Located on the southeast of Vietnam and serving as its major gateway, Ho Chi Minh is a fascinating mix of the old and the new, a burgeoning metropolis that is home to over 8 million people where tall modern skyscrapers co-exist with historic buildings from the French colonial era, hiding small pagodas and temples in their imposing shadows. While it serves as the economic center of the country and has rapidly developed over the years, Ho Chi Minh is still one of the best places for a budget holiday in Southeast Asia, with plenty of attractions to see and experiences to be had that won’t leave your wallet hurting. Below are some of the ways you can experience the Pearl of the East on a budget:
- Choose Your Accommodations Wisely
The easiest way to drive costs down while on holiday is by determining which creature comforts you could stand to live without: nothing’s more indulgent than blowing cash on a fancy 5-star hotel, sure, but will you really be making the most out of the experience? Staying in an urban district versus a suburban or a rural one can also make a huge difference in terms of how much you’ll pay for a place to rest your head. Location factors in as well: staying in a Phú Nhuận hotel (khách sạn quận Phú Nhuận in the vernacular) provides you with the convenience of a central site that is surrounded by several interesting neighborhoods to explore, and it certainly won’t be as expensive as going for similar accommodations in the city’s bustling economic center of District 1.
- Check out the Freebies
Another way to save money on your trip is by not spending it at all. Trails & Tales Saigon is a free 3-hour walking tour of the city, led by a professionally trained guide. The organization seeks to differentiate themselves from regular guided tours by offering unique anecdotes and insights into the city’s enthralling history while taking you to some of its most well-known landmarks, including Ben Thanh Market, the Saigon Opera House, and the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral, among others. It’s a great way to meet fellow tourists and make friends!
Trails & Tales Saigon’s designated meet up point is at the Happy Place Bar in District 1 at 9:45 AM every Saturday; bookings are not necessary, just make sure you arrive early. If a guided tour isn’t your cup of tea, sightseeing around Ho Chi Minh is easily done by creating your own itinerary. Visiting places like Chinatown, the Jade Emperor Pagoda, and Ho Chi Minh City Hall is free, while other attractions charge a small fee for entry: $2 or thereabouts for the Independence Palace or the War Remnants Museum, for instance. To get around, hail a cab or download the Grab app onto your smartphone for a wider list of transport options, including the popular GrabBike—motorcycles for hire that will pull up to your pickup location just like a taxi cab and get you from point A to B in a zip.
- Go on a Street Food Adventure
Trust us: there’s no point walking into a full-service restaurant in Ho Chi Minh unless you happen to be extra squeamish. The city’s street food has been lauded as some of the best in the world and there’s no reason to miss out on amazing dishes and delicacies when they’re so cheap and readily available. Staples such as pho and banh mi are everywhere, of course—Anthony Bourdain’s favorite place for the latter in particular is a spot called Bánh Mì Hòa Mã, a stall in Cao Thắng road in District 3 where the low plastic chairs and tables have spilled out onto a side street and you are expected to squat down and enjoy your breakfast as scooters and pedestrians freely pass by. Don’t miss out on bún chả, a Vietnamese dish made with grilled pork and round rice noodles that originated in Hanoi—this is the same meal former U.S. President Barack Obama had and enjoyed immensely on a 2017 episode of Bourdain’s CNN travel show Parts Unknown.
At night, Ho Chi Minh buzzes with a very different sort of energy. Head to Vĩnh Khánh, Saigon’s Seafood Street in District 4 for grilled squid and crab legs and wash them down with Bia 333 or Bia Saigon, the most omnipresent brands available on the streets. Here, dinner and drinks come with free entertainment in the form of loud karaoke music, street dancers, and fire eaters. What more could you ask for?
Sure, we’d all like to go on holiday without keeping a weather eye on our bottom line. If you play it smart, though, you can live like a king in Ho Chi Minh without going over your set budget and not come away feeling as though you’ve missed out. That’s the beauty of a city full of contradictions—invariably, there’s something for everyone.