Saturday, December 29, 2012

Keeping Up with Saigon's Energy

After the APT Asian Series Cambodia which was held in one of the casinos in the Cambodia-Vietnam border, we went back to Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon), Vietnam to get to know this popular tourist destination and bustling city.

When crossing the border...
On our way from Vietnam to Cambodia, we rode a hotel service car so the only time we had to get off the car was in the Cambodia Immigration to give our passports and pay USD 20 each.  This was not an official payment, but part of the twisted system, if you know what I mean...

Now crossing back from Cambodia to Vietnam, we had to walk quite a distance as the hotel car was prohibited to cross the border.  There were locals in motorcycles who will offer to carry your luggage across.  It was raining and it was really a hassle, so we agreed to have our luggage carried.  When we got to the bus which will take us to Ho Chi Minh City, the men in motorcycles were ripping us off with USD 10 for carrying our luggage, I refused to pay that. Good thing the guy from the hotel who went with us to assist us in immigration told us to only give USD 3.

It is very important to stay alert at all times. If you can carry your own luggage across the border, do so.

Cambodia-Vietnam Border

It took us less than 2 hours to reach Ho Chi Minh.  We reached the hostel around 5PM.

Where we stayed...
While we were in Cambodia, I was Googling cheap hotels and hostels where we can stay in HCM. I had these two on my plate: Koniko Backpackers Hostel and Victory Hotel 2.  Both were located in Pham Ngu Lao district and have good reviews.  The former has breakfasts included, but the latter one seems to have much bigger room space.  We went for Koniko.

We stayed in a Triple Room (with 1 double bed and 1 single bed) which costs USD 26 per night (w/ breakfast).  The room was small, but it was clean, with a private bathroom and complete amenities.  The staff were really friendly, the girl even helped us out plan our city tour before we left the hostel the next morning to explore.  The entire hostel was so clean, you even have to take off your footwear when inside the establishment.

The location is very good, it's near restaurants, bars, travel agencies and shops. However, being in the midst of this busy street, you can also hear the noise at night.  We only stayed for 2 nights, so it was fine.  For our room for 2 nights, we paid a total of VND 1,326,000 (USD 63) (for the three of us).  The airport pick up cost us VND 39,000 (USD 1.90) (hotel shuttle from Cambodia dropped us at the airport).

Check out their website at

Koniko Backpackers Hostel
149, Bui Vien Str., Pham Ngu Lao ward, Dist. 1, HCM City

Tel: (08)8 38369548
Fax: (08)8 38369548

This is one reason why I loved the vibe in Pham Ngu Lao!  Flocks of foreigners hang out on the side walk (like "tambays"), sitting in tiny chairs and tables, while drinking the local beer from the stores.

There are just so many foreigners, families, couples, friends, enjoying the vibrant city.

On our first night, after having dinner in a resto near our hostel, we set foot to bargain in the Night Market.  It's a 15-minute walk from our hostel.

Ben Than Market - It's open during the day. At night this closes and the night market outside comes to life.

In crossing the roads of HCM, one must bear a brave soul.
It was just soooo hard to cross!

Flocks of motorcycles are some of the common sights in HCM.

The night market was full of different goods and souvenirs: clothes, shoes, coffee, tea, bags, etc.  Many brands of bags have factories in Vietnam that is why these are cheaper here.  Some bags are original, some are class A (pretending to be original).  You can buy a small trolley bag for as low as VND 280,000 (USD 13.30).  Souvenir magnets are at VND 10,000 (USD 50 cents).  Don't forget to bargain!

There are lots of food trips too!  Had we known it earlier, we should have taken our dinner here.  I will do a separate post about the food trips in HCM soon at I♥FOOD.


At first, we planned to sign up for a city tour in a travel agency.  In Lac Hong Tours, the City Tour only costs VND 165 per person which includes AC bus, tour guide, lunch and pick up.  They also offer other tours to Cu Chi Tunnel, Mekong Delta (where the floating market is), Can Gio Island, etc.  If you're interested, you can reach them at  You can also visit different travel agencies along Bui Vien St. to compare, there are lots!

However, it was too late when we decided we would go for the city tour. So we had no choice but to tour the city on our own, which turned out to be A LOT cheaper and fun.

The places we've been to were the same places in the itinerary of the city tour that we were supposed to sign up for.  All these places also were marked in the map provided by the hostel, you can grab one at the reception. The hostel also offer tours, but their prices are much higher than the one we found.

What we did was took a cab from the hostel to the farthest stop, which was the War Remnants Museum, and planned to walk going back to see the other stops.  The cab ride only cost us VND 48,000 (USD 2.30).

Stop #1
War Remnants Museum
Entrance Fee: VND 15,000 (USD 70 cents)

I am not so fond of museums, but while others were bored, this museum moved me.  The whole war era was presented up to the aftermath and the inspiring effort to recover.

War Remnants Museum

Lunch at Restaurant Ngon

We had lunch at this famous resto as suggested by the staff from the hostel - Resturant Ngon. From War Remnants Museum, we walked to this resto before going to the next stop which was the Reunification Palace (located just next to this resto). The location just suits our itinerary perfectly!

 It has a beautiful interior and the food was delicious.

Stop #2
Reunification Palace
Entrance fee: VND 30,000 (USD 1.42)

It's in the same location as the Restaurant Ngon. There's nothing much to see here.  Some tourists have tour guides showing them around, just follow them discreetly if you want to hitch ;)

Reunification Palace

Stop #3
Notre Dame Cathedral
No entrance fee

This amazing church was closed at the time of our visit, so we didn't get to see the inside.  I am sure the inside of the church was even more beautiful.

Add caption

I love it!

Stop #4
Saigon Central Post Office
No entrance fee

The post office is a must-visit stop too, it's just right next to the cathedral.  It's ancient beauty was well preserved.  It's a fully operational post office, and there were plenty of shops inside as well.

Outside the post office there were beautiful pop-cards being sold.

Stop #5
Ben Than Market
No entrance fee

For sure we wouldn't miss the famous Ben Than Market of HCM!  From the post office, we took a cab to this day market.  Cab ride cost us VND 24,000 (USD 1.14).

Ben Than Market was just so huge!  It's like Divisoria in Manila, but way cleaner and more organized.  It's indeed a haven for shopaholics!

The Cyclo, bow! 

After buying some more stuff to bring home, we rode the Cyclo going back the hostel.  This also gave us the chance to see the city while just sitting pretty. :)  I have been wanting to try this even before we arrived in HCM.

The cyclo was a bit pricey, we paid for VND 100,000 (USD 5) for a quick short ride back, but I definitely recommend this.  It's also perfect for elders who wish to tour the city, but does anymore have the energy to endure exploring the city by foot.  The cyclo is driven by old locals, and is running slow so you would have a good chance to look around and take photos and videos.

Cyclo ride in action :)

For the hotel to airport transfer, we found a cheap fixed cab rate of USD 7 in a travel agency just along the street where we stayed.  There are so many options so no need to worry about transfers.

Here's a quick summary of our itinerary:

Day 1 - Arrival day at HCM (night time)
  • Dinner in a resto along the street
  • Night Market (outside Ben Than)
  • Drink, food trip and hang out on the street side walk with other tourists
Day 2 - City Tour (we left the hostel at around 9AM)
(refer to the map below)
  • War Remnants Museum (cab from hostel)
  • Lunch at Ngon Restaurant (walk) - It'not shown on the map.  You will pass by this resto when walking from the War Museum to the Reunification Palace. It's a perfect lunch stop over!
  • Reunification Palace (walk)
  • Notre Dame Cathedral (walk)
  • Saigon Central Post Office (walk)
  • Ben Than Market (cab)
  • Cyclo back to hostel (Wer'e already back at 4PM) 
  • More shopping at the shops along the street

Here's the map which City Tour itineraries I have marked to guide you on your very own city tour. Enjoy! :)

Exploring HCM was very cheap.  Not including the air and bus fares, I only spent USD 100 in this trip, that includes the accommodation, shopping, food, and tour.  As always, I take pride in spending the least I can whenever I travel. :)

The currency exchange rate at the time we visited was:
USD 1 = VND 20,800 (big notes)
USD 1 = VND 20,700 (small notes - less than 100)

Our quick stay at Ho Chi Minh was indeed well spent.  It was such a vibrant and energetic city you have to keep up with.  I am definitely coming back to see more of Vietnam. 

See all TRAVEL posts.

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xoxo, Monique

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