Backpacking in Ho Chi Minh City

Saigon: Moto-City

Motorbikes in Vietnam

NOTE – This article is now over 5 years old. Some info may no longer be accurate. Get our Backpackers Guide to Southeast Asia 2017-2018 for a more up-to-date summary of budget travel in SEA.

Vietnam endured a troubled 20th Centrury in which it was first ruled by the French, before their final expulsion left the country split in two. A horrific civil war ensued which saw millions die. The country was finally united as a Socialist state in 1975 and has been ever since. Vietnam today is a fast growing nation of some 90 million people enjoying increasing economical and political power in the South East Asian region. Nowhere are the vast changes more evident than Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) which is a great place to experience a modern and vibrant Asian city while also delving into the countries traumatic past.

Saigon & The Vietnam War

Reunification Palace tank in SaigonThe war began in 1955 with US forces becoming heavily involved throughout the 1960’s as they attempted to prevent the Communists in the North taking control of the entire country. Based in Saigon, the US and South Vietnamese forces fought a long guerrilla war in the region with the Viet Cong (a Communist group in the south). After suffering and inflicting heavy casualties, US troops withdrew in 1973. After the eventual fall of Saigon in April 1975, the city changed its name to Ho Chi Minh City in honour of the man who formed the Communist party. Vietnam remains a Socialist state to this day and visits to any of Vietnam’s war Museums and memorials will make it clear the administration has changed little over the past 35 years.

Reunification Palace

Once known as the Independence Palace (above), this was where the US and South Vietnamese leaders were based during the War. On 30th April 1975, the Communist forces stormed the palace bringing an end to the 19 year conflict. Quite deliberately, nothing has been changed inside the Palace since 1975 so it remains in something of a time warp. Only the gates outside that were destroyed have been replaced and it is now open to visitors and makes for a fascinating couple of hours.

War Remnants Museum

war museum SaigonThis museum houses some shocking photos of severely maimed people and those who have been left with or often born with serious disfigurements as a result of weapons and gases used during the war. Outside you will find captured US tanks and airplanes from the era. Some people do find the museum very upsetting but it does demonstrate the tragedies that took place during the Vietnam War. Unquestionably the US forces committed some atrocities in the region, however the museum gives a very one-sided and biased account of the events that took place.

Cu Chi Tunnels

If you find yourself backpacking in Ho Chi Minh City or nearby then half or full day tours to the Cu Chi Tunnels are a must-do. They are 40km out of town but can be organised by any of the agencies in Pham Ngu Lao. The tunnels were dug during the period of French occupation before being expanded during the Vietnam War (known as the American War in Vietnam). They provided the Cu Chi people with a strategic advantage. You may even get the chance to fire weapons here in the town which moved underground in the face of a heavy bombing campaign.

Check out our Vietnam backpacking Route for more on this incredible country!


HCMC today: The City of Motorbikes

motorbikes in SaigonToday Ho Chi Minh City is a bustling metropolis, home to some 7 million people. Almost the only way to get around is by motorbike. The traffic is completely bonkers and just trying to cross the road can be a terrifying process as there is almost never a gap in the traffic. Hop on a moto-taxi or if you’re especially brave hire out a bike and try to navigate your way away around Vietnam’s biggest city.

When backpacking in Vietnam it is impossible to escape the war but it is now a distant memory for most and American visitors are very unlikely to receive any hassle about it. Most Vietnamese are naturally friendly people and with a very young population this country is moving on up and developing at quite a rate. The city is made up of many numbered districts, each of which has their own feel. District 1, in the centre of the city is known as the French Quarter for example and this is reflected in the architecture. It is well worth hopping on a bike and heading out into some of the suburbs which are generally very safe for a true flavour of what life is like for the residents of this busy city.

 

Pham Ngu Lao: Saigon’s Backpacker Ghetto

Pham Ngu LaoThis is very much backpacker central in Ho Chi Minh City. It consists of two main roads and many little side streets connecting them. Here you will find an enormous choice of world cuisine with meals costing as little as US$2-3 (For up-to-date prices see our Vietnam backpacking budget). There are loads of budget accommodation options, laundrettes, bars and basically everything else that a backpacker might need. You won’t be able to walk 10 metres without being shouted at by one of the moto drivers which congregate in the area looking for foreign business. This can be an advantage as you will never have to wait to get a lift to where you’re going but also can get quite annoying after a while.

The bars in Pham Ngu Lao are good fun and tend to be cheaper and better than the ones in the rest of Central Saigon which charge Western Prices and attract an unpleasant mix of dirty old Westerners and teenage Vietnamese prostitutes.

 


This article was published in July 2011. 


 

Backpacking Route for Vietnam

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Backpacking Route for Vietnam

The Re-Unification express

This is not an official term but it is used to describe the train line which runs between the two major cities. The trip from Hanoi in North Vietnam to Ho Chi Minh City in the South is 1725km long, taking roughly 30 hours and passes some breathtaking scenery along the way.

Of course few people do the trip in one journey as there is so much to see in between the two terminals. This train-line runs close to or through all the major stops on the Vietnam backpacker trail. The journey is pretty comfortable with air-con and sleeper compartments available on night trains. It is also brilliant value potentially costing as little as US$30 (latest prices and more great info on trains in Vietnam). If you take some night trains this may push the cost up to around US$40-50 depending on whether you take the slightly higher quality SE trains or not (It’s even cheaper for the locals).


TIME NEEDED – 3 WEEKS

Could be done in 2 weeks but might feel a little rushed.


POSSIBLE BUDGET – £370 €425 $450

(roughly 10 million Vietnamese Dong as of January 2017. US Dollar is accepted in many places)

Read more on the cost of travel in Vietnam.

Obviously this does not include the cost of flights to/from Vietnam or any visa/vaccination/travel insurance expenses, which in total could dwarf this figure if you’re travelling from far away. You’ll get more value for money in terms of your pre-trip expenses if you combine this with one of our other itineraries in the region (see top of page).


VISA REQUIREMENTS

Visitors from other ASEAN countries and many European countries including the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Russia and Italy can now visit Vietnam visa-free for a limited amount of time (normally 15 days). However most international visitors still require a visa to enter the country. A Vietnam visa for US citizens is essential and should be arranged well in advance of your trip.


TRAVEL INSURANCE

Highly advisable in Vietnam and all Southeast Asian Countries. Read who we think offers the best travel insurance for backpackers.


GROUP BACKPACKER TOURS

Want to travel with other people? Stray Travel’s Vietnam Flexi Tours might be right for you!


FUNKY GUIDES – BACKPACKERS GUIDE TO SOUTHEAST ASIA 2017-2018

Available on kindle or paperback from £2.99 | €3.49 | $3.79


Vietnam Backpacking Route


Hanoi

Vietnam backpacking route

Railway Street in Hanoi, CC BY 2.0

The country’s capital city, home to the Vietnamese government and resting place of the great leader, Ho Chi Minh himself. This colonial city is home to many lakes and a beautiful old quarter where most backpackers tend to congregate. It is also the closest point on the route to the amazing Ha long Bay, Vietnam’s most famous sight. Take a 2-3 hour bus to Haiphong and get a boat to the bay from there.

journey: 2 hours 20 mins

Ninh Binh

Unremarkable but ridiculously friendly town. Be prepared for lots of locals, especially children coming to say hello to you in the street. It is a short moto or cycle to the caves at Tam Coc, which are the main reason travellers come to Ninh Binh.

journey: 7 hours 40 mins, passing through Thanh Hoa and Vinh which have little going on really but may be a nice stop if you fancy seeing a completely tourist-free town.

Dong Hoi

Many travellers choose to skip Dong Hui also and do the night train from Ninh Binh to Hue but if you do stop here, you can visit the quite stunning 55km long Phong Nha Cave.

journey: 3 hours 15 mins

Hue

The city is popular with travellers who tend to hit a small section of town near the wide Perfume River. The old citadel isn’t particularly amazing but is the main site in this city which seems to get the worst of Vietnam’s wet climate. It regularly rains here for days on end but there are some excellent traditional Vietnamese restaurants and lively Western bars to stay dry in. Central Vietnam is also where a lot of the most fierce fighting in the War took place. There are plenty of sights relating to this nearby which you may find fascinating or otherwise, depending on your interest levels in the Vietnam conflict, known as the American War in these parts.

journey: 2 hours 30 mins and the most spectacular part of the entire trip

Danang (for Hoi An)

Hoi An Travel Destination

Danang is a big city but has few sights. For most travellers it simply serves as a gateway to nearby Hoi An (above), around a 20 minute taxi or moto ride from Danang Station (shouldn’t cost more than $3-4). Hoi An is the place for tailor-made clothes and boasts a beautiful riverside setting. It is also close to one of the nicest beaches in the country and makes it into our Top 10 New Backpacking Hotspots.

journey: 6 hours passing through Quang Ngai, a non-touristy town where very little English is spoken

Dieu Tri (for Qui Nhon)

Qui Nhon is more popular with local tourists than backpackers but it has a few beautiful deserted beaches just out of town. You can also visit the Cham Temples in the areas surrounding this lively port town.

journey: 3 hours 30 mins

Nha Trang

Vietnam’s biggest seaside destination. The beach here is actually quite dirty but it is long and has plenty of water sport options including kite-surfing. The nightlife is lively here with a couple of bars such as Bar Why Not? and an excellent one on the beach open until 3am. Some travellers find it a little bit seedy but there’s a beautiful temple near the train station if you want a slightly more cultural experience. You can also do the trip to the mountain town of Dalat from here although it is quite a long journey on winding roads.

journey: 5 hours

Muong Man (for Mui Ne)

Mui Ne isn’t really a town, more like a long coastal road about 20km or so long with many hostels and restaurants dotted around it. The beach is quiet and very relaxing, while the hot sand dunes are perhaps what the area is most famous for.

journey: 3 hours

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Travel itinerary for Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City Hall, CC BY 2.0

When backpacking through Vietnam, most travellers head here either first or last. It is the biggest and by a distance, most westernised city in the country. Saigon has a large backpacker scene and many interesting sights, much of which relate to the Vietnam War and the USA’s involvement. More detail here on things to do in HCMC.

The city is also the base for seeing the far south of the country which enjoys a hot climate and is a bit more chilled out than much of this fabulously crazy country.

Obviously you could also do the journey the opposite way around and journey times and prices are almost exactly the same if you start in HCMC and head North to Hanoi.



Budget Accommodation in Vietnam in General

Hostelling hasn’t really taken off as rapidly in Vietnam as it has in its neighbours but that is changing fast with the number of backpackers visiting the country ever increasing. Hostels can now be found pretty easily in most spots on this route but the cost of budget hotels is so low, there’s often no real need to be sweating it out in crowded dorms. You can sometimes get a private room in a decent hotel often with a swimming pool and good facilities for as little as $10 and in the big cities you can find dirt cheap budget rooms for half that although solo travellers may still prefer the more sociable places.


Extending Your Trip

In truth very few backpackers, head all the way to Southeast Asia and then only visit Vietnam, even though it is arguably the most interesting country to visit. Options for extending your trip are plentiful.

Parts of this route feature in our mainland Southeast Asia Route, which also takes in Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos and Singapore. You can easily squeeze this full Vietnam route in, with taking a flight from Vientiane, Laos to Hanoi perhaps the best option and then just following the route from Ho Chi Minh City into Cambodia.

If you’re looking for something a bit different to the well-trodden backpacker trail in SE Asia, take a look at our Myanmar route or our Indonesia Route. If you need help linking them into one trip please use the comments section below and let us know any questions you may have.

Of course in Vietnam, there are cool places that are not on or near the trainline, you may wish to visit. Highlights include the mountain towns of Dalat and Sapa, which you can reach by a different train from Hanoi that heads towards China.


This page was last updated in January 2017.