A Saigon Backpacking Guide
Saigon is popular among those on a tight budget, looking for a great backpacking adventure. It doesn’t matter if you’re planning on escaping to unknown corners or blending in with the city folks, it’s best to keep your budget in mind. With that being said, it’s best to have money prepared and separated so you’re not spending it superfluously.
One of the first things you’ll need to do upon arrival is obtain the local currency. The currency used in Vietnam is the Dong (VND). The currency exchange rate is approximately 16,000 VND for one US Dollar. Once you have all your money exchanged, tuck a quarter of it into your wallet and the rest into your backpack. Now, head over to Pham Ngu Lao.
Pham Ngu Lao is a well-known street regarded as the entry way to Saigon’s Backpacker District. This is where you’ll find the least expensive food, lodging and tour packages. The Backpacker District is about six blocks wide and two blocks deep. It lies between Pham Ngu Lao and a parallel street, Bui Vien.
A number of large hotels can be found in the Backpacker District. These charge an average of $30a night or more. When searching for lodging, venture down the alleys and look for the “Khach San” Hotel signs. They are plentiful, and the owners are often outside calling to potential customers. Typical prices for these hotels will be around $10 per night. If you tell the owner you plan to stay for several days, the price may drop to $8 or $9 per night. Many of the same shops located by the extravagant hotels, such as Pullman Saigon on the waterfront can be found in the Backpacker District selling items at half the price.
Along Pham Ngu Lao Street, venders sell a variety of foods from stalls. Try a BanhMi for breakfast with a Ca phesua da. A BanhMiis a baguette filled with cured meats, liver paté, and vegetables. Ca phesua da is a very strong, milky Vietnamese coffee (or ice tea) served cold. The Saigon Lunch Lady will serve up an appetizing mid-day meal of delicious soup and noodles, commonly known as Pho. According to your appetite, there’s a handful of Pho to choose from. And mind you, most of the dishes will be roughly under $1 USD so you can eat to your heart’s desire!
Sight-seeing tours are available from STA Travel ranging in price from $7 for a day trip to $25 for overnight excursions. If you’d rather keep with your own schedule, Saigon offers an array of splendid architectural structures and interesting landmarks. The Notre Dame Cathedral displays an impressive French design. All of the original building materials were also imported from France. Next to the cathedral is the Saigon Central Post Office which was designed by Gustav Eiffel. Inside you’ll find souvenirs and other mementoes for sale. The Jade Emperor Pagoda is a Taoist temple built in 1909. Here you can relax and enjoy the smell of incense amidst elaborate religious figures and wall carvings.
The Bach Dang Pier is on the Saigon River and offers picturesque views. It’s a great place to unwind and watch the ferries and boats make their way along the river. The Ben Than Market is the place for shopping but it closes at 6pm. However, the streets beside it are filled with vendors by night where you can purchase coffee, clothes, souvenirs and many other items. The War Remnants Museum is another notable institution in Saigon. It focuses on the atrocities of war and displays extremely graphic photographs. The museum was constructed by the northern Vietnamese government.
There is no shortage of nightlife in the Backpacker District. Most establishments are open until 4 or 5 am. The Go2 Bar has a pool table on the ground floor and a dance floor on the first floor. You’ll find the least expensive beers between 175 and 180 Bui Vien. There are also American style bars and cafes. Some bars have special pricing after midnight so it’s a good idea to check prices beforehand. You’ll find plenty of company and conversation with other backpackers in Saigon.