Budget itinerary for 3 days in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. See what to do in Saigon from just $20 per day including accommodation.
Over dinner, I asked a local what it was like to grow up in Saigon. His answer was “crazy, busy, chill” and I can’t imagine a better way to describe this awe-inspiring city. It may set your heart racing with the chaotic streets, conversational honking, and potent coffees but at the center of it all is a calmness.
Vietnam’s most populous city is a perfect starting place to kick off your backpacking or budget travel adventure in this lovable and very affordable country. It is a city with a fascinating history and two names. The official name is Ho Chi Minh City but locals generally still referred to it as Saigon (I use both names interchangeably throughout this article).
You may only have three days but fueled by Vietnamese coffee, you can see a lot! Here’s what to do in Saigon on a budget including:
- Where to stay in Ho Chi Minh City
- How to get from Ho Chi Minh airport to District 1
- 3 days in Ho Chi Minh City itinerary
- Day trips from Ho Chi Minh City
- My travel budget for Ho Chi Minh City.
You can also read my ex-pat and digital nomad guide to Vietnam for information on:
- Applying for a tourist visa in Vietnam
- Buying a SIM card
- Renting a scooter
- Getting cash out without paying huge fees
- How to find cheap flights to Vietnam.
Where to stay in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Wondering where to stay in Saigon? The easy answer is the backpacking area of District 1 (D1) because it is central to most Saigon attractions and has a fun nightlife.
If you are looking for a social atmosphere, then Vietnam Backpacker Hostels (VBH) – 8.2 on Booking. Although VBH has a reputation for being a party hostel (and has a rooftop bar!), their Saigon location also offers private rooms with good reviews from couples.
However, when searching for where to stay in Ho Chi Minh, Max and I found that Airbnb was generally cheaper for couples. We rented a studio apartment with a small kitchen in D1 rented through Airbnb. The normal price was $467,000 VND per night for two people but we paid less because I had Airbnb credit.
How to get from Ho Chi Minh airport to District 1
After touching down in Tan Son Nhat International Airport, don’t forget to pick up your visa (if you need one). Max and I arrived in terminal two, followed the crowd to immigration and almost missed the visa section on the other side of the long lines. There is a small office with a waiting area for visa services. If you have a visa letter, this is where you need to go first before passing through immigration. Read more about Vietnam visas in my ex-pat’s guide to living in Vietnam.
Max purchased a Viettel sim card and exchanged USD for VND at the first money exchange after immigration. With the Vietnamese sim card and cash, we were able to order a Grab taxi to take us straight to D1 for just 95,000 VND. Grab is similar to Uber and widely used throughout Southeast Asia for taxis, food delivery, and much more.
3 days in Ho Chi Minh City itinerary
Max and I stayed in Saigon for seven nights. However, as most people visit the city for only a few days, I’ve picked out the must-see Saigon attractions, my favorite places to eat and drink coffee, plus a few lesser-known hot spots. All recommendations are within walking distance from District 1 (D1) or on the back of a Grab motorbike if you are feeling lazy.
Day 1 – What to do in Saigon
Try Vietnamese coffee at L cafe
Location: 243 Đường Đề Thám (D1)
So you are fresh off the plane, you’ve dumped your bags in the room, and are ready to take on the city but the jetlag is kicking in. Sounds like you need a Vietnamese coffee to wake you up.
L Cafe is a nice spot right in the center of D1 that serves Vietnamese and Italian coffee. On a hot day, I recommend the Ca Phe Da (iced coffee) or Ca Phe Sua Da (iced coffee with condensed milk). It is like rocket fuel and will help you power through the rest of the day. A Ca Phe Sua Da is just 40,000 VND.
Although you might be able to find coffee on the streets for as little as 20,000 VND (or 12,000 VND in smaller cities!), stepping inside the airconditioned space will be a nice reprieve. The staff are L Cafe are lovely and during the day there is space to work on your laptop.
Lunch at Asiana Food Town
Location: 4 Phạm Ngũ Lão (D1)
Asiana Food Town is a great way to ease yourself into Vietnamese cuisine. It’s an underground food market based on a classic Vietnamese-style market. The themes, murals, and design are striking, making it a fun place for groups. Each person can order dishes from different vendors and have it delivered to their table.
What I liked most was that it provides a great introduction to many traditional Vietnamese meals. I am not always the bravest person when it comes to food, especially unconventional cuts of meat. However, at Asiana Food Town, the menus are also in English so I could confidently experiment and discover new favorites.
For those who have been in Vietnam for a while, you will appreciate the diverse offering with dishes from Japan, Laos, Cambodia, India, and other Asian countries, including heaps of vegetarian options. Max and I enjoyed lunch here, spending just 130,000 VND for two people, but it would be great for dinner too. Asiana Food Town is open from 10 AM to 10 PM every day of the week.
Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon, Saigon Central Post Office, and Saigon’s Book Street
If you check any top things to do in Saigon blogs, you are bound to find the Notre Dame Cathedral listed. I’m not that into churches or even their architecture (long-term travel in Europe will do that to you) but for those who are, it has neo-Romanesque features and stained-glass windows. This leftover reminder of the French colonization and its colonial architecture is also joined by the nearby Saigon Central Post Office.
For a more off-beat yet stylish Saigon attraction, check out the book street on Nguyen Van Binh, between Hai Ba Trung street and Notre Dame Cathedral. It’s a pedestrian walking street, so you can step out without the worry of being mowed down by a scooter. This hipster-esque spot is any novel lover’s paradise, lined with book, magazine, and stationery stores. A trendy place to stock up with a couple of English-language books or just relax at a cafe with a literary love.
Bui Vien Walking Street
Celebrate your first night in Saigon on Bui Vien Walking Street, the equivalent of Bangkok’s Khao San Road or Siem Reap’s Pub Street. It has all the best elements of Vietnamese nightlife including plastic chairs, cheap street food, and even cheaper beer – although, sadly the less savory elements of sex tourism are also visible (those bars will be screamingly obvious to avoid).
You can choose to saddle up in a more expensive western-style bar, roll into a club with flashing lights, or look for an empty plastic table on the street (my favorite!). Max and I enjoyed a plate of spring rolls and too many beers while sitting at one of these for just 190,000 VND for two people. Another budget option is La Vang Cafe. The service was average (and apparently the food is average) but the beer is cheap and it gives a perfect viewpoint of the street.
During the day, Bui Vien is still open for business and has a large selection of spas for massages and facials. I did both in Saigon but found the staff very pushy in the price and asking for a large tip (this is not customary in Vietnam). I would recommend having spa services done outside of D1 for this reason.
Day 2 – Things to do around District 1 in Ho Chi Minh City
Breakfast at Pho Quynh
Location: 323 Phạm Ngũ Lão (D1)
Pho is arguably the most well-known Vietnamese dishes. What you might not know is that it is actually a breakfast dish. According to our Grab driver, he usually only eats for weekend breakfast because it is a bit heavy to eat daily.
Pho Quynh is a 24-hour restaurant dishing out delicious pho around the clock. You can also choose from a range of various flavors and styles of pho. Personally, I think it is very tasty option as do many people on Tripadvisor with a rating of 4 out of 5 (even though the service sucks and they won’t even give you a napkin until you pay for it). A bowl of pho and beer is around 98,000 VND.
War Remnants Museum
Location: 28 Võ Văn Tần, Phường 6 (D3)
One of the many impressive characteristics of the Vietnamese people is their strength in rising up after horrific events. The United States is the last in a long line of destructive forces who brought sorrow to Vietnam. There are many sides to this tragic story and the War Remnants Museum shows one viewpoint in a visual format.
Inside the museum, there several photographic exhibitions including a heartbreaking insight into the aftereffects of agent orange. If you are particularly sensitive to these kinds of images, you may choose to skip this section, however, I think it is well worth the time. Entrance to the War Remnants Museum is 40,000 VND per person.
Ben Thanh Market and Hidden Elephant Cafe
Location: Chợ, Lê Lợi, Phường Bến Thành (D1)
Ben Thanh Market is a must-see in Saigon, even if you aren’t in the market for souvenirs. Yes, this iconic market has become a major tourist attraction, however, it is still charming and enjoyable. Stroll through the stands checking out the handicrafts or haggle over some fresh fruit. The restaurants here have English menus at affordable prices. I recommend gỏi cuốn (fresh spring rolls) for 40,000 VND.
Or you can swing by the happening Ben Thanh Street Food Market with a colorful array of mouthwatering dishes you can enjoy at the picnic tables. This is where I tried bamboo juice for the first time, paying 25,000 VND for a supersized cup. The Ben Thanh Market is open from 7 AM to 7 PM daily, whereas the food market is open from 9 AM to midnight.
For those who enjoy quirky cafes, step into the Hidden Elephant Cafe across the street from Ben Thanh Market. It’s an ex-pat favorite and looks straight out of a fantasy novel with narrow bookcases, reading nooks, and a rooftop garden.
Relax in September 23rd Park
Location: Phường Phạm Ngũ Lão (D1)
With all this walking around, it’s time to chill out. The Septemeber 23rd park is in the center of D1 yet has a local feel to it. Here you can see Vietnamese people exercising and playing sports in a way that will make you wonder why you’re so damn lazy (or maybe that’s just me). Buy a shuttlecock from one of the street vendors to start a game of da cau (a kind of foot badminton) or find a bench to relax on while watching everyone else workout. Best time to go is early morning or evening.
Enjoy Bun Thit Nuong (southern-style) for dinner
Location: 85/14 Phạm Ngũ Lão (D1)
Bun Thit Nuong is a noodle salad with grilled pork, originally from Hue, but is eaten throughout the country. I wanted to try the southern version of this tasty dish and happened to find it on the menu at the restaurant of Beauty Guesthouse. Max and I stumbled across Beauty Guesthouse while searching for an affordable restaurant with quality meals in D1.
We loved the great service, thoughtful presentation, and fresh food at Beauty Guesthouse. The Bun Thit Nuong (southern-style) was the stand-out dish in my opinion but we were also treated to refreshing watermelon juices for dessert. Our meal was just 200,000 VND for two people, with spring rolls as an entre.
Day 3: Mekong Delta day trip from Saigon
During our wonderful week in Saigon, Max and I got out of the bustling city to explore the south by bus and boat on a classic Mekong Delta day trip.
Our one-day tour included visiting the islands and local family businesses there who produce honey and coconut products. We sipped on tea while listening to live music performances, munched on a traditional Vietnamese lunch, took a scenic trip in a rowboat on the river, then finished up at the stunning Vinh Trang Pagoda.
You can buy tickets for as little as 460,000 VND from a travel agent in Ho Chi Minh City or pay a little more to book in advance on GetYourGuide. See what a Mekong Delta tour from Saigon looks like in this video.
Other day trips from Ho Chi Minh City
Here are some other popular day trips from Ho Chi Minh City:
- Cu Chi Tunnels: Morning or Afternoon Guided Tour
- Cao Đài Temple and Củ Chi Tunnels Full-Day Tour
- Non-Touristy Mekong Delta Tour for Instagrammers with Biking
- Full-Day Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong Delta Tour.
My travel budget for Ho Chi Minh City
All costs are quoted for two people and in the local currency (Vietnamese Dong). See below for the average daily spend per person including currency conversion to USD and AUD. I always try to find and negotiate the best prices to share with my readers. If you know of a better deal, tell me about it in the comments below.
Accommodation: Studio apartment with a small kitchen in District 1 rented on Airbnb ($467,000 VND per night for two people). We paid less because I had Airbnb credit.
Food: Two coffees at L Cafe (80,000 VND), pastries from ABC Bakery and bananas from the street (70,000 VND), 6L water and instant coffee (61,000 VND), lunch at Asiana Food Town (130,000 VND), dinner at Beauty Guesthouse (200,000 VND), pho at Pho Quynh (196,000 VND), fresh spring rolls at Ben Thanh market (40,000 VND), bamboo juice (25,000 VND), spring rolls and beers on Bui Vien Walking Street (190,000 VND), 4L of water (25,000 VND), three Chicken Origiri from the Circle K (36,000 VND), vegetarian dinner and beers at Nha Hang Chay Ngoc Tho (205,000 VND). 1258000
Activities: Entrance to the War Remnants Museum (80,000 VND), Mekong Delta day trip (460,000 VND). 540000
Transport: Grab from the airport to District 1 (95,000 VND).
Average daily spend: 471,166 VND each* ($28.46 AUD / $20.30 USD as of 12 April 2019).
*This daily amount could be reduced by only eating street food.
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