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 – though officially renamed to Ho Chi Minh over 40 years ago, the city still has 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.
How to get from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh
The Cambodian capital and the largest city in Vietnam are connected by numerous buses and daily flights. Though at first sight flying seems a quicker solution to get to your destination, if you add the time required for getting to/from the airport, you may come very close to what buses offer. Pricewise bus travel is considerably cheaper, and the level of comfort is absolutely acceptable.
From Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh by bus
Giant Ibis Transport has one morning bus daily at 8am and in certain periods the second one at 12.30pm. Buses leave from the company’ bus terminal in Phnom Penh in 106 Street, centrally located close to the riverfront and the night market. Inquire at your accommodation if they are in partnership with Giant Ibis; if yes, the transport company provides free pick-up from your hotel to the bus station. Tickets cost USD18 and include complimentary snack, a bottle of water and free use of Wi-Fi and electrical outlets on board the bus.
The distance between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh is 240 km, but the trip takes about six hours due to immigration formalities on the Cambodian and Vietnamese sides and ferry crossing. During the trip buses make one stop for lunch in the duty free zone right after you pass through Cambodian immigration. Note that lunch is not included into your ticket price but you can order lunch at your expense at Banyan Tree restaurant. The majority of dishes are priced between USD3 and USD4.
At the Vietnamese side you will be required to take your luggage out for scanning and then to proceed through the Vietnamese immigration. After all the border formalities are finished, the bus will finally bring you to your destination.
In Ho Chi Minh, Giant Ibis bus station is located in Pham Ngu Lao Street in District 1, which is actually a very busy strip where backpacker accommodation options galore. Generally you can easily walk along the street to find the dig which appeals to you most; otherwise take a taxi: taxis are plentiful and very affordable in Ho Chi Minh.
From Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh by air
There are direct flights between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh performed by regular and low-cost airlines. Travel time is about one hour, but it is often impossible to find tickets under USD100 – if only you do not hit a great sale period. Cambodia Angkor, Vietnam Airlines and Qatar Airways all operate direct flights from Phnom Penh to Saigon. If overland travel is not your thing, consider this option, then.
Do you have your Vietnamese visa?
Before buying your bus ticket to Ho Chi Minh, check visa requirements for your passport. Many nationalities can now enter Vietnam without visa if they are going to stay in the country not longer that the period indicated for visa exemption. For many passports this free period is 15 days. If you do need a visa or want to stay in Vietnam longer, obtain your visa to Vietnam through the Vietnamese consulate in Phnom Penh before you go: there is no VOA (visa on arrival) service on the land border between Cambodia and Vietnam, and without valid visa you will be refused transportation. The procedure is quick and straightforward; you receive your passport back with a stamped visa the following day after having submitted the necessary documents. Visa fee is USD40. Many tour agencies are ready to help you with Vietnamese visa if you do not want to go to the consulate yourself.
Saigon is large and you are most likely to use some kind of wheels for moving around. While some of the sights lie within a walking distance from Phan Ngu Lao, if you choose to walk there, be ready to inhale a lot of smog, walk along the roads as walkways are non-existent or are occupied by vendors or parked motorbikes, and arm yourself with courage absolutely necessary for crossing the street – as traffic light signals are often ignored and pedestrians are never given way to.
Tip: It is useless to wait at the pedestrian crossing till drivers stop to let you pass. Instead start moving forward very slowly as if cutting the thick flow of vehicles. God knows why, but it is the best strategy in Vietnam. Drivers will calculate your route themselves and go round you. Once set to crossing the street, do not run, do not stop and do not change direction – and you are sure to arrive to the other side of the road safely!
The easiest and most obvious way to move around in Saigon is taxis and motorbike taxis. Both are cheap and ubiquitous. All official taxis have metres – make sure your driver switches their metre on when you get in. The most popular taxi scams are using the night tariff at daytime and choosing a longer route to bring passengers to their destination. Motorbike taxis cost approximately half the price you would pay for the same route if taking an ordinary taxi, but never ever get on without having agreed on the cost of the ride in advance and always ask for a helmet – it is illegal to ride without helmet in Vietnam and if caught, it is going to be you, not the driver, who will be fined for not wearing one.
If you are an experienced rider – we mean very experienced motorbike rider – you can try out renting a scooter. Good news: normally you can drive a scooter under 125cc without driving licence. Bad news: there are myriads of motorbikes cruising Ho Chi Minh streets. Yes, myriads! With a scooter you will have much more freedom but note that thefts of motorbikes are not unheard of – park only in designated areas with parking attendants (parking fee ranges from 2,000 to 20,000 dong which is from USD0.10 to USD1).
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
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.
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 Imperial 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 of the former railway station. 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.