What to expect when arriving in Ho Chi Minh City?

Headed to Vietnam? If it’s your first time, you may be wondering what to expect. Vietnam is well-known globally because of a terrible war that ravaged the land for years and years. But it’s now 2019 and Vietnam has bounced back stronger and more beautiful than ever!

For any of you who might be worried that Vietnam may not be safe or doesn’t have much to offer – I’d like to nip that in the bud right away! Vietnam is quite safe and is such an exciting and fun place to travel to.

If you’re headed to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), there’s quite a few things you should know prior to get you prepared for the city.

History of Ho Chi Minh City, Formerly Saigon

First, lets start with the history Ho Chi Minh City and why it’s no longer called Saigon in a short overview of the past 100+ years of occupations and wars:

  • The area currently occupied by Ho Chi Minh City was once a part of Cambodia.
  • During the 18th century, French traders and missionaries settled in the area and in 1859 the town was captured by the french.
  • In 1862 the city was officially ceded to France by the Vietnamese emperor Tu Duc.
  • The area was named Cochinchina by the french with Saigon city named as it’s capital – a major port city and metropolitan area.
  • From 1862 to 1940 there was relative peace until the Japanese invaded in 1940.
  • Japan occupied Saigon from 1940 until 1945 when Vietnamese independence was declared by the Viet Minh organization.
  • Celebrations of independence quickly turned into a riot as the French troops seized control of the city again which started the French Indochina war which lasted until 1954.
  • In 1954 a Geneva conference concluded that Vietnam would officially be split into two making a northern and southern Vietnam.
  • Saigon continued to be the capital of South Vietnam until the second Indochina War (or Vietnam War) began in the late 1960’s into the 1970’s.
  • Saigon was the headquarters of the US military operations as the north and south fought head to head in one of the most destructive, costly and deadly wars in the history of the world.
  • On April 30th, 1975 the North Vietnamese troops officially captured Saigon and the city was officially re-named Ho Chi Minh City.

While my short history above cannot give you any insight into what actually took place over the years and years of occupations and wars, it’s best that you head to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh city to get a better understanding of the history of the city.

Ho Chi Minh Airport (SGN)

The airport in Ho Chi Minh city is called Tan Son Nhat International Airport with the airport code of SGN. You can find it using any of those 3 names above.

When you arrive off the plane you’ll notice right away the employees lined up greeting you. You’ll find it’s the same as most international airports and you’ll be directed towards the immigration counters.

Visa Information

From here, if you’re a part of the visa on arrival exemption list then you’ll be able to proceed through immigration directly. If you’re unsure if you’re a part of the exemption list, you can find out here.

If you’re not a part of the visa exemption list then you’ll have gotten your pre-approval visa letter already and you’ll need to get your visa sticker by approaching the Landing Visa Counter upon arrival. You can find a full detailed guide of the Visa Requirements for Vietnam here.

Mobile Data – SIM Card

After immigration grab your bags, then get a SIM card so you’ll have mobile data. To do this you’ll need to have an unlocked phone, but it’s extremely useful to have mobile data in Vietnam for directions and transportation. I suggest using the company Mobifone as it’s affordable and the coverage is good.

Mobifone has different packages, but you can get a 5GB package for a week for just under$10 which is perfect for a week-long trip. You can also compare prices with Viettel or Vinaphone which are also reputable cellular carriers.


While you could take a taxi upon exiting the airport, I highly suggest that instead you download the Grab app which is very similar to Uber in Asia. Below is the Grab logo for you to search for in the Apple or Google Play store.

Grab Logo

While the taxis in Vietnam are still quite safe, we found it was difficult communicating effectively in English with them. Using Grab you wont have try to explain where you’re going as they will already have the location you entered into the Grab app. It’s the most convenient, safe,  and efficient way of getting around hte city.

You can also choose to rent a car as Vietnam does recognize international drivers licenses, however, based on alot of feedback this tends to be a very lengthy process. First to get the paperwork processed is one thing and then if you encounter any local law enforcement they often dont know the rules for international licenses. Often it’s much better just to rent a car with a driver so you can avoid the hassle and it’s still relatively affordable.

Vietnam’s primary form of transportation is motor bikes, so dont be shocked when you see that the motor bikes simply take over the roadways here as you can see in the video below.

Vietnam Language

Vietnam’s primary local language is Vietnamese which utilizes additional characters not found in the English language. Many foreigners will find certain signs and words confusing upon first arrival in Vietnam.

Overall, almost everywhere that tourists will be traveling to will have translations of most everything into English (signs, food menus, etc).

Vietnam does teach English in their education during their first years, but is not the primary method of teaching in the country so all Vietnamese have a basic understanding of English but may not have full command of the language.

Overall you will not struggle to order food, get your hotel, ask for simple directions, etc. The younger generation overall have a good command of English so when targeting someone to ask a question to – go for the millennials 🙂

Vietnam Travel Guide

Checkout our full guide to Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City here.

Ho Chi Minh City Travel Guide


  1. Hi,

    Your post is so interesting and informative. Thanks!!

    Vietnam is in my bucket-list, i like to get closer to the community and knowing their way of life through history and culture.
    Apart from that, i like the charm of Ho Chi Minh City through its architectures, the crowded road and would love to taste its varieties of delicious cuisine.

    Definetely, i will be there and will use your tips and tricks.

    Best wishes,


    1. You’ll definitely not regret it! The city is alive with culture, entertainment, and rich history. Everyone of my friends that have gone ended up booking trips over and over. I’m already planning to go again this year.

      Hope you’ll get to go and experience the joy of Vietnamese hospitality.

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