I had the last-minute opportunity to visit Saigon over New Year’s 2018, first with an amazing crew of fellow travelers and then by myself for a few days.
Here’s a quick, rough overview while everything is still fresh in my mind! I’ll come back and refine this post later on…
Overall experience: I had no idea what to expect, and I was very pleasantly surprised.
Food: 7.5/10. I’m partial to Chinese food – I probably always will be. Some of my meals were rather hit-or-miss, but others were phenomenal. I’m working on trying more stuff this year instead of sticking with safe choices, so I don’t mind that not everything was perfect. (Sometimes things just weren’t to my personal taste; I don’t think I actually ate anything bad from a health or culinary perspective. And I did not get food poisoning anywhere.)
City life: 7/10. I loved a lot of it, but it’s overwhelming when you’re in a big crowd, or tired, or sick. Or an introvert, I’d assume. :p
Things I didn’t know I didn’t know:
- The median taxi driver’s monthly income is probably around 6M VND ($263.40 USD/mo) ; a college graduate who works for a bank makes around 9M VND/mo ($395.10 USD), and a tour guide makes 2.5-3M VND/mo ($109.75-$137.70 USD) working part-time.
- Buildings are rented by the plot of land, so I hear – explains places like Anan that fully utilize all of the space – or pho restaurants that all have upstairs dining space.
- Daisies are for the dead.
- Young people here love hanging out in coffee shops. I guess maybe they do everywhere in the world, but…
- Traffic is a chaotic shitshow, and I kinda love it.
- Grab/GrabBike is a Malaysian Uber and just about as popular as Uber. I saw the green-clad drivers everywhere.
- The air conditioning system and overall bathroom cleanliness was much better than I thought it would be. I think it trumps Taipei in a lot of ways, sorry to say. TPE can be a dank mess in the bathrooms, even in 2017.
Let’s pretend you know nothing about Vietnam, and you’re going to visit Saigon on a US passport like I did. Here’s how to get there, and what to do once you do.
- You’ll need to apply for a visa online, several days in advance. Mine only took one full working day to come back, so you most likely don’t have to pay the rush fee unless you’re booking with less than 48 hours to spare. As of December 2017, it costs $17 for a one-month single-entry visa and $20 for a one-month, multiple-entry visa. I plunked for multiple-entry, just in case I decided to jet off somewhere last-minute. When applying for your visa, you can go ahead and specify which day the visa should begin.
- You will also need two passport-sized photos; your printed confirmation letter for the visa; and $25 USD cash for a single-entry visa; $50 USD for the multiple-entry visa. It will save you time if you pre-fill the application as well, but if you don’t have easy access to a printer, they will have forms at the airport.
- Once you actually land at the airport, you’ll need to pay for the visa itself. Just follow the massive lines of foreigners. There are no hidden booby traps or ways to screw up. I only had a $100 USD bill on me, but they were able to give me change, no problem. I thought it might be one of those situations where corruption or bureaucracy would steal the rest of my moola, but no.
- You will hand your paperwork to the nice staff and then be asked to wait for 10-15 minutes while they process everything. After that, you’ll take your passport with its nice new visa and stand in another line to pass through customs/immigrations. I arrived late on a holiday Friday morning and it took me about 75 minutes to get through everything, no application pre-filled out. I didn’t check any bags, so I can’t tell you how that process went.
- It’s worthwhile to note that the water fountain in that area was broken, so I was pretty thirsty while I waited. Bring water, because you won’t be able to buy any until you exit customs.
- If you have T-Mobile, you’ll find out to your dismay upon landing that T-Mobile international doesn’t support Vietnam coverage. Oh, wait, you won’t find out when you land because I’m telling you now.
- The AT&T crowd seemed to have no issues using their data plans in Vietnam. I forgot to ask if anyone was on Sprint or Verizon, but I’ll let those eager beavers chime in on their own if they want to.
- Picking up a local SIM card was easy; I hear there are plenty of kiosks in the airport that offer them for sale. I bought mine from a tour vendor near the Ben Thanh market for 200k VND/$8.78 USD (note that he started out quoting me 250k VND/$10.98 USD, then dropped to 200k VND almost immediately with just one question from me). This SIM card gave me 2GB of data per day for a full week; I streamed/uploaded data all day and didn’t come close to hitting my limit. I don’t think it included any phone time, but I would’ve used WhatsApp/data anyway for calls, so it didn’t matter.
- There’s free WiFi almost everywhere you go as well, if you decide to do that unplug thing I’ve heard of…
Leaving the airport:
- I originally was planning on taking the bus into the city, because I hear it costs maybe all of 5kk VND/$0.22 USD, and is safe and straightforward even if it isn’t quick. Then I found out that Uber costs maybe about $4 USD, and that sounded infinitely better. (I took Uber back to the airport and paid 88k VND/$3.86 USD.)On that note: Uber overseas is your friend.I used it extensively in Argentina this past year as well, and it’s been super handy. Cost-wise, it reflects local prices so it was dirt-cheap in Vietnam, okay-cheap in Taiwan, and just a little lower than Texas rates in Argentina. No, I’ve never once felt unsafe in overseas Uber, even if I boycott the app/company on principle within the US. (Another side note: In recent years, I have seriously begun to doubt the efficacy of this “voting with my dollars” business. But this post is not about my politics or beliefs.)
Where to stay
- AirBnB is sooo cheap, even in the heart of Saigon. Over New Year’s, our 3-bed/3-bath high-rise luxury apartment in District 4 with door service (and rooftop pool; I was very taken with this pool) was just under $125 USD/night; right after the holidays, I found 1-2 bedroom apartments in the same building for $50-75/night, as well as a private room in an apartment for $15 USD/night.
- Comparable places in District 1 were very slightly pricier, but still totally affordable. If you’re looking for quirky or unique places to stay on a budget, I wouldn’t bother saving a literal $2-3 USD/night staying in a hostel; just go with a roomshare in some local’s home. You’ll meet some interesting locals and have a far more comfortable (and private) experience.
For the second half of my stay after my holiday crew went home, I ended up booking the master bedroom with ensuite bathroom in another high-rise unit. The apartment itself was being used as the office space for a tech start-up, which I found intriguing. I didn’t end up interacting with any of the employees, but it felt amusingly like home in a weird way that only someone who grew up sharing a room with all brothers + also working in tech for a decade would appreciate, perhaps.
- If you plan to stay in a hotel, you should always use Trivago to research prices. It aggregates all of the prices across all the discount sites like Travelocity and Expedia.
- We tried taxis once or twice when waiting for multiple Ubers for our large group would have been exceptionally inefficient; otherwise, Uber all the way.
- Once it was just me, I took an UberMoto everywhere I went unless I had luggage with me. I did not particularly worry about my safety, no… but I did grow up in Taiwan with an unhealthy fascination for mopeds that was vehemently vetoed by my parents, so take my input with a grain of salt. UberMoto drivers wear distinctive blue/aqua shirts and carry an extra helmet for your use.
- Be prepared to wait 4-6 minutes, on average, for your Uber drivers (both car + moped), and be prepared for a slightly higher-than-American-usual cancellation rate for your rides. This was my experience in Argentina as well, so I think it’s more of an international coverage issue rather than a Vietnam one.
- I walked quite a bit as well, but honestly, it’s hot and dusty most of the time and mopeds are cheap. There are drivers – Uber/Grab and otherwise – offering to give you rides pretty much everywhere, but I felt like negotiating payment and giving directions would’ve been too difficult with the language barrier. Plus, I still like the specious safety precaution of having an app track my location in a foreign country. What can I say? I’m a millennial.
- I did not bother taking the bus, because I barely ever take the bus anywhere in the world if I can help it. Don’t take it personally, world! So I can’t speak to what that process is like.
What to eat
- Well, I’m hardly the world’s leading expert on Vietnamese food, but I’ll just get right to the list of my favorites from the trip, mostly gleaned from the research of better and more diligent travelers than myself:
- Best Banh Mi: Huynh Hoa Bakery – 26 Le Thi Rieng. 36k VND. Hole-in-the-wall stall that doesn’t open until 2:30 pm, so don’t go in at 11 am like I did. Also, beware that this most delicious sandwich is, like for many small shops in Saigon, the only product this one store offers so they do not customize for you – at least not if you don’t speak Vietnamese like I don’t. Also, there is a tiny, delicious, but extremely potent hot pepper component to this sandwich so make sure your mouth has milk available, or that you’re tougher than you think you need to be. I love spicy food, but this shit set my mouth on fire. (Fortunately, that’s the only end that burned… har har har, TMI?)
- Best Pho: I liked Pho Pasteur – 260C Pasteur Road. Any of their bowls are 70k VND/$3.07 USD, or 80k VND/$3.51 USD if you upgrade to the larger size. They serve an iced tea here that will set you back a grand 3k VND/$0.13 USD and was really pleasantly fragrant. I didn’t get any food poisoning here or anywhere else, but I have an Asia-bred microbiome, so sample local ice at your own risk. For the cautious yet thirsty, Pho Pasteur also serves fresh chilled coconuts for 20k VND/$0.88 USD that are very refreshing. Obviously, I spent an extra 10 minutes hacking out the meaty interior with a dull metal spoon because I Am A Child. Fun thing to note: The tables here include a lot of foods already offered on the table; they are snack foods you can add on to your order, and will cost you extra if you partake of them. I did not… some of them include meat, and even reckless as I am, I don’t mess with meat that’s been sitting out unrefrigerated because science.
- Best contemporary dining experience: Anan Saigon. I found this place while Googling for “things I must shove in my mouth” (maybe not that exact search term), and I was really pleasantly surprised. Here follows an extremely long review:
I’m told that commercial buildings here are rented out by the land square footage, and Anan Saigon takes full advantage of their little space. Given its location really close to the Saigon Skydeck and Bitexco Tower in the heart of downtown, I was sort of surprised when Google Maps took me through a local market with all its accompanying smells and I stopped smack-dab in the middle of it all, looking up at a tall, skinny building with the yellow logo on it. That being said, that was my only moment of disappointment.
Before I continue, I should explain that I don’t really consider myself a foodie, especially compared to most of my food-fanatic friends. I don’t get all gaga over celebrity chefs – don’t recognize most of them, really – and only partake in fine dining experiences with the true foodies out of my friend groups. That being said, I’ve been privileged to eat a lot of really good meals in my day and I know quality and innovation when I see/taste it. The chef here has taken traditional Vietnamese dishes and added his own really fun, creative twist. He uses really fresh ingredients and lets the flavors shine through in a polished way that I didn’t get from any of my street food, delicious as it was.
Enough with the rambling. I walked in through glass sliding doors at around 6:30 pm and was able to get a seat for 1 right away on a weeknight, no reservations. You know a place is good when it’s full of Asian American foodies. XD (We are a nightmare on Yelp, I hear) The building spans 5 or 6 floors, culminating in a rooftop bar that’s small but delightful. I sat on the ground floor, but saw there was dining space on the first (“second” for us Americans) floor as well. I hopped in the elevator after that, so I can’t tell you if the floors in between were also for dining or if they were for admin use.
There were four sets of prix fixe tasting menus available to choose from; yes!! Unfortunately, they’re only for tables of 2 or more; nooo!! (Although this is totally the norm in most restaurants I’ve been, so I didn’t take it personally; it makes sense because prix fixe is a lot of work.) Two sets of six courses each were fixed at 399k VND/~$17.52 USD per person, and two sets of eight courses each were set at 499k VND/~$21.90 USD per person, constituting arguably the most affordable 3+course tasting menu I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world. (Note to self: do more fine dining in Taipei)
Getting over my disappointment, I found enough on the a la carte menu to keep myself amused. I originally asked if I could order food at the rooftop bar, but the staff politely suggested I dine downstairs and get drinks upstairs. Ultimately, it turns out everything I ended up choosing was available on the limited upstairs menu, but ah well.
I went with the buffalo flank carpaccio; the “crispy chicken nuggets” tossed in lime caramel sauce; and the salmon summer rolls, which were a cross between Japanese sushi and Vietnamese spring rolls. I also ordered sparkling water because I’m bougie like that.
After I finished my three dishes, I decided to try dessert as well because “broken lime” sounded intriguing. I had no idea it was actually going to be an interactive treat… my lime vanilla mousse came in a green white-chocolate shell shaped like a lime, and I got to “break” the lime by cracking it open with a big spoon before swirling some lemongrass lime sauce over it and shoveling it all down my throat with ginger snap crumbles.
The whole meal, with tip, cost me 598k VND/$26.25 USD. I’ve had Olive Garden meals that cost me more. (Yes, I eat Olive Garden on occasion. Don’t hate. Or if you must hate, just know that I don’t care.)
Afterward, I went up to the rooftop. It’s a bit of a trek to get there – you have to climb one flight of stairs, then take a tiny elevator to the top – but the view is pretty charming. There’s a narrow little hallway, and a small seating area toward the back of the building, then the front area with the bar and some additional family-style and bench seating with little lights strung about for atmosphere and brightness. The bar was small but very innovative as well, and everything was extremely affordable – I believe all of the cocktails were 150k VND apiece, which is about $6.59 USD.
I’ve decided I don’t need to drink alcohol until I really want it. But I still wanted to try something unique, so I selected the Da Lat Mulberry Mocktail off of the reasonably extensive offerings for non-alcoholic drinks. It was sweetish but good – tempered with apple vinegar for depth, which made it what’s called a “shrub” (vinegar-based drinks) – and egg white for texture. I ended up spending an hour or two journaling over there and the bartender proactively brought me a little portable LED desk lamp – how thoughtful!
Anan takes credit cards with no problem, so all you Sapphire Reserve nuts will be particularly pleased to know that your affordable bill will still earn big.
On my way back down the staircase, I discovered that there’s a little world map in the hallway outside the kitchen, with a stack of tiny flag papers next to it. I wrote my name on two flags – one for Taiwan and one for the US – and pinned them to the map to prove that I’d been there. Naturally.
^ This is how I talk about things I love. Back to the list of bests:
- Best fine dining experience: Romeo & Juliet inside the Reverie Saigon. They offered a 5-course prix fixe menu for $88 USD/188M VND for NYE, which was scrumptious. Service was impeccable, and the atmosphere was beautiful.
- Best café: Mockingbird Café. You’ll have a long trek up five flights of stairs to reach this hidden little gem, but it was awesome.
Best coffee shop experience: Go to 42 Nguyen Hue. It’s an entire old building converted into dozens of coffee shops. I don’t know how they all stay in business – people like me tell people like you to go, I guess? But stay in business they all do. There are 9 stories here; you will have to walk all the way to the top unless you plunk down 3k VND/$0.13 USD for elevator access. But if you make a purchase at any of the coffee shops, they will refund your elevator fee. Note that coffee here will be typical “coffee shop” pricing (in the 60-90k VND/$2.63-$3.95 USD range) and not “street stall” pricing (5-25k VND/$0.22-$1.10 USD). You’re paying for the ambiance! Most will have WiFi. Some will have funny messages about the bathroom stalls. Many will have beautiful, beautiful reflected light so ya know, if you’re a photographer, be prepared to heart-eye emoji and then die of happiness. Or of frustration that you don’t have a photography subject in front of you to capture. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Shopping, and other ways to throw your money around
- Ben Thanh market – unless you’ve never before been in Asia or anywhere else with similar touristy-trap markets and REALLY want to get the experience? I suggest skipping this spot altogether. It was hot, crowded, dusty, and unnecessary. If you don’t like pushy-ish vendors, get your souvenirs literally anywhere else; Google suggested that Binh Tay market is a bit more authentic and less overwhelming. That being said, Ben Thanh is super central and people will probably ask you if you went, so… it’s not the end of the world. There’s just absolutely nothing original for sale there. Make sure you are aware of the value of what you haggle for, do your price comparisons, and remember, nothing is real. :p That being said, there are some decently made items, so don’t let brand authenticity deter you from what you want. Hah. Oh, and be quick at your mental math/currency conversions… but that applies anywhere where negotiation is allowed. And don’t forget that certain areas are fixed-price only; look for the yellow signs prominently displayed overhead.
- I did end up purchasing some fabric at Ben Thanh, and getting a dress made… but I’m also used to doing this sort of thing in China, and looking Asian and having a reasonably good idea of the value of textiles + tailoring costs helps me a lot. The fact that Ben Thanh was pretty central made it easy for me to get there, and the fact that there are many vendors all in a small space meant I didn’t have to do a ton of my own research on which tailoring shops are good. I just price-shopped for what I wanted, and then compared quotes on what I wanted to have done. I found textile vendors here far less pushy than the ones at the fabric market in Shanghai, for what it’s worth; there was much less grabbing/haranguing than I’m used to. This apparently was not the case in the souvenirs sections of the market, according to the rest of my crew.
- If you’re in the market for cheap North Face that looks pretty well-made even if its authenticity is circumspect, we’ve got a recommendation for you. :p Unfortunately, my bougie athleisure loyalties lie with Lululemon, so I did not find my addiction assuaged in Saigon. This is probably a good thing for my Lulu resale/flip side hustle, since it means my stockpile of wares won’t decrease in value any time soon. (It’s less of a side hustle than a hoarding problem. But again, this post is not [entirely] about me.)
- If you love thrifting like I do, check out Mayhem Saigon. It’s in a charming little hidden plaza right by the Ben Thanh market, tucked away in a second-floor corner. Once again, this looks like a place that also rented its space by the land square footage, because the small footprint spans a couple of floors for maximum retail use. It’s charmingly curated, so expect vintage-store prices rather than true thrift pricing. About 60% of the store is women’s/accessories, and 40% is allocated to menswear downstairs. Honestly, very little (if any) of the apparel is true vintage, but everything fits that hipster aesthetic/vibe. I walked out with two dresses and a new pair of real [fake? Smuggled?] Adidas UltraBoosts. My morals are questionable but my feet are stylish AF.
- My favorite random thing to throw money at: the little automated orange juice machine in the lobby of our AirBnB apartment building. For 40k VND/$1.76 USD – which admittedly wasn’t actually that cheap, all things considered – you could get a fresh-squeezed cup of Australian Valencia orange juice. I did this at least once every single day I stayed there, because the novelty of watching a machine do a human’s work was too much for me to resist.
- If you want a manicure: District 1 prices were pretty consistent across the board: mani/pedis started at 50k VND/$2.20 USD, going up to 100k VND/$4.39 USD for OPI or gel (off-brand). I ended up being quoted 400k VND/$17.56 USD for a full gel mani/pedi, and I tipped each of the two ladies 50k VND/$2.20 USD because I like feeling like a nabob and they were very nice. They spent about 75 minutes on me, and I left looking like a grown-ass lady… At least on the ends of my appendages.
- If you want massages: I didn’t get any because I’m a weirdo who hates them, but just about everyone else did. 90 minutes for about $25 USD, I believe. If you are a dude, they will flirt with you and potentially hint at funny business. If you are a lady, they will chuckle at you and call you beautiful. These are all things I hear. You will also possibly not feel super relaxed, because they ain’t doling out Swedish massages there. You may feel physically bruised and abused. There are many reasons why I don’t gamble on massages. See? Ask someone else about this. (Or I can get that information for you if you need.)
- Near the city center, there is an entire street dedicated to bubble tea. I am impervious to the charms of bubble tea due to many years of caffeine sensitivity – but you might not be either impervious or sensitive. And if so, you will meet your downfall here. Taiwanese bubble tea, Cantonese bubble tea, Korean bubble tea, Japanese bubble tea… the possibilities are endless. I unfortunately didn’t look up where exactly this was, so I just Googled something…
- Dong Khoi is fun to walk down. As with any major city, this is where you’ll see the greatest disparity of pricing inequality.
- Notre Dame Cathedral is under construction, unfortunately – I did not enjoy photographing that lovely building with its hairy hedgehog armor of scaffolding.
- The post office is really cool – the arched interior ceiling reminds me a bit of Grand Central Station – but it’s crowded AF, and I never bothered going early in the morning so I can’t tell you if it’s ever empty enough for you to get great photos. I did mail off a handful of letters and postcards from there, so there’s that. On a side note, I didn’t really see public mailboxes around on the street, so if you are a postcards-type of person, keep in mind that this might be your easiest mail-dropoff option. If you’re staying at a hotel or a nicer Airbnb, of course, I’m sure the concierge or doorman would help you out. But I’m too independent for that shit and would rather walk three unnecessary blocks to say that I mailed something from The Main Post Office.
- I was very fascinated by the massive gated mansions I’d see every now and then. They remind me a lot of similar mansions in Singapore… part of it was the hazy sunlight filtering through humidity, I’m sure. Southeast Asia has the most epic photo light, mitigated only by the fact that you can’t take a proper portrait here without wiping sweat off your subject at least 3x per shot. (Wait, this section is not about photography.)
- There’s a large [“large” is relative; I just thought of Central Park] park with some massive, beautiful trees that I’m told is named the April 30 Reunification/Liberation? I passed it quite often in my travels but never actually walked through it. Update: It turns out there are a ton of really cool parks in Saigon, actually.
All in all, I’ll definitely be back – for sure to check out other cities in Vietnam, but hopefully to Saigon as well.