The bustling city of Ho Chi Minh or popularly known as Saigon City is a very famous entry/exit point to backpackers traveling to Indochina countries: Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. In this travel guide, you will learn a few things about Ho Chi Minh City DIY and the best places to go. I have been to a few places in Saigon doing it the DIY way and avoiding booking to tour agencies to lessen my expenses! Yeap, doing it the backpacker’s way indeed!
So last December 2019, I ended my year doing the Indochina backpacking trip in a solo-flight mode. And in my experience, Ho Chi Minh City is not one of the countries that is easy to backpack especially that it is not an English-speaking country. Continue reading if you want to learn more about Saigon City especially for first timers or to backpackers traveling alone!
Helpful Travel Guides
Before anything else, below are helpful travel guides you could read or check. Feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions.
Helpful Tips From Joan’s Footprints
- First thing you have to know that Vietnam is not an English-speaking country. For better communication especially to vendors, download Google translate apps here.
- HCMC is ideal for solo travelers like me, for better navigation on places to go download the BusMap app here. This will show you a step-by-step instructions and/or directions to the place you wish to go.
- Grab is available in HCMC. Grab bikes are the most popular mode of transportation and it’s very cheap too. Download Grap app here.
- For pasalubongs, check out Ben Thanh Market. There are lots of vendors who can speak fluent in tagalog there.
- Before leaving the country and going to Cambodia or back to Philippines, be sure to exchange your remaining VND to USD. This is because VNDs are worthless outside its country. They do not accept VND in Cambodia as well.
- If you are planning to withdraw money in Vietnam instead of doing the traditional way of exchanging money, you might want to call your bank first if they support cash withdrawal in countries like Vietnam.
- Book your hotel in District 1 near Bui Vien Street.
- Buy 4G sim card with Klook below.
Pre-Travel Guide to Ho Chi Minh City
Read below for travel guides on how to go to Ho Chi Minh, getting around Ho Chi Minh City DIY, where to stay and where to eat.
Manila to HCMC/Saigon
For easy scanning on airlines going to and from Saigon, it would be easy to book through Skyscanner. It will filter all airlines from the routes you are planning to travel. Alternatively, you may book directly with the airlines offering this route like Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific and AirAsia.
Tip: Sometimes the route from Clark (CRK) to Saigon (SGN) is cheaper compare if you are leaving from Ninoy Aquino International Airport (MNL).
For Specific Airlines, book through the links below:
Siem Reap to HCMC/Saigon
There are 2 ways to get here in Saigon from Siem Reap or Phnom Penh in Cambodia and that is via air and via land travel.
Via Air Transportation
This is obviously the fastest way to get to Saigon from Cambodia. However, the fare is expensive compared if you’re just traveling by bus. To filter the cheapest airline providing this route, book with Expedia below.
Via Land Transportation
Several bus-lines offer this route. For recommended bus-line companies, you might want to book with Giant Ibis and Mekong Express. Note that these bus-lines are offering day trips only. There are no night bus and the reason is because the immigration is closed at night. Hence, no night trips for land travels.
For complete step by step guide for your land travel, read this guide here: CROSSING BOARDERS FROM HCMC TO SIEM REAP AND VICE VERSA.
Hanoi to HCMC/Saigon
Sadly, Saigon is too far from Hanoi and it will take about 36 hours land travel for you to get there. As you can see it’s not that of a good option especially if you are traveling in a time sensitive manner. But, if you have lots of time to burn, you may book your land travel with BookAway below.
Alternatively, there are flights from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City which will make it easier for everyone instead of traveling 36 hours to get there.
How to get around? HO CHI MINH CITY DIY
Getting around Saigon is not really hard. The only tricky part is communicating with the locals for directions. But we actually have a solution for that! Below are the relevant mobile applications that will surely help you with your travels. All you need to do is to download them and off you go!
- Download BusMap app here – this app provides detailed instructions on how to get to a place from the point you are beginning or currently located.
- For faster transportation, I highly suggest booking grab bikes. There are literally lots of motorbikes here! I can honestly dub it as the motorcycle capital of the world, lol. Download Grab app here – yes! Grab works here, thank God!
- Download Google Translate app here – another essential app not only for your Vietnam travel but to other countries like Cambodia and Thailand as well.
Now that you have downloaded these essential apps, it is important to know that the mode of transportation here are motorbikes, taxi and bus. But then again, since traffic can be observed almost anywhere in Ho Chi Minh, you might want to book motorbikes than riding a taxi. This will take you faster and cheaper to the place you need to go.
For bus transportation, the buses in Saigon are actually labelled with numbers. If you have already downloaded the BusMap app, you will see bus numbers in the detailed directions it will provide you. All you have to do is to ride bus with the correct numbers and it will take you to the place you need to go.
Where to Stay? – HO CHI MINH CITY DIY
For budget travelers, I highly suggest to book with Aquarizon Boutique Hostel located in District 1. This is where I stayed in Ho Chi Minh City and it’s located in Bui Vien Street where various restaurants, bars and street food can be found. Book with Agoda below!
Read my review about Bui Vien Street and why you should stay in Aquarizon Boutique Hostel here: BUI VIEN STREET, CRAZIEST NIGHT LIFE IN SAIGON.
For other hotels in Saigon, click the link and check the rates below:
Bay Hotel Ho Chi Minh
Prostyle Hotel Ho Chi Minh
Somerset Ho Chi Minh City Serviced Residence
Where to Eat? – HO CHI MINH CITY DIY
I have mentioned in my previous Vietnam articles about a few things I’ve learned about Vietnamese cuisine. Courtesy to a local I met, Tony Nguyen.
For recommended street food in Ho Chi Minh, you may want to try Banh Mi and Pho Noodles. You can find these food in Bui Vien Street. Here’s a travel guide to Bui Vien Street.
Moreover, if you want to try the best restaurant as ranked by TripAdvisor when it comes to authentic Vietnamese cuisine, food, service and location, check out XU Restaurant Lounge. Read my review here.
Places to Visit in Ho Chi Minh City
I believe that traveling to Ho Chi Minh City DIY way is something anyone can do, even for solo female travelers. Given that Saigon is one of the biggest cities in Vietnam, still you can get around this bustling city alone. Check out the places you can see here!
Note that some of the tourist destinations are literally walking distance to each other. Below are the places you can do DIY way because it’s just stones-throw away from each other:
- Notre-Dame Cathedral
- Central Post Office
- War Remnants Museum
- Reunfication Palace
Cu Chi Tunnels
The Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam is a very important historical site which dates back from the Vietnamese war and French colonial periods. These tunnels were used to create a secret underground passage to protect the soldiers, men, women and children from the French invaders. The passages lead to different types of rooms including escape rooms, general room, dining area, kitchen, hospital and other more.
Most of the tunnels are really narrow that’s why soldiers back in the days crawl their way in and out. In order to be able to breathe inside these passages, the soldiers built air ventilation that connects from the surface. They camouflaged these air ventilations including the cover of the tunnel to the ground so that the invaders won’t find them.
Cu Chi Tunnels DIY – Save extra money the DIY way!
For complete DIY travel guide to Cu Chi Tunnels, you can follow my step by step guide here: CU CHI TUNNELS DIY WAY. If you are a budget traveler, this is the best option for you since you will save money instead of availing from tour agencies.
Cu Chi Tunnels – Book with travel agencies
Booking with tour agencies is definitely the hassle-free way. But, take note that it may cost your pocket bigger amount of money. You can always book with Klook for discounted tours.
You can purchase your Cu Chi Tunnels Tour through Klook. Below are the steps on how to purchase your tour:
- Sign up with Klook here
- Search for Cu Chi Tunnels
- Buy the ticket using any form of payment available
- Once you’re done purchasing it, in a few minutes you will receive an email voucher on the email address you provided together with the receipt
If you previously have downloaded it on your phone, you may book it below:
Another famous attraction next to Cu Chi Tunnels that you should never miss when in Vietnam is the Mekong Delta tour. The Mekong Delta is located in Southern Vietnam and is roughly 2 hours away from Saigon. Enjoy a relaxing Mekong Delta boat tour to see iconic fishing villages with stilt houses and rice paddies.
One of the main highlight of my Mekong Delta tour with Klook is drinking Snake Wine for the first time. Vietnam’s traditional snake wine is actually a King Cobra snake inside a bottle of wine. I know! It was kinda crazy the first time seeing it. As always, out of curiosity, I volunteered to taste it. The wine is like burning down your throat!
Other things you will see and learn from this full day Mekong Delta excursion with Klook is discovering how the locals live and learn about their sources of livelihood. An example is the rice paper family business, coconut products and snake wines.
BOOK YOUR MEKONG DELTA TOUR WITH KLOOK BELOW:
Booking with Klook includes:
- Full day excursion to Mekong Delta
- Side trip to Vinh Trang Pagoda
- Traditional Vietnamese lunch and snacks
- English-speaking Tour Guide
Vinh Trang Pagoda
Vinh Trang Pagoda is another attraction located in Southern Vietnam. If you are going to book your Mekong Delta tour with Klook, it includes a side-trip here. In Vinh Trang Pagoda, there are a number of gigantic Buddhas you will see, one of which is the Sleeping Buddha and the Smiling Buddha. As our tour guide, Erik, said that you can make a wish for good health and good fortune to these Buddhas.
Notre-Dame Cathedral of Saigon
I have mentioned in y previous Vietnam travel guides that some of Vietnam’s structures and buildings has an influence of French. This is because Vietnam has been colonized by French people during the Vietnam-France War. The Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon was established by French colonists who initially names it L’eglise de Saigon and was constructed between 1863 – 1880.
The Notre-Dame is located in the downtown of Ho Chi Minh and remains a famous tourist destination because of its glorious and stunning structure in the city.
Ho Chi Minh Central Post Office
Another French colonial structure is the Ho Chi Minh Central Post Office which is just located beside the Notre-Dame. It is one of the most iconic tourist destination in Ho Chi Minh due to its charming colonial architecture. Note that there is no entrance fee when you come here, it’s best to go here DIY way since it’s just literally beside Notre-Dame Cathedral.
War Remnants Museum
If you are looking forward to learn about the history of Vietnam, this is the place for you to go! You may want to a lot half day tour here because there is seriously a lot to see and read! Don’t forget to heck out Room #7. There will be an entrance fee of VND 40,000 and it’s open daily at 7:30AM – 6PM.
Bitexco Tower and Sky Deck
According to the local Vietnamese I met here, if you want to see a 360 view of the whole city in Saigon, this is where you should go! Bitexco Tower is a skyscraper with a total of 68 floors and became the tallest building in Saigon until January 2011. Tony sad that the best time to come here is at dusk so you will see the view of the city at day time and when the sun is setting. The night view with the city lights is very relaxing and it;s definitely the best view. Bitexco Tower is open daily at 8AM to 11PM.
BOOK YOUR SKY DECK EXPERIENCE WITH KLOOK BELOW:
A significant landmark in Saigon that played a very important role when the Vietnamese claimed victory from their French colonizers. It is also best known as Independence Palace and it’s one of the mist-visit places in Saigon. There is an entrance fee of VND 40,000 and it is opened daily at 7:30AM – 11AM and 1PM – 4PM.
Cao Dai Temple
Cao Dai Temple is a very important structural site in Saigon as it is the home to Cao Dai faith – a religion that has taken bits of Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, Confucianism and Islam. The temple is a very colorful with dragons structures designed on some walls and a cloud mural decorating the ceiling. Tourists are welcome to visit here to learn more about Cao Dai faith. It’s open daily at 6AM – 5PM.
Bui Vien Street
The best nightlife in Ho Chi Minh City is located in District 1 at Bui Vien Street. As early as 6PM, the restaurants and bars around the street open up their doors to customers and loud music can be heard while walking in the street. The influx of tourists and customers come around 9PM and this is where the street starts to get a little crazy. By 12 midnight, it gets even more crazier!
As usual, I went to this backpacking trip without a prepared detailed itinerary. I was always good with just going with the flow and searching for things to do on the spot. Hence, I didn’t know that the hostel I booked is literally located in the wildest street in Saigon.
I came here with my jaw-dropping face as I immersed through the crowd of drunk people with my luggage bags with me. Everyone was just drinking and dancing and singing and crawling! Geez, I gotta say, I should be part of this epic night! Lol.
Ben Thanh Market
For pasalubongs, Ben Thank Market is the place for you! Get ready for local Vietnamese vendors who knows ow to speak tagalog! There are lots of pasalubongs and stalls when you come inside. From food to clothes and souvenirs to shoes. Be sure to negotiate properly because most vendors here give you a bigger price especially if you are a foreigner.
An example is for t-shirst, most vendors would offer you VND 300,000 and would say that they will give it to you up to VND 250,000. When you reject them they would tell you to negotiate. I was able to negotiate a t-shirt from VND 300,000 to VND 70,000 only. Ben Thank Market is open daily at 7AM – 7PM.
Ideal number of days to stay: 3 Days
3 Days & 2 Nights: Ho Chi Minh City DIY
DAY 0: MNL – SGN
11PM ETD MNL to SGN
2AM Book a grab bike from SGN airport to Aquarizon Boutique Hostel
2:30AM Late check in
DAY 1: CU CHI TUNNELS DIY
DAY 2: MEKONG DELTA FULL DAY EXCURSION
6AM Wake up time, free breakfast in hostel
7:30AM Meet up location in Bui Vien Street (walking distance)
6PM Wash up in hostel, early dinner in XU Restaurant Lounge
8PM-12MN Bui Vien Street night life
DAY 3: HO CHI MINH CITY DIY
6AM Wake up time, free breakfast in hostel, check out luggage and leave in the counter
8AM Notre Dame Cathedral
9AM Central Post Office
10AM Reunification Palace
12NN-3PM War Remnants Museum
4PM Cao Dai Temple
5PM Ben Thank Market
10PM ETD SGN – MNL
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