TRAVEL ADVICE HCMC SAIGON VIETNAM
How to breeze through Tan Son Nhat airport in HCMC (Saigon) without a care in the world.
Arriving in Tan Son Nhat can be a little daunting, especially if you are dragging your exhausted self off a long haul from the other side of the world.
It doesn’t need to be, armed with a few key pieces of information you can cruise through the airport, and arrive safely at your accommodation as if you have done it as many times as I have.
The first thing you should know about arriving in Ho Chi Minh City is that there is virtually no tourist crime. Most incidences are confined to the city centre (District 1) and these are generally nothing more serious than pickpocketing. Very occasionally you’ll get the odd impulsive taxi driver trying their luck, but it’s rare outside of the airport (which I will get to later on in this guide).
If you treat Ho Chi Minh City like any other big city in the world, keep your belongings safe and behave sensibly it’s extremely rare to encounter any problems.
A Note On COVID-19
Vietnam did an amazing job of beating the first wave of COVID-19, and with no new cases for 99 days, things were almost completely back to normal. Unfortunately, there have been fifteen new cases in Da Nang since the weekend of 25th July 2020; so it’s likely that things will tighten up again. This is already impacting travel to and from Ho Chi Minh, so please make sure to check with your airline and on the government portal below for updates:
It may be necessary to wear a mask, undergo temperature checks and complete a health declaration.
Vietnam was swift to react and strict with its response the first time around, which is why the country has had such a low infection rate. If you are visiting please be mindful, respectful and follow any government recommendations.
Visa and entry requirements are changing daily.
As I write this the entry requirements to Vietnam from an affected country mandate a 2-week government quarantine (at a facility or hotel) followers by 2 further weeks at home. The visa waiver system has been stopped and all foreigners must have a Visa to enter.
So let’s get started — Practical Stuff…
You Just Landed
You will almost certainly witness the sprint off the plane towards the arrivals hall. This is because it is notoriously slow to get through, so travellers race to get there first. There is WIFI in the airport but I would advise against depending on that for anything important as it is shockingly unreliable. There are lots of toilets en route to passport control, and more in the arrivals hall.
Complete the Visa Application before you get to Vietnam online at the link above, please check how long in advance you need to complete this, again this has changed due to COVID-19. When you arrive go to the Visa on Arrival desk which is to the left as you enter the big passport control hall. Take all the correctly filled out paperwork and passport photos. Sometimes they say 2 photos, sometimes they say 1 photo. Take 2 to be safe.
They only accept US dollars!
I have no idea why, and this is the only time you will need/be able to use US Dollars, make sure you have enough for your Visa. (If you don’t — don’t panic there are currency exchange places in the hall so you can change money, it’s just easier and faster to have it ahead of time) I was told so many horror stories of the entry process, but honestly it’s pretty orderly, there is a bit of jostling to get the paperwork in. Once you have done that, you sit down and wait for them to call out an entertaining interpretation of your name before collecting your visa and heading to passport control. If you fill in the wrong form, they will tell you — they are pretty helpful don’t worry! If you cannot bear the thought of this you can pay a small fee to an agent to do this for you. If you google Vietnam Visa it will bring up more of these agencies than anything else.
Here you will need your passport, Visa and the address of the place you will be staying. If you plan to leave Vietnam and come back (ie pop over to Cambodia) then you will need to show them your tickets or flight details. Get all this stuff ready so the people in the queue behind you don’t lose their sh*t! This part of the process can be notoriously slow — be prepared to wait!
In the unlikely event, your luggage does not appear on the carousel; there is a lost luggage desk in the arrivals hall, at the front to the left. You complete a form with a description and colour of your luggage, normally they can do a search there and then, tell you where it is, when it will arrive (normally the next flight) and they will make all the arrangements to have it delivered to you. It’s very efficient and it means one less case for you to drag to your destination. This has happened to me 3 times in 4 years and around 60 trips.
Vietnam has a closed currency, which means you can only get it when you are in Vietnam. Contrary to lots of things I have read Vietnam operates using Vietnamese Dong VND NOT US Dollars, so just bring enough for your visa, perhaps a bit extra if you are going somewhere else (Cambodia is also USD for the visa) I would suggest you get some money out of one of the atm’s or currency exchange places before you go outside. Please also note that the ATM’s can be very temperamental, you might have to try several different banks for a successful withdrawal, so don’t panic if the first one you try doesn’t work.
The money is a PAIN!
It is all notes, no coins at all, which makes for a nice light wallet. It’s also pretty durable and will withstand a couple of rounds through the washing machine.
It took me a good 2 years to get the hang of it. The 50,000 note looks like the 200,000 note, the 20,000 note looks like the 500,000 note.
People hate the 500,000 notes as, relatively speaking, it’s a huge amount of money.
The nice thing is here, unlike most places you will be a MILLIONAIRE 😉
See below — this is our money.
The smallest notes are 200 and 500, which are very rarely used.
Then 1,000 — 2,000 — 5,000 — 10,000 — 20,000 — 50,000 — 100,000 — 200,000 — 500,000 notes.
I just did a quick conversion for you & these are today’s rates:
10,000 dong — 0.43 USD
100,000 dong — 4.30 USD
1,000,000 dong — 43.06 USD
I use the XE app for currency conversion, you can also use their website:
You can buy a sim card at the exit gates when you come through arrivals in the airport, if you’re going to get a sim it makes sense to do it then as you’ll have the added benefit of the internet immediately.
There are 3 main carriers here; Mobifone, Vinaphone and Viettel. As long as you stick with one of those you should be ok. Prices range from around 100,000 to 200,000 (5–9 USD) of course this will be variable depending on the carrier and the package. All the staff speak good English.
Ok so now you know about money, have got some and your sim card, you are ready to deal with the bedlam of leaving the airport — and I say this because in spite of the advice I give out to everyone else; even I have been caught out. (I should also say the airport is literally the only place I have ever been ripped off in HCMC, unfortunately, it’s easy pickings with lots of tired travellers eager to get to their final destinations)
A cat-sitter once asked me about shuttle buses or the airport express and I spat out my coffee. For all of the modern cool things that HCMC has going for it, this is not one of them, and transport from the airport is pretty limited. The main reason for this is because the Taxi’s are very reasonable and a normal way for everyone to get around the city. There are buses and most bus journeys are a fixed fee of 5,000vnd but they are archaic, quite tricky if you cannot speak Vietnamese and take a really long time as they stop everywhere. So unless you are looking for extra adventure, or are on an incredibly tight budget, I would advise sticking to a Taxi or Grab.
A lot of the bigger hotels offer airport pickups, so do check as this will save you the hassle altogether.
Please read carefully.
It can be extremely busy when you exit the airport and this is why it’s good to know this information first.
- The taxi rank is clearly marked — head for it!
- Look for the Taxi’s I mention below. Mai Linh and Vinasun
- If a man in uniform comes to ‘help’ you. Ignore and keep walking.
They do not work for the airport, they work for the other various taxi companies who are un-regulated. They pray on tired travellers and trust me, you’ll end up with an insanely ridiculous fare if you take one. I had a big fight on my hands when I stupidly did this; luckily my Vietnamese was good enough to get to a reasonable middle ground, but don’t get yourself in this stupid position, it’s not worth it.
ONLY GET MAI LINH (green car) or VINASUN (white car)
They are both metered. They are always abundant at the airport and they have seven-seaters if there is a large group of you. They both take cards.
They also both have apps which are worth downloading then you have lots of options to get you around☺
To give you a ballpark figure; the most I have ever paid for a taxi from the airport is 270,000VND and I live in District 7, which is much further than District 1 or 3 where most visitors will typically stay.
GRAB (like Uber or Lyft)
They are a lifesaver; especially handy when you don’t speak Vietnamese or know where you are going. Normally an airport GRAB car will be around 120,000–180,000VND to my house right out in District 7, you can see the price before you commit to booking and there are also options like 7 seaters, luxury cars and scooters. Scooters are one of the most common ways to get around, faster, and normally a fraction of the cost of a car. The driver will provide you with a helmet and poncho if it rains.
Do not expect to have a pricing battle on your hands as you may have experienced somewhere like Bali; what you see is what you get. The only additions will be if you go through any tolls.
There are other apps similar to Grab, but Grab is the most reliable and has been around for the longest.
(I should mention if you get heavy rain Grab prices can go up dramatically)
Unfortunately, HCMC is quite unique in the fact that the Taxi drivers simply don’t know where things are. Almost all of the taxis have GPS built-in as standard, none of them use it, even when lost — it drives me nuts. This is why Grab is beneficial, they will follow the route they are given. HCMC definitely has some unique quirks about it and this is one of them…
The city is split into areas called ‘Districts’ or the Vietnamese word is ‘Quận’ most of them are numbered for example: Quận 1 is the centre, Quận 7 is in the suburbs, where I live. Some of them have names like Quận Bình Chánh or Bình Thạnh. Do not be fooled by the numbers, they are not in a logical order. Quận 7 is next to Quận 4 which is next to Quận 1 for example. A handy tip to know is most businesses have the full address on their sign, so if you want to know what district you are in you just look up at the signage and it will be easy to see where you are.
Useful words and phrases with phonetic pronunciation and the correct spelling:
wayo fie — turn right
fie — right
wayo chai — turn left
chai — left
wayo lai — turn around
dee tang — straight ahead
sin loy — sorry
gammonnnn — thank you
jar mot chout — wait a minute
chờ một chút
mot chout — little bit
hom — no (also means zero or anything negative)
hom sau — no problem
hom car chi — you’re welcome
không có chi
It is not part of the culture to tip in Vietnam.
It is not expected, and depending on where you are, can be so unusual that they may chase you to return your change. I do tip if I have had especially good service, I tip my drivers a little bit, but it’s really not the norm, so don’t feel like you have to. The best tip you can give is your return business.
So there you have it, I hope this helps to get you safely to your accommodation, I will be back soon with some tips on what you should do now you are here!