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Ho Chi Minh City
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Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnamese: Thành Ph? H? Chí Minh), commonly known as Saigon, is the largest city in Vietnam and the former capital of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam).
Saigon is a poor city, though not as poor as it used to be before the Communist Party decided to stop trying to run the economy itself. Everyone is trying to make a living, and you are a multi-millionaire in the eyes of the Vietnamese. Remember this every ten seconds as someone tries to sell you flowers, bike rides, shoe-shines, guide books or trinkets. You can ease your conscience by tipping generously in restaurants and hotels. The beggars mostly seem to be professionals and since the Vietnamese ignore them so can the visitor. Ho Chi Minh City is packed with tourists -- more so than any other city in Vietnam.
Tan Son Nhat (IATA code SGN) is Vietnam's largest international gateway and somewhat grotty, but it's small and easily navigable. Immigration here is notoriously strict and can be time-consuming, but if your papers are in order you should be fine. You can exchange money here, but you're probably better off paying for your first trip in dollars and exchanging in the city. Taxis for the trip to the center take 30 minutes and cost US$3-5; make sure the driver uses the meter. An airport bus has also recently started running.
Note that a departure tax of US$12 must be paid in cash (dollars or dong) when leaving.
Taxis are the most comfortable way of getting around, and quite cheap at 12000 dong for the first 2 kilometers, plus 6000 dong per additional kilometer. It's easy and safe to flag a taxi anywhere, anytime in Saigon.
However, not all taxis are created equal. The newer cars are more likely to have a working air conditioner, and be aware that the larger mini-SUV-type taxis charge a higher rate.
Keep small bills on hand since no one seems to have change when dealing with a Westerner.
It is important to be aware that taxi drivers get commission for taking people to certain hotels so when arriving at the airport be sure you are very clear about which hotel you want to get taken to. If this hotel doesn't pay commission this may be harder than expected.
Motorbikes (xe ôm) are plentiful, cheap and dangerous. Agree on a price before you set off; short hops around town shouldn't be more than 10000 dong, and all the way to the airport around 30000.
Cyclos are slow, dangerous and their drivers have an unfortunate tendency to attempt to rip you off, which goes a long way to explain why there are slowly disappearing from Saigon. But figure on US$2 per hour if you must.
Saigon recently made a big investment in public transit, and bright green, brand new busses are everywhere. Route information can be found at the tourist information office and it's cheaper and safer than many of the alternatives. The biggest problem is that when you get off the bus, you become a pedestrian (see below).
Saigon streets, sidewalks, and outdoor markets are owned by the motorbikes, and the whole environment is extremely hostile to pedestrians. Even though traffic is not as dense and chaotic as, say, Bangkok traffic, it's pretty scary for the western visitor. It consists mainly of motorcycles, many with up to five people including small children perched on them with apparent complete disregard for safety. Riders pay no attention to traffic signals and the traffic flows in a continuous, noisy stream. Crossing roads is therefore a challenge for westerners used to traffic lights. The trick is to follow the Vietnamese - step confidently out into the road and cross at a slow but steady pace. Trust to Lord Buddha that the traffic will flow miraculously around you, and it will. Better yet, take a taxi.
The traffic police occupy themselves with random roadside checks and do not bother the motorcyclists that are running red lights or driving on the sidewalks. The police recently announced a crackdown on pedestrians. This does NOT mean that they will hassle you; the most likely meaning of the crackdown is that you will be held responsible if you are involved in an accident.
If you're in Saigon on a Sunday night, buy, borrow, or rent a two-wheeled vehicle so you can join the throngs for di choi. It's basically a party on wheels, where everyone just rides through the streets of downtown until the wee hours.
If the heat starts to get you down, head to one of the cities water parks for a bit of splashing around to cool off. There are a number of water parks in Saigon. Close to the city centre is Dam Sen Water Park (http://www.damsenwaterpark.com.vn) in District 11. Saigon Water Park (http://http://www.vietnamtourism.com/e_pages/Tourist/travel.asp) is just north of the city in the Thu Duc District. The others are Water World in District 9, Ocean Water Park in District 7 and Dai The Gioi Water Park in District 5.
You're spoiled for choice in Saigon, which offers the country's largest variety of Vietnamese and international food.
Food stalls are scattered all over the streets of Saigon, but there's a fair collection in the Ben Thanh market (see Buy).
Along Pham Ngu Lao there are many budget westernised options. venturing a bit further into the side alleys can uncover some better options than on the main streets.
A cup of immensely strong black Vietnamese coffee (sweetened with sugar or condensed milk) in a traditional Vietnamese cafe is an absolute must when in Saigon. The coffee is actually brewed in a little metal apparatus placed on your cup, just lift it off when it has cooled off enough to touch (and hence drink).
Bars and clubs
Saigon has plenty of places to drink, although it must be noted that to a certain degree Vietnamese and foreigners hang out in their own places; this is slowly changing as Vietnam becomes wealthier and more familiar with the strange ways of the West.
Pham Ngu Lao, to the west of town, is Saigon's backpacker hangout.
Many of Saigon's historical hotels are in the hands of Saigontourist, the former state monopoly. Thanks to recent competition, service and facilities are adequate, but not quite up to modern standards; but if you want to experience a little colonial atmosphere, these remain far and away the best choices at the moment.
Luxury hotel chains are popping up in Saigon faster than mushrooms in the monsoon rains. Current competitors include Caravelle, Sheraton Saigon (complete with Prada shop in the arcade), Renaissance Riverside and Sofitel Plaza; upcoming entrants include the Hyatt. Expect to pay closer to US$200 a night for any of these.
For trips to these and other destinations the easiest and cheapest option is to go to one of the many travel agencies around Pham Ngu Lao area and book there. Tours go everyday to virtually everywhere it seems.