SAIGON: ARRIVING AND GETTING THROUGH THE AIRPORT
My wife and I took the hour and a half Vietnam Airlines flight from Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) in Bangkok to Tan Son Nhat Airport (SGN) in Ho Chi Minh City (more often referred to as Saigon) in Vietnam on what was a blazing hot November day in Bangkok. When we arrived, we were a bit surprised that our plane didn’t pull into a gate but instead we unboarded on the tarmac and took a 15-minute shuttle ride to a gate specifically designed to receive these buses. This was the first sign of Saigon’s rapid growth – they had outgrown the airport. After we adjusted to the typical Southeast Asian blast of A/C one encounters when entering a public place, we found the airport to be busy and crowded, but not difficult to navigate for a couple with absolutely zero Vietnamese language skills.
My wife has a Thai passport, so her entry to the country was quick and painless due to a specific immigration line for citizens of other Southeast Asian countries. As an American I wasn’t so lucky – but I knew that going in. Before we left the US, I had contacted vietnam-evisa.org to arrange for someone to meet me at the airport to expedite the process. The gentleman spoke English well and met me with a board with my name on it. He took my passport, pre-filled visa application, and two passport photos I had prepared in advance and cut to the front of the visa line. He returned a few minutes later with my Vietnamese visa in my passport and wished me a safe time in Vietnam. My wife and I then split up to our separate immigration lines and waited. She moved through in about five minutes, but it was more like 15 for me. In that time I noticed an American couple I recognized from our flight remain near the back of the growing visa line that I had bypassed for about $20. I wonder how long it took them…
Once through immigration and customs, we found a currency exchange kiosk and changed some USD to VND (at the time it was around 22,000 VND to 1 USD – my first experience with a hyper-inflated currency like that). We asked them where we could buy a SIM card and it turned out they had them right at the same kiosk – very convenient! We bought the smallest plan they had as we were just staying for one night. I think it cost $5. They also directed us to the taxi stand right outside the airport. A small, stern Vietnamese woman waved down a taxi for us and we were off to our hotel.
SAIGON TRAVEL TIP: ARRANGE YOUR VISA BEFORE YOU LEAVE HOME
I’ll pause this travel blog post for a moment to tell you that my experience with the folks at vietnam-visa.org was fantastic. I had a couple questions about their service and their responses were prompt and polite. I highly recommend them and won’t travel to Vietnam again without using their service. They also offer add-ons including guided tours, hotel reservations, and airport transfer service. I didn’t use them for any of these, but I imagine their service in these departments is the highest level as well.
SAIGON: GETTING INTO THE CITY
Immediately the differences between Saigon and Bangkok (where we had been staying for the past five days) were apparent. There was a lot more green in Saigon and a lot less car and truck traffic. There were, however, motorbikes and scooters everywhere! It was cooler and breezier in the city. The taxi driver was only driving a conservative amount over the speed limit. I liked Saigon from the first moment. Our hotel was in District 1 (as is the airport) and we saw a lot of sights on our 25-minute ride from the airport. We passed by the War Museum and Reunification Palace, and several small open air markets and cafes and perhaps 1,000 coffee shops. Our taxi driver didn’t speak much English, but he did point a few things out along the way. I think the 9km ride cost us about $10, but I was already having trouble with the currency.
SAIGON: FIRST AFTERNOON IN THE CITY
We checked into our hotel threw our bags in the room, and called a local friend of mine who was waiting for us to arrive. Hien is a young marketing professional who has lived her whole life in Saigon. We met online on a language exchange website a few years ago (Vietnamese hadn’t stuck for me but she speaks fluent English) and we had remained friends. It was fun to meet her and to have her meet my wife. My wife is Thai, but she and I share a real love for Vietnamese food. Hien knew this and knew right where to take us – a restaurant that she told us was upscale compared to where most Vietnamese would eat every day, but a place she liked for special occasions. The restaurant was a 10 minute Uber ride from the hotel. It was really a lovely place. Open and airy with great service and amazing food. Before our trip, most of my exchanges with Hien revolved around food. She clearly remembered this and ordered all of my favorites that I knew going in as well as some that I had never heard of – but really enjoyed.
We left the restaurant a bit overly full, but satisfied. The three of us decided to walk back towards the hotel with some sightseeing in mind. After a 15-minute casual stroll, we ended up at the Saigon Central Post Office, a really beautiful building inside and out with a lot of French influence in its design. We bought a few touristy items in the attached gift shop and crossed the street to the Notre Dame Cathedral – another beautiful European looking structure that would have looked out of place in Bangkok, but fit right in in Saigon.
Before I continue, let’s examine an important part of the last sentence – we crossed the street. Having adjusted to the pace of traffic in Bangkok, I paused on the curb, waiting for a clear gap in traffic. To my surprise, Hien, who is all of 5’2” and 95 pounds just stepped off the sidewalk and moved across the street at a steady pace – motorcycles parting in front and behind her. From across the street, she laughed at my hesitation and encouraged my wife and me to follow her example. So we did, and the motorcycles parted around us as well. There was a little honking, but Hien encouraged us to maintain our pace and before we knew it, we were across the street. We snapped a few pictures outside Notre Dame and walked back to the hotel to make plans for the evening.
SAIGON TRAVEL TIP: WHERE TO STAY
If you’re just in Saigon for a quick trip as we were, stay in District 1. It’s easy to get to and from the airport and the majority of the tourist attractions are in District 1. There are some backpacker areas that are a bit too touristy there, but there are still plenty of local places to get an authentic taste of Vietnam. If I’m lucky enough to return, I’ll make District 1 my center of operations.