After nearly a full 24 hours of traveling I finally touched down in Ho Chi Minh Vietnam, received my visa, and cleared immigration. I officially made it to Vietnam. I had just 20 hours and ready to explore Ho Chi Min City. Since I slept well over 10 hours on my two Asiana Business Class positioning flights (A380 and 747) I felt plenty rested to stay awake the full 20 hours on the ground in Vietnam!
A Small Issue With Cellular Data
One thing I didn’t realize when I landed was that my T-Mobile One plan does not offer unlimited data in Vietnam. I expected to have cellular data when I landed, but disappointingly did not. By now I felt like a fish out of water. I didn’t have any cellular data and didn’t a word of Vietnamese (sadly I still don’t).
Note: After doing a little research I discovered you can purchase an Unlimited Data SIM card from the airport from one of several vendors. Although I’m always skeptical of people selling things to arriving passengers in airports, the prices for these SIM cards are quite reasonable. If I had to begin this journey again I would have purchased a SIM card from an airport vendor. Also, SGN airport offers Free WiFi which reaches the arrivals area. You could theoretically order an Uber on the WiFi and meet your driver, but I found Uber prices were nearly 1.5x what you’d pay for a Taxi.
Although the lack of data made this portion of the trip a little more stressful, it also made it a little more exciting. I love an adventure and getting from the airport to the hotel proved a good one.
Getting Vietnamese Dong At The Airport
Shortly after landing I realized I made a (second) huge mistake. I didn’t bring any paper money with me. I needed US dollars to pay my $50 Visa fee, but didn’t have anything. The customs agents let me visit the ATM in the arrivals area to take out money. When I put my debit card into the CitBank machine I quickly discovered yet another problem.
My options to take out money weren’t in USD, but rather in Vietnamese Dong (naturally). The options ranged from 1,000,000 to 5,000,000 instead of the typical $20, $40, $60, or $100 options I’m used to. I canceled the transaction and ran over to the currency exchange to ask how many VND = $50. I figured that would help me get a good baseline for how much VND I needed for my 20 hour stay in Vietnam. The currency exchange employee mentioned $50USD is approximately 1,300,000 NVM. With that in mind I withdrew 4,000,000 VND. According to my bank statement I withdrew $134 USD. That comes out to approximately 29,000 to $1 which is much better than the currently quoted 22,000 to $1 exchange rate.
Transportation From The Airport To The Hotel
Dong money in hand I made my way outside of the airport to find transportation to my hotel. At this point several gentlemen approached me to offer Taxi and Limo services. I figured these services would cost significantly more than a regular Taxi so I decided to pass on their offers.
Instead I found the Airport Shuttle Bus located just outside of the arrivals area of the international terminal. I showed them my hotel reservation on my phone (Renaissance Riverside Hotel Saigon) to which the bus attendant pointed to a number on his map and quoted me 20,000 VND for the ride.
The bus departed the airport at 12:00AM toward Ho Chi Minh city center. It was quite dark outside and I didn’t see much on the ride into town. After about 30 minutes the bus came to a stop to let me off. I had no idea where I was, but the bus drive just kept telling me to get off and walk while pointing in the general direction of my hotel. When I got off the bus I found a cab which took me the remaining half mile to the hotel for just 40,000 VND.
Note: The Bus Driver dropped me off at the right location, but I had no idea where I was. I could have walked the remaining distance to the hotel, but since it was 12:30am and I didn’t know where I was I opted to take the first Taxi I saw.
In the end I wish I would have just taken a Taxi from the airport to the hotel. I wanted to keep my expenses low during this trip, but a personal taxi from the airport to the city center costs just over 110,000 VND or less than $5.
The Renaissance Riverside Hotel Saigon
I chose this hotel for one simple reason. The hotel is a Marriott Category 5 property which meant I could use my free night certificate from my Marriott Rewards Premier card to pay for my stay.
I arrived at the hotel around 12:45am and checked into my king bed room with a river view. It was dark out so I couldn’t see much, but the room itself was quite large and nice. One of the things that I appreciated about this hotel is that when I checked in there were two complimentary bottles of water waiting for me next to my bed. The tap water in Vietnam isn’t exactly safe to drink and I didn’t want to risk getting sick.
Once I made it to my room I connected to the very fast complimentary WiFi to begin planing what to do during my remaining 18 hours in Vietnam. I hadn’t done much research into the city before I arrived. Luckily once I connected to the hotel WiFi I discovered the property was just about a mile walk to nearly every tourist attraction I wanted to visit.
I stayed up most of the night and as the sun rose I went up to the hotel gym to run before venturing into the city. The hotel gym was nice enough and fairly crowded for 5:00am on a Sunday morning!
Walking Through Ho Chi Minh City
After a short run I left the hotel and began walking through the city. I downloaded an offline version of Google maps so I could navigate the city using my phones GPS. After just a few steps I began to fall in love with the city. I’ve never been in a city with quite so much activity at 6:00am!
For the first few blocks of my walk I was constantly bombarded by locals offering scooter rides or various souvenirs. After a while I realized this was because I was only walking around the area of city with the various chain hotels. After a few more blocks of walking the solicitation ended and I could finally start enjoying my walk.
Notre Dame Basilica Ho Chi Minh City
One of the first stops along my walk through Ho Chi Minh was the Notre Dame Basilica. The Basilica is located in the center of a fairly busy roundabout. It was quite an odd sight at first.
This was the first time I had to cross a busy street in Vietnam and oh my is it frightening. There are a few designated cross walks, but no stop lights. Instead, pedestrians just step out into the street and walk. Motorbikes, cars, busses, and scooters just sort of avoid any pedestrians crossing the street, but rarely stop. It seems like utter madness at first. I tried to get more comfortable crossing the street during my stay in the city, but couldn’t figure it out. I’m not sure I’d ever get comfortable walking out in front of a bus, but after seeing a few elderly couples go for it I’m convinced it’s manageable.
One of the things I found most interesting around Notre Dame were the various restaurants. You could tell this area is a tourist hot spot because it featured several American favorites like KFC and Carl’s Jr.
Since I didn’t have much time I didn’t go in, but instead continued my morning walk to the War Remnants Museum just a few blocks away.
Ho Chi Minh City War Remnants Museum
On my flight from LAX to Seoul I met a couple from St. Louis (my hometown). They mentioned that if I did only one thing in Vietnam I should visit the War Remnants Museum. I took them up on their recommendation and the museum didn’t disappoint. At first I was only going to walk by, but once I saw the display of tanks and planes in the courtyard I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go inside.
The Museum opens at 7:30am sharp and admission is just 15,000 VND per person. Bottled water inside cost nearly 3x the cost of admission so there really isn’t any excuse not go in. The majority of the museum is open air so I recommend going early to avoid the afternoon heat.
Once inside the courtyard there are a variety of US military tanks and aircraft on display.
The inside of the museum featured hundreds if not thousands of photographs from during and after the war. There are also areas with various weapons used during the war on display. Admittedly, I don’t know a lot about the Vietnam war, but this museum gives every visitor a deep appreciation of the war and how brutal the years of fighter were for Vietnamese citizens. You could easily spend half a day inside the museum, but I needed to move on to the next site to visit everything I wanted to see in such a short period of time.
Visiting Ho Chi Minh City Hall
On the walk back to the hotel from the War Remnants museum I decided to walk past city hall. Again, Google maps named City Hall as a popular tourist destination.
City Hall is located at the end of Nguyen Hue which is a set of dueling one way roads with a massive courtyard in the middle. Flanking each side of the street are some of the most diverse examples of architecture I’ve ever seen in such a concentrated area. No two buildings looked alike, it was truly a unique stretch of road.
At the end Nguyen Hue is Ho Chi Minh’s stunning City Hall building.
The walk down Nguyen Hue is extremely special. There is a great mix of locals and tourists walking around which makes the area quite exciting. It was also along this stretch of road that I began to get comfortable crossing the street directly in front of motorbikes and scooters as traffic is a bit more tame.
I also wanted into a few local bookstores and souvenir shops along this stretch of road. I picked up a few knickknacks at a local bookstore which cost 3x more at the airport. While I’m sure these items were still overpriced in such a touristy area of the city, they were much cheaper than similar items found at the airport’s souvenir shops.
A Few More Sites Of Ho Chi Minh
As I meandered through the city I took whichever turn seemed most interesting. Along the way I discovered a few areas which I enjoyed, however I’m not exactly sure what they are or where they were. I’ll include a few of these areas below.
The first area I stumbled upon turned out being Independence Palace. When I walked by the gates weren’t yet open so I didn’t venture inside.
Next I stumbled upon a public park in the middle of a roundabout. Interestingly, upon closer inspection it appeared the centerpiece of the park was nothing more than a cellphone tower. Apparently Ho Con Ruy is the name of this public park / cell phone tower.
Saigon Central Post Office And Municipal Theatre
Next, I proceeded to walk through the city and stumbled upon two different public gatherings. The first seemed like some sort of scholastic graduation ceremony. Both the boys and girls were all wearing uniforms. The girls uniforms featured different colored pants which I can only assume somehow designated their age or grade in school. The boys uniforms appeared the same no matter the age or grade.
After passing the students posing for a class photograph I stumbled upon a large gathering and musical performance in front of the Saigon Municipal Theatre.
Lastly, I used the Saigon SkyDeck as my North Star when walking around the city. I knew where my hotel was in relation to this tower. If I walked toward it I knew I was getting closer to the river and my hotel, as I walked away from it I knew I was getting farther away. It’s mostly visible from everywhere within a square mile or two. I didn’t pay to go up to the top of the SkyDeck because my hotel featured a rooftop pool and deck that offered similar views (albeit lower) of the city.
My Overall Impressions Regarding Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
I’ll be completely honest, Ho Chi Minh City was never a city I wanted to visit. The only reason I ended up in Vietnam was thanks to the incredible Qatar Airways fare sale. My trip originated in Ho Chi Minh and I just happened to plan a long layover in the city to ensure I wouldn’t miss my first flight.
Let me tell you, I’m so thankful this trip originated from here. Ho Chi Minh city is one of the most unique and awe-inspiring cities I’ve ever been to. From the moment you walk outside the airport you’re overwhelmed by the motorbikes and scooters whizzing by. Also, the locals speak very little english in Vietnam so you instantly feel immersed into the culture after arriving.
Walking through Ho Chi Minh city is oddly peaceful. There is so much chaos in the streets, but the city has an abundance of public parks, municipal buildings, and museums to escape into. Once inside these quiet oases you forget about all the near death street crossings and start to appreciate the huge tropical trees and lush green manicured lawns. As I walked through the city I also gained a sense of just how friendly the Vietnamese locals are. Nearly everyone I passed greeted me with a smile and so many of the toddlers yelled “Hello” in english and waved. It’s one of the most warm and inviting places I’ve ever been.
I loved my time exploring Ho Chi Minh city. 20 hours was definitely enough time to establish my sense of direction in the city center. I felt comfortable waking around the city from the moment I stepped outside of my hotel.
I’m in no rush to go back in the near future, but Ho Chi Minh has made it near the top of my ever-growing list of places I wish to return. I’m not sure that you’d need a full week to explore the city, but Ho Chi Minh seems like a great place to begin or end a larger journey throughout Vietnam and Southeast Asia.
Another fantastic thing worth noting about Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam as a whole is how inexpensive most things are. Canned soda, alcohol, and pre-packaged goods have similar prices to what you’d expect in the United States, but transportation, services, and food items are incredibly inexpensive. My seat-mate on the flight into SGN told me her plans for her 12 hour layover. She planned to take a cab into the city for a 60 minute massage and expected to pay just $20 USD for the cab fare and massage.
As I’m sure you realized by now this is by no means a comprehensive review of Ho Chi Minh city. I’ve simply tried to show what I did during my 20 hour layover in Ho Chi Minh. Hopefully I’ve given you a few ideas of where to go and what to see during your visit. Overall, I loved this city and look forward to visit again for a longer period of time.