasun opens in new window. Make sure the driver starts the meter (unless you’ve negotiated a fixed fare) and check the taxi logo and phone number on the car exactly matches the original. Track your journey with Google Maps for added surety.
If you do not want to get stuck in traffic, be ferried around in a cyclo or rickshaw – remember to settle on an amount before embarking on the short breezy ride.
Walking is also a great way to get around, but when the humidity rises, flag down a motorbike taxi (called a xe om) which is compact enough to zip along those intriguing alleys and small roads. You can also order one through the ride sharing app Grab opens in new window.
The city’s first underground Metro railway is under construction and scheduled for completion in 2021, so for now, make use of the cheap public bus system. Fares start from less than one Australian dollar, and cash is paid in Vietnamese Dong to the bus attendant. Choose your destination from more than 100 routes threading throughout the city via the Busmap app opens in new window.
Just remember to be travel savvy by regularly checking the Australian government’s Smart Traveller website opens in new window for advice on personal safety while in Ho Chi Minh City.
Australian and New Zealand citizens can apply for a visa opens in new window, for either a one or three month stay. But passport holders from Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand are visa-exempt for up to 30 days, with Japan and South Korean citizens able to stay for up to about two weeks. Passports also need to be valid for at least six months from the time of arrival in Ho Chi Minh City.
Vietnamese is spoken by 86 per cent of the population and in a variety of dialects throughout Ho Chi Minh City. It is common to hear many people in touristy areas speak very basic English. But it’s always a good idea to build trust with the locals by knowing some of the language opens in new window. Here’s a few words to get familiar with: xin chao (pronounced as ‘seen chow’) is a friendly ‘hello’, da means yes, không is no, and thank you is cám ơn.
The official currency is the Vietnamese Dong (VND). So convert your cash at money exchanges opens in new window which are usually open until about 9.30pm, or at banks which are generally open from 7.30am to 4.30pm. Although many upmarket restaurants and hotels accept Visa or Mastercard, Ho Chi Minh City is still very much a cash economy. So make sure to carry enough VND securely in a money belt for those unexpected market purchases.
Pull up a plastic chair curb-side because Ho Chi Minh City has some of the tastiest street food on the planet – including the hearty Pho (pronounced ‘fuh’) soup, crunchy and fragrant bánh mì baguettes and fresh rice paper rolls.
Or head to the most popular market, Ben Thanh Street Food Market opens in new window, in District 1 where you can browse a range of local and international dishes all under one roof.
Food is relatively cheap, so expect to pay about AUD $3 for a decent meal in an inexpensive restaurant. Just don’t leave chopsticks sticking up from your food, as doing so symbolises death to the Vietnamese.
Ho Chi Minh City remains relatively stable throughout the year, with temperatures hovering around the 30°C mark, but be prepared for the humidity. Although the heat might rise by a degree or two in March and April, by December the mercury falls to an average of 27°C. Just take your brolly and boots in July, which is the wettest month of the year.
Customs and etiquette
Vietnam is a Buddhist-majority country. So when visiting temples or holy sites, dress conservatively by covering your shoulders and knees. You’ll also need to remove your shoes. Remember not to point bare feet at a Buddha Statue or symbol, lest you insult the locals. And if invited into a home, it’s always polite to arrive with a gift wrapped in colourful paper. But do not touch or pass an object over a person’s head, as this body part is considered the most sacred of all.
Vietnam’s traditional dress is today mostly reserved for special occasions, such as weddings, birthdays or public events. The silky ao dai worn by women comprises a high-neck ankle-length dress with slits up each side and is worn over long flowy pants. The men’s version is similar but with a shorter top and loose-fitting pants.
In ancient times, only royalty could wear gold, while officials wore purple and the public wore shades of blue.
Accessorise the local way with a traditional conical hat, made from bamboo and palm tree leaves (you can flip it upside down to carry fruit and vegetables from the market)!
You can buy a sim card at the airport from one of Ho Chi Minh City’s three main internet service providers (ISPs): Vinaphone, MobiFone or Viettel. HCMC is still hooked up to 3G but most spots have access to the faster 4G network, with plans afoot to roll-out 5G at a later date. The city is also working hard to become a Smart City by 2024, meaning that it plans to have better CCTV monitoring and traffic lights, improved connection to emergency services, and devices that work with wifi which could mean technology such as motion sensor LED street lights.
You’ll definitely need a plug adapter, or three, for Ho Chi Minh City, where they have three sockets: A, C and D. Their voltage at 110/220 is much lower than Australia’s 250v but the hertz in both countries is 50. If you’re still unsure, just check with the hotel where you’re staying to find out which sockets they use.