The Che Seller of Saigon

The Chinese style dessert seller at 31 Nguyen Thai Binh, mixing up a Che (Vietnamese for dessert), is a joy to watch. Don't know how to speak Vietnamese? No worries, just point at the ingredients, the Che seller will make sure that whatever you pick will refresh you. A good resting place after that late evening walk. The communal seating around the cart encourages new friendships.

Ocean, Vung Tau

I want to take the ferry out instead of the bus. The girl at the hotel asks me whether I know how to swim. Seems the ferry has a record of breaking down, or the girl is a secret bus company agent. (Vung Tau, Vietnam)

A world so perfect

"Sometimes, all you had to do was exist in order to be someone's savior"

 I always recall this line from a Japanese novel when I meet the che (dessert) seller around 15b Le Thanh Ton. She grills the sticky rice encased banana (chuối bọc nếp nướng) and makes the world perfect with that warm smile.

Train trip to Ipoh, Malaysia

Ipoh was a town in Malaysia I visited some years back. Now there is a fast train connecting Kuala Lumpur to Ipoh. My interest was also piqued when I found some photos of fancy new cafes in Ipoh. It is a pleasant town to spend a day or two. I like the colonial buildings and the food here. 


The cutest bookseller in the world - part 2

The cutest bookseller in the world is still sharp as ever. She would only give me a 500 Kyat (50 cents) discount. Rangoon once rivalled Calcutta when it came to quality second-hand book stores. Now, most of these shops sell mobile phone credits or textbooks. There were only three old books left in this store. I bought two books but apologies to Bertil Lintner, I did not buy "Burma in Revolt". I need a reason to visit the cutest bookseller next year.

Saigon Travel Notes

Welcome to Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City. Following are some notes for the first time traveller to our city. 

A quick orientation 
The map shows the districts in Saigon. As you can see the location of the various districts is not in any particular order. District 1 is where most travellers end up staying -  along the Pham Ngu Lau street. District 1 is walkable and houses many tourist attractions and historic sights.

District 5 is called Cholon. This is the Chinatown of Saigon. This district is worth visiting for pagodas and the Binh Tay market. There is good late night street food too.  

District 2 is where many foreigners who work in Saigon live.

District 7 has many Western and Korean establishments. 

The airport is in the Tan Binh district, about 7 kilometres from Pham Ngu Lau area in District 1.

Getting to the city

Once you are out of the airport, there are four options to go to District 1 or other parts of the city. District 1 (more specifically the Pham Ngu Lau neighbourhood) is where most of the budget and mid-range accommodations are. 1 US dollar is around 22,000 Vietnamese Dongs.

1. Mai Linh or VinaSun Taxi (the two most reliable taxi services in Vietnam)

There is a taxi stand at the airport, the trouble is that you may be pointed to a random taxi. Insist on a MyLinh or a VinaSun taxi, ignore the other companies. These taxis are metered and it might cost you about 1 to 1.5 million VND to the city centre or Pham Ngu Lau area. You can also book a prepaid taxi at several counters that are located just after the customs check counter. 

2. Uber or Grab - At the international airport, you can request for an Uber (of Grab) ride. The app will ask you for the pillar number. The Uber app uses the pillar number to locate you. The big round pillars support the top floors of the airport and have the numbers prominently painted on them. Usually, it costs me around 80,000 VND from airport to the city centre on Uber.  Uber and Grab are also good for travelling within the city. Beware of the fake Uber or Grab drivers who accost you as soon as you come out of the airport. Always order Uber or Grab via the app.

3. Airport  Bus - There are three companies that offer a bus to the city.  As you get out of the arrival area, past the crowd of people waiting, you will see the small bus counter (the small red box in the photo below) There is a counter each at international and domestic airports. The staff here speak English. Show them your destination and they will recommend the bus to you. If your destination is Pham Ngu Lau (the budget tourist area), you can take the bus number 109 or bus number 49. They are both inexpensive and will get you to Pham Ngu Lau area in 30 to 50 minutes depending on the traffic. Prepare to pay around 20,000 VND. 

4. Xe Om (the motorbike taxi) for the more adventurous. Walk to the domestic airport, walk out from the airport. Before you are out, motorbike hustlers will come to you. A ride to the city should cost you around 50000 VND -don’t even bother (Uber probably costs just 2 USD more) unless you are really in a hurry to get to the city. 

Where to stay?

(Tap or click on the image to expand it)

The Pham Ngu Lau neighbourhood in district 1 is a popular place to stay. There are hundreds of hotels and hostels here ranging from 5 USD a night to more than 100 USD a night. The best deals are in the small alleys - street 241 and 283 shown in the map above. You can get a comfortable and safe place for about 15 USD in one of these alleys. The cheaper places will not have lifts, and they will surely not have 24 hours reception. They are usually family run business with the family staying in the same premises as the hotel. They will lock the place around midnight. If you return late, you will have to ring the bell and wake them up. Same goes if you are checking in late at night - it is better to call them earlier in the day and let them know that you will be arriving late. The rooms are a simple affair, they are clean, have aircon and wifi. The alleys have good, inexpensive food and the vendors can often speak basic English. 

If you want one solid recommendation, I will point you to Diep Anh Guesthouse inside street 283 Pham Ngu Lau (around 20 USD). You can book one night here. Check out neighbouring guest houses/ hotels next day - the owner or managers are happy to show you the rooms. You can choose the guesthouse that suits your budget and move into it. 

The area behind the Ben Thanh Market has good mid-range hotels (30 USD and more). If you are booking on Agoda,com or, look for hotels with rating 7 and above. Read the recent guest reviews to make sure that there is no current construction activity next doors.

Hotels will keep your passport with them until you settle your bills and check out. If you want to hold on to your passport, just pay them upfront and remember to take a receipt. Most hotels will also accept credit cards with small bank fee added on. If you trying to pay via credit card, do it at a time when the owner or the more experienced staff are around. You don't want to be stuck with a groggy and un-experienced night staff who is trying to figure out the card machine, while you are rushing for your flight early in the morning. 

Some hotels where I have stayed at and liked

Ono Saigon, 7/8 Đường, Nguyễn Trãi, Bến Thành - Close to Ben Thanh Market. Around 28 USD 

Luxury Hotel, 34 Mac Thi Buoi Str., Ben Nghe Ward - Right in the city centre at a good price.

Kaiteko Hotel & Capsule -

In recent years I have been using Airbnb, Some of my favourite apartments listed below

Around 20 USD (Older apartment, city centre. Four flights of stairs, no lift) (Six flights of stairs. Lift only works until 11 PM)

Around 30 USD (My regular stay in the Japantown, they have many apartments in the same block) (Many apartments in this block. Request for a lower floor if you don't fancy climbing stairs)

Around 60 USD (Nice high rise apartment in the centre of the city. Highly recommended if you travel with family.)

Best places to change your money and buy a SIM card

Before you leave for Vietnam, check the exchange rate using Google. On the Google search box type in the text 100 USD to VND. 

Google will return with the current exchange rate. This will give you an approximate idea of the current exchange rate. The exchange counters will always give you less than this official rate but it should not be much lower. If you do not have any Vietnamese currency on you (for a taxi, bus etc.), I recommend that you change about 20 to 50 USD at the currency exchange counter just after the immigration desk (before you take the escalator down to the baggage claim area) at the Saigon airport. This counter has better rates compared to the currency exchange counters elsewhere in the airport. This counter is also a good place to buy a SIM card. It is fine to buy the SIM cards at another counter at the airport as this particular counter often runs out of them. Viettel has good coverage across Vietnam and costs 200000 VND at this counter. It is good to have a local SIM card as you can call your hotel if the taxi driver has difficulty locating the address. 

Once I am in the city, I go to a specific exchange shop preferred by the locals. It is located on the junction of Nguyen Anh Ninh and Phan Chu Trinh streets, just across the street from the West exit of Ben Thanh Market (marked in red in the map below). This place is about 15 minutes walk from the Pham Ngu Lau area and you will see the shop surrounded by other tourists exchanging money. 

Every street has a couple of ATMs, but you may have to pay a 4 to 5 USD ATM fee and suffer low exchange rate when you withdraw money from a local ATM. 

Is Saigon safe? Can I get by with English?

Yes, mostly it is safe. Just keep your phone and money close to you. If you have to check google maps, do not do it facing the street - often we have cases of motorbike phone grabbers snatching phones from unsuspecting tourists. Try to keep your stuff in a backpack, avoid using a sling bag.  Don't worry about language. Most local business persons are able to put together some English and sign language to aid basic transactions.

Some tips about street names and directions

Many Vietnamese streets have similar first and second syllables and often have numbers that may include sub-streets - for example 241/31 Pham Ngu Lao. What this means is that this particular address is inside an alley that splits off the main street 241 Pham Ngu Lau. Check the entire address before you book Uber or show the address to a taxi driver - you might end up in another part of town that has the same street. I often load up my destination on the Google Map app on my phone and take a screenshot of the screen. Once the destination and its surrounding are stored as an image on my phone, I can zoom the image and show it to the taxi, the Uber or the Xe Om (motorbike taxi) driver. Often the XeOm drivers are elder gents and they have weak eyes - larger text makes it easier for them to read. Vietnamese is a highly tonal language, and very often the locals may not catch your pronunciation. Also, keep the phone number of your hotel and local friends on your phone. You can always call them and request them to explain the directions to your transport person. 

Power plugs in Vietnam

In Vietnam, the power sockets are of type A (similar to Japan and the US but the voltage/frequency is 220V/50HZ) and type C.

What to do in Saigon?

Other than visiting the regular tourist attractions, you can just explore the city. The downtown area is walkable. You will find many cafes and street food vendors operating all night. 

Explore the cafes - there are hundreds of pretty cafes - many of them 24 hours - across Saigon serving local coffee and other drinks. Try the cafe apartment at 42 Nguyen Hue street. 

Explore the alleys - the alleys are where you can experience the local life. 

One set of interesting alleys is in the Japantown, it is like someone magically transported Japan into South East Asia. 

Try Saigon and Vietnamese food -  Check the websites linked below to find food and other activities in Saigon

Make local friends  - Saigon is a friendly city, and it is very easy to make friends with the locals.

Explore Saigon at night - Saigon is beautiful and cool at night. I love exploring the city late at night. The availability of Uber and Grab makes night exploration accessible for people who do not have a motorbike or don't feel safe on a Xe Om - motorbike taxi.  

Buy souvenirs - I ignore the Ben Thanh market (you can visit for fun or for some food, but avoid buying here unless you are prepared to bargain). I head to a complex called Lucky Plaza. There is a supermarket on level 03. They sell small packs of local teas, coffees and candies - make for nice souvenirs. Try the ginger flavored Gingy candy. 

Recommended resources 

Any Saigon article on this web is a gem: For example, check out the series on Saigon Midnight Loop.

Tree makers of Mui Wo

The tree tending crew of Mui Wo hikes up a hill. In their bags, they have shovels and organic fertilizers. On the top, they care for the baby trees. A circular moat is dug out around the little tree and it is filled with dry grass. This helps trap water for the tree.