Several tips when visiting Ho Chi Minh City a.k.a. Saigon based on my experience travelling in the city.
Mai Linh and Vinasun were two companies recommended by most travel writers when I did my pre-trip research. But when I finally got there, Vinasun was apparently more popular, even among the locals. Staff at my hotel and a Vietnamese host family all called Vinasun when I said I needed a cab. In fact, a taxi tout outside the arrival hall of Tan Son Nhat Airport came up to me holding a Vinasun ID card (that had no photo on it) to persuade me getting on his cab (which was parked somewhere). I ignored him because I’d planned to take a bus to the city. I can’t comment on Mai Linh because I have no experience taking their cabs. Bear in mind that the flag down rates are slightly different depending on the car type. A sedan cab is slightly cheaper than a minivan one, but the latter will have more space for your luggage if you’re travelling as a group.
On a budget? Catch the #152 “airport bus”.
A cheap and pretty convenient means of transport if you stay near to Ben Thanh Market like I did. Not the comfy airport coach, though, just an ordinary city bus whose terminus happens to be at the airport. That means it doesn’t have luggage hold and during busy times you may irritate other passengers whose spaces are taken up by your luggage. I caught the 6pm bus when I arrived at the Tan Son Nhat Airport. After a while, the bus got a little bit crowded but there were always empty seats available. I was sitting at the back, my medium-sized suitcase tucked on the side between the backmost seats and the seats in front of them while I occupied the middle seats facing the aisle. A single journey cost me 10,000 dong, with extra fee for my suitcase already included. That wasn’t even 50 US cents! Just remember that upon arrival at the bus stop opposite the Ben Thanh Market you’ll most likely have to navigate your way to your hotel through crazy traffic at the famous roundabout.
Where to exchange money
The airport’s currency exchanges might not offer the best rate, but I thought they weren’t a complete rip-off either. There was an exchange counter right after immigration, but I decided to exchange some money in the arrival hall after passing through customs. There was one counter that offered slightly better rate than the other counters next to it. When you’re near Ben Thanh, just walk up to any gold shops around the market (Nevermind the numbers on display; they aren’t exchange rates.), tell the assistants you’d like to exchange some US dollars or other major currencies, and they will show you–usually on a calculator–the rate. It should be a pretty good rate (if you check online) and definitely better than the airport’s. I noticed that Ben Thanh shop owners also exchange the dollars they got from tourists at these gold shops.
The art of crossing the streets
Saigon’s traffic is crazy and crossing the streets is a HUGE challenge…except for Indonesians. I felt so lucky and very grateful for being a Jakartan when I had to cross the streets in Saigon. Seriously, if you’re able to cross any street in Jakarta, then Saigon is a piece of cake. Just follow what other travel writers advise: walk across straight and steadily and you’ll be fine because the cars and especially the motorbikes will move around you. I also found that the HCMC locals are much “kinder”. Apparently they know that crossing the street is stressful enough so they don’t usually make you even more nervous by sounding the horns. In Jakarta, on the other hand, the motorists will honk at you even if they’re still metres away.
Another “skill” you’ll want to master when in Saigon is haggling. This will especially come in handy when you’re shopping at local markets for souvenirs. A friend of mine once managed to bring home lots of souvenir wallets for her co-workers at nearly half the original price! Unfortunately I can’t give tips on how to do it since I’m no expert in haggling. I’m one of the few Indonesians who prefer fixed prices when going shopping.