Saigon. Sounds exotic but as a city it’s one of the craziest we’ve been to. It’s now officially called Ho Chi Minh (or HCMC) after the US left after the Vietnam war. We arrived on the 28th March after three flights and 2 layovers via Finnair from Berlin-Helsinki-Hong Kong and finally at Tan Son Nhat International (SGN) airport approx 30 minutes drive north of the central district.
Where to stay
Saigon is split into Districts, appearing to emanate out from the main centre. We stayed in District 1, in a budget hotel called Phan Lan 2 in the backpackers area just off what is known as ‘Backpacker street’, or Pham Ngu Lau. Although basic it met all our needs and I would recommend for the prices. However if we were staying longer we might have stayed further outside the central district, which would probably be cheaper still.
If you’re on a short stay and reasonable budget there are some tremendous hotels around the Opera house and Saigon square.
Food and Drink
The food is fantastic and so cheap and we’re staying in the tourist area of town where I’d expect it to be more expensive. Pho (pronounced ‘Fu’) is surprisingly tasty if you know what to do with the leaves left on the side of your table, by breaking them up and adding them to your soup, it adds so many different flavours. My favourite is Pho Ga (Chicken), but it comes in many varieties such as Pho Bo (Pork), Pho Hai San (Seafood) etc.
The beer is also cheap at an average 25,000 Dong (VND) or 1 Euro for a bottle of Tiger beer or the local brew, Saigon Green, red and special. If you look at some of the cheaper bars then you can get Saigon beer for as little as 15,000 VND or Euro 0.60.
There are some new microbreweries opening up generally with expat assistance, such as Phat Rooster and Pasteur street brewery, but these are generally more expensive(65,000 VND or 3 Euro for a small 1/2 pint/230ml) but taste like artisan beers.
Like in all asian countries they have their fair share of questionable foods, such as boiled fertilised duck eggs (where the embryo has started to grow), Snakehead soup, Phá lấu (Intestine stew: Pig & cow intestines boiled down into salty broth), Snails and Frog (in any form you can imagine). You can see the very french influence with their equivalent to Escargot, Grenouille and Tête de veau taken to another level, but maybe the english black and white pudding has a similar effect on many!
Considering our site is dedicated to Tea, we haven’t found a decent tea shop as coffee is generally drunk everywhere, with the favourite being Vietnamese iced coffee made with condensed milk with coffee dripped over it then added ice (Cà phê sữa đá). The budget hotels don’t have kettles either so have had Tea withdrawal symptoms whilst in Saigon.
Things to do
The ten days we stayed we were limited to what we could see considering a population of approximately 10 million (and the many events for catering their needs). Staying around district 1 meant we got to see most of the sights within walking distance and feel the ‘grittier’ side of the area. With a baby and a toddler there are a few things we can’t do yet but didn’t feel particularly limited.
These included the War Remnants museum, which I didn’t feel the need to be reminded of the horrors inflicted on the Vietnamese (especially after speaking with someone who had nightmares after visiting) or driving hours to walk along the remnants of the Cu Chi tunnels, the labyrinth of underground tunnels built by the Viet Cong.
However we’d recommend, considering we have 2 young children travelling with us:
- Saigon Square
- Notre Dame cathedral & the surrounding area.
- Bitexco skytower
- Jade Emperor Pagoda (73 Ð Mai Thi Luu) built 1909
- There are a few public parks where you can grab a coffee and let the kids run themselves tired.
- The Opera house is worth going to if there are any child-friendly shows on.
- Water puppet show
- Take a Cyclo / Trike tour around the city.
As with any new city, it’s worth walking around just to take in the culture, flavours, sights, sounds and smells of the area.
Buggies (or Strollers) are not catered for as the pavement has been adopted as parking space for the millions of mopeds. Unfortunately this means walking in the road most of the time which although doesn’t sound safe, we never felt in any danger from the generally slow moving mopeds. However the more sensitive might not agree.
A joke seems to be green light means go, whilst red light means, still can go!
The down side of this is the fact that both Amelie and Soraya are both walking & being pushed around by buggy at exhaust level & I wouldn’t imagine an extended stay in Saigon for health reasons.
(There are in excess of 8.5 million mopeds/scooters, almost a ratio of 1 to 1 with the population.)
If you need to go further taxis are everywhere and relatively cheap. The 30 minute cab ride from the airport to District 1 is approx $10 USD
Keeping in touch
We didn’t rush getting a SIM as after 20 hours of travelling, we just wanted to get to the hotel. For the first day we used our TEP wireless device for access until we had found the best SIM card & rate. The TEP is not cheap but serves its purpose when in transit or just arriving in country, giving us time to search for the best rate between competing mobile phone providers. I did a lot of research on the various options before opting on this so get in touch if you want more info.
We opted to go with Viettel from a local Viettel store, after hearing the street vendors aren’t licensed and people getting cut off. It cost approx 10 Euro for 2 x 10GB monthly data SIM cards, which we found was half the price of the same deal at the airport.
Keep following us as we search for the best places in Asia for a family with young children. Next stop Mui Ne, approximately 5 hours drive by coach from Saigon.