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In District 1 there are lots of recreational activities which is why District 1 is also known as the “sleepless district” where a great deal of entertainment keeps you awake all night.
Foreigners from all over the world can be found here – so the chance of meeting new expat friends is higher than in other districts.
Pham Ngu Lao street is a westernised road where there are a lot of western-style restaurants, coffee shops, bars and other services for foreigners. Thanks to the high density of foreigners, there are more citizens in District 1 who speak English (compared to other districts in Saigon).
District 1 is considered to be the most expensive district. Everything seems to be more costly here. A cup of coffee is twice or triple what you pay in other districts.
I used CHEAPFLIGHTS.COM to find the cheapest ticket from Wellington, NZ to Saigon.
The cheapest available flight was NZ$785 one way with BYOjet which included a transfer in Auckland and another in Singapore for a total flight time of 21 hours.
When I paid for the flight on the BYOjet link site they wanted to add a $20 Credit Card Fee so I used my Debit Card instead. However, BYOjet charged the Credit Card Fee anyway. I have sent an email to BYOjet asking for that fee to be refunded but have not heard back from them yet. I don’t think that I’m going to see it.
I don’t like it when providers quietly ‘tag on’ such fees at the end of the process so, if BYOjet don’t give me that refund, I will think twice before using them again.
The flight from Wellington to Auckland was full yet comfortable and took 1 hour.
The flight from Auckland to Singapore was also full and took 10 hours. The plane and seating were comfortable enough but I was still quite tired by the time that I arrived at the other end at 7am.
The flight from Singapore to Saigon was only half full and took 2 hours arriving at 11am.
My flight landed at 11am. The queue at Immigration was short and efficient; you don’t even need to fill in any arrival forms. By 11:15am I was waiting for my suitcase at the carousel. By 11:45am I was walking out into the Arrivals Hall.
It was one of the fastest arrivals in my travels so far.
You don’t really get hassled that much when you exit Immigration either – which was a pleasant change… yes, you have several people calling at you asking if you want a taxi – but that is normal.
SAFETY & DRUGS:
I am used to sitting in a cafe each day with by laptop working. On my second day I was warned by a local cafe owner that it was dangerous and that my laptop could be stolen. I thought that he was scaremongering… when it happened again the next day, I took notice. Do not get anything of value out in the open on the streets.
Once you accept that this is a fact of life in Vietnam, you can enjoy yourself.
You will be approached by many street sellers and beggars whilst sitting in the bars and cafes. Many of these arrive with boxes that they open to reveal packs of different makes of cigarettes. If you say ‘no’, most will then slyly open one of the packs to reveal small bags of marijuana and ask you again… it is not uncommon to get the odd ‘whiff’ of smoking a joint in some of these places. I was told by the Vietnamese man sitting next to me that a small bag costs VDN300k but, that’s Saigon, no doubt it is much cheaper out of the main cities. No doubt, it is very illegal.
Compared to many other countries mobile plans in Vietnam are very cheap.
Stick with one of the 3 major operators which are Mobilefone, Vinaphone and Viettel. They are the prevailing GSM operators in Vietnam and offer good quality service and also their mobile Internet service is reliable. These service providers offer 3G (HSDPA) services all over the country. You have to register on your phone to use that special package rate, otherwise the rate will be higher. If you register for that package, the good thing is they allow you to continue using data service at 256 kbps at no additional cost after your GBs are used up.
The current law in Vietnam requires that pre-paid mobile phone users have to register their identity before the SIMcards can be activated. This usually means that you show them your passport when you buy the SIMcard – and they do the rest for you.
While the cards are readily available, prices and options can vary wildly and many sellers have set themselves up to take advantage of the ‘less than savvy’ traveller.
Finding a SIM in Saigon is by no means hard; all you need is a compatible phone and a little cash. SIMs are sold at the airport and all over the city but some places are better than others.
In the Pham Ngu Lao area, as well as other streets around the city, many small pop-up shops sell SIM cards. Probably the easiest to spot, with their cardboard signs labelled SIM, these vendors typically carry a variety of SIMs for a variety of carriers. Typically, the price of the SIM will depend upon the amount of credit that comes pre-loaded, ranging from VDN50k to VDN500k, with the actual prices brightly displayed on the packaging.
But be warned! These shops are notorious for taking advantage of first-time SIM buyers. While you won’t be taken to the proverbial cleaners, comparing prices shop to shop could save you as much as VDN200k on the same SIM. The advantage of visiting one of these carrier stores is that you have the ability to choose your own number instead of something randomly generated. Most short-term travellers probably won’t care about their number though, especially since some of the more desired numbers carry an extra, multi-million VND, price tag.
Throughout the city you’ll also find cell phone stores; a high concentration are found at the beginning of CMT8. A little more respectable than the fly-by-night stands in Pham Ngu Lao, these stores are generally more reliable and honest when it comes to pricing. Still, it’s best to stay on your toes just in case. Some of these stores are branded by mobile carriers.
At Saigon Airport there are several Mobile Service Provider counters to choose from. All of which display their ‘special’ rates to entice you to buy their SIMcard.
I purchased a 1 month Viettel 3G SIM with 3GB of data (unlimited at a reduced speed of 256KB once the 3GB is used up) and VDN50k of call credits for VDN340k. This included the VDN90k payable for the SIMcard itself.
There were other providers offering cheaper plans… one offered a 1GB data plan for VDN100k (presumably excluding the VDN90k for the actual SIMcard). If you only plan to stay in the big cities, this may be fine… but if you plan to get out and about into the countryside, it is worth paying that little bit more to get the wider coverage.
The Taxi service at the Saigon Airport is pretty much a cartel with all of the service desks charging the same – and, it is very hard to get anyone to give you a discount.
After travelling over 25 hours solid from my home in NZ, I was tired and wasn’t in the mood to make a fuss of a couple of $s… so, I paid my VDN220k for the 8km, 40 minute Taxi ride from the airport to my Hotel in District 1.
Once you are in District 1, you will see many agents offering the return ride back to the airport for as little as VDN150k.
ACCOMMODATION / WHERE TO STAY:
I booked a simple Double Room with hot water ensuite, cable TV, and free wifi for about US$15 / night for 4 nights.
I was on the 5th floor but the hotel has the convenience of a lift. On the 5th floor I was far enough above the street to be away from the noise whilst within walking distance of all of the things that District 1 has to offer.
The bed was comfortable. The wifi was one of the best that I have had in my travels so far. The ensuite was clean and the shower had plenty of hot water. The room was, also, attended to daily by the maids. For a senior couple, I would suggest paying a couple of US$s more for a larger Double.
For breakfast, on my first morning, I walked about 20 meters down the road from my hotel and had a delicious Beef Noodle Soup with a side of fresh greens for VDN30k… and had a pleasant conversation with a Vietnamese guy also eating there (now living in Melbourne, Australia). Out of District 1 you should be able to get the same for VDN20-25k.
I spent my first few hours in Saigon working on my blog and watching the world go by.
For lunch I had Pork Noodles for VDN30k.
As a general rule, breakfast and lunch are better value than what you can get for Dinner. By Dinner time, most of the cheap street sellers have packed up and gone home – leaving the more pricey sellers to catch your trade after you’ve had a few drinks. If you want to keep costs down, eat a hearty breakfast and lunch and a snack in the evening.
Here is a selection of what food you can get on the streets for VDN30k:
The ‘going rate’ for a large Bottle of Beer is VDN15-20k for a local Saigon Green or VDN25-30k for something like a Tiger or Singh.
Many restaurants entice you in with VDN8k-VDN10k offers on the Saigon Green – but be prepared to get a bit of a ‘hard sell’ on eating something whilst you are there.
Happy Hours are commonplace and you should easily be able to pick up a Saigon Green for VDN8k-VDN12k between 7pm and 11pm.
WHERE TO GO / WHAT TO SEE:
Sorry, but I didn’t do the ‘tourist thing’ whilst I was there – so I cannot recommend anything.
However, Saigon has an excellent Underground Service that you can use to get around and experiment yourself.
There’s plenty to see in and around District 1 anyway – all of which you can do on foot.
I was in Saigon specifically to get organised and to plan how I was going to get to Phu Quoc.
After asking around, I determined that I could fly to Phu Quoc from Saigon on a budget airline (see CHEAPFLIGHTS.COM) for about US$50. But, by the time that you add your other costs like taxis to and from airports, etc this was more like US$70.
However, I found a better way: read about how to get from Saigon to Phu Quoc via a Mekong Delta Tour… much more fun if you have the time… and CHEAPER!
MONEY / PRICES / SHOPPING:
It is recommended that you go to ANZ, SCB, Vietcombank or Commonwealth Bank ATMs as these banks charge the least for a cash withdrawal. If you bank with any of these banks yourself (I bank with the ANZ), you may not even be charged a Foreign Bank Transaction Fee (only your home bank fee).
I arrived at Saigon Airport with no local currency so went to the nearest (and ONLY ATM inside the Arrival Terminal); I needed funds to purchase my SIMcard and pay for my Taxi to my Hotel…
I withdrew the maximum VDN8m from a Citibank ATM and paid VDN60k extra for the privilege. This hit my NZ ANZ bank as NZ$551.20 plus the usual NZ$5 Foreign ATM Transaction Fee. This gave me an effective exchange rate of NZ$1 = VDN14,383.
If I had walked 20 meters out to the front of the terminal, I would have found several other ATMs – one of which was an ANZ ATM. If I had taken money out from there instead, I would have gotten NZ$1 = 14,491.
I strongly suggest that you take out the maximum amount of VDN8m at the airport. Once you get into town, many ATMs have a maximum of 40 notes… for VDN500,000 notes, this only gives you a total of VDN2m. With transaction fees at the provider’s ATM and back at you home bank, this puts the price of travel money up. In town, shop around and find ATMs with the highest maximum.
Local Cafes: Big Water VDN15k. Local filter Black Vietnamese Coffee VDN15k. Local Dishes VDN45-60k. Pack of 20 local cigarettes (like Saigon or Champion) VDN10-16k. Pack of western cigarettes (like Marlborough) VDN30k.
Street Cafes: Big Water VDN10k. Local Black Vietnamese Coffee VDN8k. Local Dishes VDN20-30k.
Street Sellers: Big Water VDN6k.
If you like big cities, you will love Saigon. It is cheap and riddled with things to do.
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