Is it possible to spend a weekend in Vietnam’s largest city for 20 dollars? Yes. Yes, it absolutely is.
Words & photos by Simon Stanley.
First published by VnExpress International, May 2017
Despite a surge in tourism, a recent survey by Forbes suggests that Vietnam is still one of the world’s most affordable countries to visit.
One budget travel site even hinted that cash-strapped backpackers could survive on approximately 18 dollars per day.
Always up for a challenge, we decided to go one better. Here’s our guide on how to spend two days and two nights in Saigon for no more than 10 dollars per day, including three meals and a bed for the night.
DAY 1 – Total cost: VND230,000 (around $10)
On such a tight budget, don’t expect private rooms and jacuzzi bathtubs. A bed in a communal dorm is where you’ll be crashing tonight. We settled on a highly-rated District 1 hostel, located less than one kilometer from Ben Thanh Market in a stereotypical Saigon backstreet. Boasting air-conditioning, hot showers, an outdoor terrace and friendly staff, it’s all you could possibly ask for at this price. Cost: VND115,000 ($5)
Breakfast at Banh Mi Hong Hoa
52 Nguyen Van Trang, District 1
Located right down the street from our hostel is one of the city’s best banh mi spots. What better way to start your adventure than with this oh-so-Saigon breakfast staple? The banh mi thit is the classic combo, loaded with pork, pate, pickled veg, fresh coriander and (optional) fresh chili. With an English menu and bread baked on-site, this hole-in-the-wall take-away spot must not be missed. Cost: VND20,000 (88 cents)
Explore downtown Saigon on foot
From Hong Hoa, make your way to Ben Thanh Market. We’ll be coming back here for lunch, but, like any Vietnamese market, this one is best experienced in the early morning. As a popular tourist attraction, it’s not the cheapest place in town for souvenirs, but it’s essential for every visitor to Saigon to get lost in here for a while.
Next, head along Le Loi Boulevard towards the iconic opera house at the junction with Dong Khoi. Take a left and head up towards the Notre Dame Cathedral and Saigon’s famous post office. From the cathedral, bear left again and stroll down Le Duan to the gates of the Reunification Palace for the obligatory photo. Another left turn will take you down Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, past the colonial-era court building, the Gia Long Palace (now the Ho Chi Minh City Museum), and towards the ultra-modern, air-conditioned haven of the Saigon Centre shopping mall at the junction with Le Loi. Cost: Free!
Lunch in Ben Thanh Market
Ba Tan, stall 1052, central aisle
Vietnamese summer rolls are another must-eat item during a trip to Saigon. Goi cuon, to give them their correct name, are a rice paper wrap crammed with rice noodles, sliced pork, steamed prawns, pickled carrot and daikon, and plenty of fresh aromatic leaves. Served with peanut sauce for dipping, the goi cuon (served in stacks of three) at this tiny corner stall on the main aisle of the market are made fresh to order and are practically unbeatable at this price, and in this part of town. Cost: VND30,000 ($1.30)
Make a friend in 23 September Park
Running between Le Lai and Pham Ngu Lao, opposite Ben Thanh Market, this inner-city park is a great place to meet the locals, join in a game of da cau (“foot badminton”) and practice your Vietnamese. It’s also a popular spot for Vietnamese students looking to practice their English with a native speaker. Expect to leave with at least one person’s email address and/or an invite for coffee. Cost: Free!
Dinner at Bo La Lot Co Lieng
321 Vo Van Tan, District 3
This old-school restaurant just across the District 1-District 3 border is famous for its namesake dish: bo la lot (beef in leaves). Wrapped in aromatic betel leaves, finger-sized morsels of ground beef and lemongrass are grilled over charcoal and served with a table-wide platter of rice noodles, fresh leaves and herbs, pickled vegetables, bitter star fruit and young banana, plus rice pancakes for wrapping, fresh chilli for heat, and an addictive pineapple sauce for dipping. Cost: VND65,000 ($2.85) assuming you don’t use the wet napkin (VND2,000 extra)
DAY 2 – Total cost: VND227,000 (around $10), including accommodation
We’re heading away from the city center today, so get up early and dress for another session on foot.
Breakfast at Banh Mi Bay Ho
9 Huynh Khuong Ninh, Da Kao, District 1
As Saigon’s cheapest (and best) breakfast option, it’s another banh mi sandwich today. This time we’re in the slightly more sedate northern end of District 1 for what could be the city’s best banh mi op la (fried egg sandwich). This food cart appears in the early hours and is gone by lunchtime, so if it’s not here by the time you show up, you’re too late. The banh mi thit here is also amazing, but it’s important to get a varied diet when you’re living on a budget. The fried egg is thick and fluffy and pairs beautifully with the homemade pate. With the added fiery slices of chili (optional), you won’t miss your regular wakeup coffee. Good morning, Vietnam! Cost: VND15,000 (66 cents)
Jade Emperor Pagoda
73 Mai Thi Luu Street, District 1
From the banh mi cart, continue along Huynh Khuong Ninh Street and turn right just before the bridge for our next stop. Built in 1909 in honor of the Jade Emperor, this picturesque pagoda counts U.S. President Barack Obama among its former visitors. Through spirals of sweet incense, explore the courtyards, ponds and shrines of this historic site, and marvel at the many gods, goddesses and mythical creatures depicted throughout. Cost: Free!
Le Van Tam Park
Corner of Hai Ba Trung Street and Dien Bien Phu, District 1
With a miniature funfair, outdoor gym, a kiddy splash pool, shaded cafe, several old-school bandstands and an 850-meter walking circuit, Le Van Tam Park is worth a visit at any time of the day. Once a French colonial cemetery (until 1983), the park is now host to ballroom dance classes, aerobic sessions, tai chi groups, roller skaters, runners, cub scouts and a surprising amount of wildlife for such a small space. Cost: Free!
A traditional Saigon lunch
Bun Thit Nuong 88, 88 Mac Dinh Chi, Dakao, District 1,
Bun thit nuong cha gio is fast, it’s fresh and it’s probably Saigon’s best answer to Hanoi’s pho noodle soup. Consisting of cold rice noodles, a layer of fresh leaves, herbs and beansprouts, and a topping of lean grilled pork, fried crab spring rolls, crushed peanuts and pickled daikon and carrot, it’s much better suited to the tropical midday heat than a steaming bowl of pho. Located less than 100 meters from Le Van Tam Park, this inconspicuous joint serves an incredibly generous and extremely high-quality portion given its super-low price. Drizzle on the fish sauce, drop in some chili and devour. Cost: VND32,000 ($1.40)
Explore District 3
Despite laying just one street away from District 1, it’s surprising how many tourists skip this dynamic area and its many cute cafés, leafy side streets and colonial-era historic sites. From your lunch stop, continue along Mac Dinh Chi, turn right at Tran Cao Van, cross Hai Ba Trung and wander down to Turtle Lake roundabout, the site of a former French-built water tower. Continue down to Vo Van Tan, make a right at Pasteur Street and spend the rest of the afternoon making your way up to our dinner spot at number 260c. Cost: Free!
Dinner at Saigon’s oldest (and best?) pho restaurant
Pho Hoa, 260c Pasteur Street, District 3
You may be a long way from your downtown hostel, but this family-owned eatery is a culinary institution, dating back over half a century and now famous all over the globe. The pho tai (beef fillet) is the best place to start, made with thinly sliced raw beef that cooks to pinky perfection in the flavorsome broth. Leafy greens are piled high on each table to tear and add along with a good dose of fresh lime juice, crushed garlic and a touch of chili. Cost: VND65,000 ($2.86) for a regular-sized portion.
There it is. Two days, 20 dollars, and more uniquely-Saigon experiences than you can shake a stick at.
So what are you waiting for?