The largest city in Vietnam and the former capital of the Republic of Vietnam is a city of an endless charm. Regardless official renaming into Ho Chi Minh City (or HCMC) after the former Communist leader, it is still widely called by its historical name both by locals and foreigners. If you arrive to HCMC by train, the first thing you will probably notice is large letters ‘Sai Gon’ greeting visitors from atop the railway station.
Elegant colonial buildings and brightly coloured Orient temples; incredibly tasty baguettes in French-style bakeries and two-dollar bowls of famous pho sold by street hawkers; hip young crowd in leafy city parks and dull grey concrete of the communist-era derelicts – Ho Chi Minh has tons of that wonderful flavour of old Saigon in the air. Buzzing with colourful markets, bustling with chaotic traffic, glittering with bright neon signs and shining with smiles of friendly locals Saigon never fails to conquer the hearts of its guests.
From Nha Trang to Saigon
Getting from Nha Trang to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh, or HCMC) is easy both by train and bus, but you have to be ready for rather a longish journey. Trains can save you a couple of hours of your travel time, but buses are a bit cheaper. Anyway, expect to spend from eight to 11 hours on the move between Nha Trang and Saigon.
From Nha Trang to Saigon by train
The fastest trains to get from Nha Trang to Saigon are two night trains (SE1 and SE3), which leave Nha Trang in the evening at 9.25pm and 10.15pm, arriving to Saigon early the next morning (4.40am and 5.20am respectively). Do not fear, though, early hours: life in Asian cities and towns starts much before their Western counterparts wake up, so you will be able to have an early breakfast, take a taxi or just stroll leisurely to your accommodation – it is about three km from Saigon train station to Bui Vien-Pham Ngu Lao area where a lot of budget hotels are located. Both trains offer AC seats and second and first class sleeping cars, and the best choice from the point of view of comfort vs price ratio is probably second class AC sleepers (about VND640.000/USD30).
Though not the fastest one, SE25 at 10.25pm is even more convenient, reaching Saigon at 7am (tickets are sold at the same price).
A more luxurious alternative to ordinary Vietnam National Railways cars, Livitrans Express and Saigon Golden Train, sell berths in VIP sleepers for four passengers in their private cars attached to SNT1 train (it leaves Nha Trang at 7pm and arrives to Saigon at 5am). Tickets are nearly twice as expensive as in ordinary cars and cost VND1.100.000 (USD50) per berth. Private cars guarantee a more comfortable ride and in general a better and more relaxed experience.
All the other trains of Vietnam National Railways provide the same level of service, but are less convenient from the point of view of their schedule. Morning trains rob you off the whole day and two evening trains bring you to Saigon in small hours, which is, actually not a big deal, but you will need either to pay full rate for a hotel room for few remaining morning hours, or to while half the night away at the train station, which is not the best idea at all.
From Nha Trang to Saigon by bus
For those who prefer buses to trains, The Sinh Tourist operates two buses from Nha Trang to Saigon a day, one in the morning at 7.15am, and one in the evening at 7.30pm. Both take about 11 hours to reach Saigon, which is longer than the majority of trains need; but both the morning and the night buses are VIP sleepers which means you can sleep the whole journey through (if you are lucky enough to be able to sleep in such sleeping buses at all!), and cost less than trains (VND220.000-240.000/USD10).
Another good thing about Sinh Tourist buses is that they pick up and drop off their passengers in the heart of tourist activity both in Nha Trang and Saigon. In Nha Trang, The Sinh Tourist Office, from where the company’s buses depart, is located one block away from the sea, at the corner of Hung Vuong and Biet Thu streets. In Saigon, buses head to De Tham street, which connects the famous backpackers headquarters in Saigon, Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien streets.
Getting around in Saigon
Even if you are used to renting a motorbike for getting around cities and towns in Asia, think twice before doing it in Saigon. Motorbike traffic is absolutely terrible in the city, two-wheeled transport comes in an endless flow and all you can do is just wonder how the riders manage to avoid constant collisions at roundabouts and junctions. If you are confident in your riding skills, you can easily rent a motorbike in Pham Ngu Lao area for about VND150.000 (USD6-7) per day. As a rule, police do not ask a driving licence, though by law you should have a valid one. Note that many rental agencies would require your passport as a deposit, and in case you have an accident or get your motorbike even slightly damaged, it will be quite hard to negotiate compensation with the owner.
Some people consider cycling around Saigon a good alternative to renting a bike, but again, with thick traffic and polluted air it is not a best option to consider.
Taxis and xe om (motorbike taxis) are wonderfully affordable in Saigon. And while taxis tend to use metres (insist on switching one on if your driver does not do it by default), you should absolutely negotiate the cost of the ride in advance if going by xe om.
Many beautiful temples lie within a walking distance from Pham Ngu Lao area, and strolling the street of the old city filled with colonial mansions make for an atmospheric experience anyway.
If you want to savour real local flavour, take a tricycle, aka cyclo, ride. It is quintessentially Vietnamese experience to be pedalled through heavily trafficked streets with your driver behind you and all the road chaos of cars, bikes and buses rushing right towards your insecure means of transport.
Finally, there are public buses – the cheapest and in most cases the fastest way to move around in Saigon – they are always given way to. The only problem is to figure out which line you need. But as soon as you solve the puzzle, enjoy going local.
Where to stay in Saigon
The prime backpacker’s choice for budget guesthouses is Pham Ngu Lao–Bu Vien area, conveniently located close to Ben Thanh Market. The cheapest rooms can be found at as low as USD10, but USD20 is more realistic amount for which you can get a room in a family-operated guesthouse with private bathroom and air-conditioning. In recent years more and more mid-range hotels are making their way to Pham Ngu Lao, with prices ranging between USD30-USD40. These are mostly clustered around Le Thanh Ton and Ly Tu Trong. If Pham Ngu Lao is too frenetic for you, head to Co Giang Street or Co Bac Street. Both offer quite a decent choice of budget guesthouses but boast a quieter ambiance. The central part of the city is the enclave of luxury hotels and international chains though some great mid-range deals can be found there, too.
Things to do in Saigon
There is soooooo much to do and see in Saigon, that planning your stay may become a real challenge. Do not try to cover all the sights in a couple of days; just pick up a bit of everything to see the many faces of the city.
Walk from District 1 to Cholon to visit some of the best temples in Saigon. These are colourful oasis of tranquillity and peace amidst the sea of loud traffic horns and dust. Do not miss an impressive gilded ship in Nghia An Hoi Quan Pagoda, watch the incense coils hanging from the ceiling in Thien Hau Pagoda, admire four dragon columns brought from China in Ha Chuong Hoi Quan Pagoda and feel as the time slows its pace in a secret Jade Emperor Pagoda. Walk through the rooms and underground tunnels of President Palace complete with rooftop helipad, find out what the modern Vietnamese art is about at rather small but charming Contemporary Art Museum, and study old maps of Saigon and Vietnam at the gorgeous Central Post Office which occupies a stately colonial building inspired by the architecture of Gare d'Orsay in Paris. Indulge in shopping: markets in Saigon are incredibly varied and offer an abundance of great finds – from excellent local coffee to stylish gold jewellery.
Last but not least – set on a culinary tour of Ho Chi Minh which is a foodie’s paradise. From Pho 2000 proud for having fed even President Bill Clinton with their soup to elegant Fanny ice-cream cafe with mind-blowing choice of frozen delights, you will have plenty of gastronomic fun in Saigon.
Your onward travel from Saigon
There is a choice of international buses, which connect Saigon with Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The trip takes about seven hours with any company and costs between USD13 (The Sinh Tourist) and USD18 (Giant Ibis Company).
You can further connect from Saigon via Phnom Penh to Siem Reap to pay respect to amazing temples of Angkor (from 17 hours with Giant Ibis Transport).