Smaller and mid-size ships that can navigate through the Saigon River in Ho Chi Minh City would dock right in the middle of the city at any of these three ports – Lotus, Tien Sa or Navi Oil. Larger ships dock at Phu My, a port on the South China sea, about 68 miles (1.5 hours by car) from Ho Chi Minh City. Phu My is a commercial port, so it’s lacking tourist facilities. There are taxis available just outside the port gates. There aren’t any public transportation links nearby and nothing of interest nearby to walk to. The International Airport of Hi Chi Minh City is 64km away from Phu My or 1.5 hours by car.
The local currency is Vietnamese Dong (VND) - and exchanging money is relatively easy in Ho Chi Minh City. There are ATMs everywhere, so you can use your card to withdraw cash, but bear in mind that because of the large denomination of the dong (starting from 500 Dong notes), ATMs tend to run out of money quite quickly. Credit and debit cards are accepted only at the big shopping malls and luxury hotels. As usual, make sure you notify your bank you will be abroad and make yourself aware of any fees you would be charged if using your cards abroad. US dollars are widely accepted, however get ready to get your change in Dong anyway. You can exchange money at the local banks, but you will get a slightly better rate if you do so at the exchange shops and gold dealers near Ban Thanh Market and Ho Chi Minh Square.
The opening hours of shops in Ho Chi Minh city are generally from 8 am until as late as 10 pm Monday to Saturday, with many working Sundays as well. The banks and post offices are open from 8 am to 4 pm with a couple of hours lunch break Monday to Friday and are often open until midday on Saturday as well. The most major bank holiday in Ho Chi Minh City is the Vietnamese New Year – most outlets are closed for about a week in February. Do check for any other bank holidays around the time of travel.
Tipping in Vietnam is not expected in general, but very much appreciated. The culture of tipping is growing in Vietnam, as is the flock of tourists, but still it’s not uncommon for your tip to be rejected. As confusing as it is, the chance of you being asked for more money for a tip is just as common. The services that Vietnamese tend to always tip are spa treatments, masseuses and hairdressers. For those services anything between 20,000 to 100,000 VND. Upscale spas would have service charges added to the bill, so have a look at it before you tip! Regarding restaurants, there might be service charges of 5-10% added to your bill. The extra money would hardly ever reach the serving staff, so if you have received great service, do tip your waiter personally 5-10% of the bill. You can round up the taxi fare, tip your tour guide the equivalent of 1-2 USD per person per day, tip the hotel bellhop 1-2 USD per bag, and your housekeeper 1-2 USD per day. Bear in mind that some luxury hotels would have a strict No Tipping policy. Do not feel obliged to tip if you have received bad service.
The local language is Vietnamese. The younger people would speak some English, and the older generation is likely to speak some French.
The local time in Ho Chi Minh City is GMT + 7 hours and the international dialling code is 00 84 8.
Things To Do
There are a few sights that are dedicated to the Vietnam War. One of them is the Reunification Palace, the government building that was taken over by the North Vietnamese army in 1975 and left almost untouched since then. The scene where a tank crashes through the main gate of the palace, ending the war, has made the building world-famous. A stunning piece of 60s architecture, the building was the residence of the French Governor of Cochin-China, before the South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem took over. Unfortunately, the latter was killed in 1963 and his successor Nguyen Van Thieu resided there until 1975. Today the palace is open for visitors with English, French, Vietnamese and Chinese tours taking place unless there are official receptions or meetings.
Another reminder or the war times are the Cu Chi Tunnels. They represent the strength and resilience of the Vietnamese people during the wars with the American and the French. The site is an incredible network of over 120 km of tunnels with traps, living areas, kitchens, storage, armoury, hospitals and command centres. The network covers large parts of the whole of Vietnam and is at parts a few storeys deep. The Vietnamese soldiers spent a lot of time there in squalid conditions. Eventually the Cu Chi Tunnels proved to be of a great importance for South Vietnam’s resistance to the Americans and after prolonging the war and helping increase their costs and casualties, the Vietnamese managed to eventually win the war.
See the Notre-Dame Cathedral, built by the French between 1863 and 1880. All materials have been imported from France, including the stained-glass decorations, the six bronze bells and the distinctive red bricks, imported from Marseille. The Neo-Romanesque cathedral has been named after the statue of “Peaceful Notre-Dame” in front of it, placed in 1959. The building still serves as a religion institution and mass is held every Sunday – there is a mass in English at 9.30. Although it is in general open for tourists Monday to Sunday, it is going through renovation now (expected to last until end of 2019), so you could only visit during mass. As when visiting any holy place, dress modestly and try not to disturb worshipers. Nearby is the Central Post Office of Ho Chi Minh city - another stunning piece of French Colonial architecture.
The Jade Emperor Pagoda is one of the most important worship sanctuaries for the citizens of Vietnam who practise Buddhism or Taoism. It was built in 1909 in the honour of the Jade Emperor (the Taoist God) by the Cantonese community. Its dimly lit corridors, filled with the smoke of joss sticks, lead to a spectacular display of colourful carvings of the Jade Emperor himself, the Goddess of Fertility, the Lord of Hell and more. There is also a tortoise pond in front and visitors are advised to buy a tortoise and release it in the pond in the hope of luck and prosperity. Nearby is the the Ben Thanh market.
The Cao Dai Temple is also worth seeing – a worship place that honours Lord Buddha, Jesus Christ, Muhammad and Confucius, in addition to Joan of Arc and Julius Cesar in Neo-Gothic, Baroque and Oriental design and is very opulently decorated. Despite of the small number of hindus that live in HCMC, the Mariamman (Goddess of the Rain) Hindu Temple is considered sacred and is also worth a visit.
If you would like to learn more about the past and present of Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City, make sure you see the History Museum, the Fine Arts Museum and the War Remnants Museum.
You can't say you have been to HCMC and not do at least one of the following: see a Water Puppet show, go for a late-night Spa treatment or try the indulgent local ice coffee ("ca phe sua da").
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