18 Tips To Get You By in Saigon

By: Sivaraj Pragasm

Visiting or moving to a new city can be pretty daunting at first, but the sooner you adapt to your new environment, the easier it is to go with the flow. With Saigon’s clutter and chaos, and surrounded by a language that’s both hard to comprehend and speak, adjusting to life here can be a challenge.

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Thankfully, there are also workarounds that will make life easier. These tips were all suggested by both locals and foreigners living in Saigon, and have been tried and tested.

Lastly, don’t worry. Everything in here is legal.

1. Not sure where you’re going? Use Grab instead of a taxi.

This is not to downplay the legitimacy of taxi companies, but mainly to make it easier and cheaper for you to get from point A to B if you don’t understand the language or are totally new to the city.

Grab allows you to input your destination, which is then shown on the driver’s mobile device with a GPS to guide him, and a fixed price that’s made known to you when you make the booking. There are also plenty of promotional codes from the app that are released almost every fortnight so you get to save a lot too.

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Unless you know how to give directions in Vietnamese, taxi rides can be challenging in some of the city’s grid-like road system. A wrong turn will result in higher fares, as the meter will keep running.

Another tip: When you’re making a booking, try to make sure you’re standing next to a local. Grab drivers tend to call you to confirm the booking, and a lot of them don’t speak English. So just pass the phone politely to the local beside you and he/she will most likely let the driver know your exact location. Don’t forget to thank him/her after.

2. Make a photocopy of your passport.

Whether you’re visiting for a short holiday or for work, it’s highly advisable that you make an official photocopy of your passport and to keep it with you at all times.

Firstly, that will work as your main form of identification should you be required at some point to show it. Secondly, according to Vietnamese law, your landlord has to register your residency with the local police, and one of the requirements is a copy of your passport.

3. Always carry small change.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone around with change for a VND500,000 note. Most xe om (motorbike taxi) riders and street vendors prefer exact change, and even a VND100,000 note would be pushing it. If you happen to have a VND200,000 or VND500,000 note, your best bet is to go to a convenience store to break it before you head to the street.

Another tip: When withdrawing money at the ATM, choose an amount that’s not divisible by 500,000. For example, instead of withdrawing VND1 million, choose VND900,000 instead, that way you will get a bunch of smaller notes, which will be useful if you’re in a rush with no time to look for a convenience store to get smaller change.

4. There’s Google Translate, and English-speaking youths too.

Vietnamese is a tough language. Even if you think you’ve got the spelling right, you’d probably get the pronunciation wrong. There’s Google Translate, which may not be 100 percent reliable but gets the job done for really common words. However, what if your mobile phone battery runs out or you have no signal?

tip in saigonImage source: tnxp.hochiminhcity.gov.vn

Look for a young adult or a teenager nearby. There is a higher likelihood that he/she might know at least some basic English compared to someone much older, and that will be good enough to help you. The English literacy rate among Vietnam’s younger population has been steadily increasing, mainly due to the belief that learning the language will secure a better future.

5. There’s more than just Ben Thanh Market.

Ben Thanh Market is the go-to venue for many foreigners to get their hands on local items. However, you actually have other (cheaper) options, as you can see here. If you’re looking for a bargain, you can either choose to haggle if you’re good at the language, or just politely nod with a smile and walk away, and then hear the seller magically drop the price almost immediately. That trick usually works pretty well if you have a poker face.

6. Turn your fashion catalogue into real clothes.

If you don’t already know, Vietnam has a large textile industry and extremely skilled tailors everywhere. You like the suit you saw online? No problem, take a picture and bring it to the tailor and he’ll get it made for you for a tenth of the retail price.

Alternatively, just make your own fashion catalogue with clear shots of the outfit’s front, side and rear and let him know your preference on the fabrics, or get them yourself. Pass the materials to him, get measured and then watch him work his magic.

7. If it’s cheaper than it should be, then your coffee is most likely not real.

This was covered extensively in an earlier article. Vietnamese coffee is pretty popular around the world, but there’s a difference between a cup of coffee and the idea of one. Plenty of stores in Vietnam sell coffee without a single coffee bean in it. Featuring a mix of roasted soybeans, corn and random, unidentified chemicals, you’d really be better off not having one.

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A good way to gauge if the coffee you’re drinking is real? It should not be cheaper than VND20,000.

Further Tip: This logic also applies to alcohol. There have been many cases of fake alcohol sold across Vietnam, so if your glass of vodka costs as much as a glass of water, say no instead of dzô (the Vietnamese version of cheers).

8. If it’s bigger than a car, don’t cross.

Crossing a road in Saigon can be a life-changing experience. Traffic signs are mostly just suggestions and if you’re standing along a curb expecting vehicles to stop for you, you’ll most likely draw a few chuckles from passers-by.

Take a leap of faith and just walk, slowly. The majority of the vehicles on the roads here are bikes, and they will go around you. If you need more visibility, just raise a hand to indicate your presence.

However, if you see a vehicle bigger than a car, just stop and let it pass and then continue.

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9. If you’re getting a haircut, just bring a picture.

This is especially important if you’re looking for a specific hairstyle. The best solution to this is to find a clear picture of that hairstyle and pass it to the barber. There are plenty of skilled barbers in Saigon, and a number of them do speak and understand English. However, a Vietnamese “undercut” may differ slightly from the American version, so a picture really helps.

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Further Tip: If you have a local friend who’s willing to spend 30 minutes watching you get a haircut, bringing him/her along would be a good idea too.

10. Never underestimate the importance of a raincoat/poncho.

Especially between the months of July to December, the heavens will open up and unleash its fury upon you, mostly while you’re on your way to work, or stuck in a jam on the way home.

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Most convenience stores sell them for about VND100,000 and you can find even cheaper ones from some street vendors. It’s highly advisable to keep one in your bag at all times.

11. There are apps for almost everything. Use them.

Need to get from point A to Point B? There’s Grab and Vinasun has one for its taxi services. Looking for a date? There’s Tinder and OkCupid. Feeling hungry? There’s Vietnammm and Foody.vn. Made a few Vietnamese friends and you plan to stay in touch? Facebook Messenger, Zalo, Viber, LINE and WeChat are the most commonly used instant messaging apps in Vietnam.

Other practical apps include Google Maps, XE Currency Exchange and Wi-Fi finder for Google play or App Store.

12. Arrange your money in order of value.

There’s a very simple and practical reason for this. The VND10,000 and VND200,000 notes are almost identical in colour, just like the VND20,000 and VND500,000 notes. By arranging your notes in order of value, the chances of you paying VND500,000 for a VND20,000 xe om ride will be much slimmer.

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It may seem strange, but this mix up has happened more times than you can imagine.

It’s also a good way to help you keep track of how much you’ve been spending throughout the day.

13. If you’re buying plastic bottles of water, go big.

This will not immediately elevate you to the status of Planeteer, but a five-litre bottle of water will cost just twice as much as a 1.5-litre one. So not only do you save some money, you’re also contributing less plastic waste as compared to buying three smaller bottles for almost the same amount of water. It’s simply the lesser of two evils.

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The bigger bottles also allow you more creative freedom to reuse and recycle them.

Another tip: It’s best not to drink water from the tap because Vietnam’s water treatment system and infrastructure isn’t advanced yet, and there are impurities that may still remain in the water. So err on the side of caution.

14. There’s plenty of free WiFi everywhere so you might as well use it.

Vietnam is much more connected than you may think and this is proven every time you turn on your phone’s Wi-Fi or use the Wi-Fi-finder app listed in No.11 to see an entire list of networks available.

There is also a site which has an updated list of all the Wi-Fi hotspots in the city. All you need to do is take a seat in a coffee place or a restaurant and get the password and you’ll enjoy pretty high speed access to the internet.

You can also find free public Wi-Fi in some parts of Saigon, although it’s not recommended to use it if you need to perform any logins or transactions due to possible security risks.

15. Join Facebook groups catered to foreigners for useful insights.

They’re one of the best ways to get the latest news, scoops for room rentals, recommendations on services or places to visit and other entertainingly informative reads. Apart from the thousands of posts each day, these groups also have valuable information for you to get what you need. You just need to do some serious scrolling.

Some Facebook groups we recommend are: Expats in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam is Awesome and (of course, a shameless plug) City Pass Guide.

Another tip: You can also find a subreddit on Reddit dedicated to Vietnam. There are a few threads where users talk about current events and share the latest news related to the country.

16. Get a face mask. You’ll need it.

It’s almost a must-have accessory. Although not very fashionable, it will help you handle the pollution in the city. A face mask is also useful if you’re feeling under the weather and you don’t want to spread your cold or flu.

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Another tip: The cloth and medical masks don’t do much, Look out for N95 masks, which block out PM2.5 particles, the tiniest and most dangerous of the pollutants in Saigon.

17. If you don’t want it, don’t look.

One trick to avoid mobile street vendors, touts and the occasional man on a motorbike asking you if you want a massage or “boom boom” is to not look.

Ignorance is bliss, and in this case it really should be taken literally. Sure, it gets annoying if they just stay there and continue hassling you but after a minute or so, even the hardiest of the lot will eventually give up and leave you alone.

For the next 10 minutes at least.

18. Change your currency in Vietnam.

This is a very valuable one. Always change your Vietnam Dong in Vietnam either before you travel or after you return, as most other countries will charge you a huge fee for the exchange and you’ll end up taking a loss.

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On the flipside, you also get very good rates on foreign currency if you change it here, which will come in useful if you’re planning to visit an expensive country like Singapore or Japan.

The best places to exchange money in Saigon would are gold shops. One notable one would be Kim Mai Gold Shop along Cống Quỳnh Street in Phạm Ngũ Lão.

We hope this list has been useful for you. If you feel that we’ve missed any other crucial tips, do let us know and we will include it in a sequel. Enjoy Saigon and stay safe.

Also, check this out If you are wondering how to get safe from the food during your trip in Vietnam.

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