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District One covers several square kilometres and includes the Pham Ngu Lao backpacker area as well as being home to the majority of the city's landmarks. It is a peninsula, with the Thi Nghe Channel as a northern boarder, the Saigon River in the east, and Ben Nghe Cannel to the south. The western boarder is defined by the District Three border streets of Hai Ba Trung and Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, and the District Five boarder street of Nguyen Van Cu.
The focal points of the district, which receive the most tourist traffic, are the area surrounding Central Saigon and the back packer area of Pham Ngu Lao.
Central Saigon is the heart of the district. The areas loose borders are defined by the streets of Dong Khoi to the east, Le Loi to the south, Nguyen Thi Minh Khai to the north, and CMT8 to the west. Here you will find the majority of the city's landmarks, including Notre Dame Cathedral and the Reunification Palace. The area is also home to a majority of Ho Chi Minh City's luxury hotels and fine eating establishments. Many shopping opportunities present themselves in Central Saigon as you can find everything from small boutiques, selling anything from oil painting to wooden model ships, Vietnamese markets, including the famous Ben Thanh market, and modern shopping centres, including the new Vincom Centre.
The backpacker area of Pham Ngu Lao refers to an oblong-shaped area bordered by its namesake street to the north and Bui Vien to the south. The area is host to a vast number of hotels, ranging from budget mini-hotels to mid range establishments. On De Tham you can find several travel agencies, where you can purchase tours and bus tickets, as well as several popular bars, including the Crazy Buffalo. This area gets its fair share of traffic noise and is particularly popular with organised tour groups.
Some outlying districts of Ho Chi Minh City are also of interest to most tourists. District Five, or Cholon, is the Chinese quarter of the city. It is home to several attractive pagodas, which are easily and cheaply visited by way of the numerous cyclo taxis that fill the district. Cholon is also home Bin Tay market, the largest market in the city, where you can find better deals and less tourist traffic than you would in District One.
Further from central Saigon, the developing Districts Two and Seven, home to the majority of the city's ex-pat community, can give you a glimpse of the future plans for the city. These districts are home to many modern housing complexes and shopping centres as well as many fine restaurants. You will also find several western food chains inhabiting these districts and grocery stores catering to western clients.
Addresses in Ho Chi Minh City can be mildly confusing; an address reading Dong Khoi 220/12 means that the location is not located on Dong Khoi but rather down an alley after Dong Khoi 220. This can be intensify if you get an address that expands this method, such as Dong Khoi 220/12/5 would refer to a location that is down an alley after Dong Khoi 220/12. Streets can be a hassle in and of themselves as street's name may change after a cross street and often through a roundabout. Luckily, odds and evens are still on opposite sides of the street.
Common scams & things to watch out for
Saigon is an extremely safe place to visit and for the most part it's up to the individual to keep out of trouble. For example, frequenting late night bars in Pham Ngu Lao is likely to attract the company of sex workers, who may not be as friendly as they seem. A common ruse is to be plied with alcohol and then pick-pocketed, with the missing money and phone not noticed until morning. Pickpockets are known to operate at Ben Thanh market as well, so keep unnecessary valuables in the safe at the guesthouse.
When travelling by motorcycle keep bags secured or at least make them ungrabbable. Although rare, motorbike drive-by thefts are not unusual - especially, if you're advertising the fact you have a digital camera and probably a load of other goodies.
Other than that, the overwhelming way foreigners are robbed is by being overcharged. If that starts getting under your skin, read some of the crime reports from Thailand or Cambodia. One great thing about the cops in Vietnam is that, as a rule, they don't hassle or shake down tourists. This has created a relaxed climate for expats and travellers that is second-to-none in Southeast Asia. It is possible to be stopped and charged a fine of up to 500,000 VND for driving without a helmet (and this goes for the passenger, too). But you knew you should've worn a helmet anyway.
The police can, however, be a little slow off the block when it comes to petty crime. This can be frustrating, but it won't help to scream and stomp your feet and threaten to call your embassy. Be patient and polite at all times. All they are really going to do is fill out a report, which you'll need to claim the loss on your insurance (and only if you insist on it). This situation changes however if the crime is serious, especially if you have concrete information about the perpetrator. Then, they snap into action.
The emergency telephone number for the police is 113.
The police emergency number is 113, but expect a different service from what you're used to. On Pham Ngu Lao St, just near the junction with De Tham on the park side of the road, there is a small 'tourist security' office. If you're taken seriously then the boss may be called.
For a medical emergency, District One has several privately-owned and Western-run medical centres. Try SOS International (65 Nguyen Du St, T: (08) 3829 8520) or Family Medical Practice (Diamond Plaza, 34 Le Duan Street, T: (08) 3822 7848). Better get that travel insurance as it's not cheap — even an appointment with the GP costs US$60. FV, or Franco-Vietnamese Hospital (6 Nguyen Luong Bang St, District 7), may be needed for more complicated problems. Their emergency number is (08) 5411 3500. FV also have a small clinic in the city, a good option for routine checkups (45 Vo Thi Sau District 1, T: (08) 6290 6167). Cho Ray hospital (201B Nguyen Chi Thanh St, District 5, T: (08) 855 4137) has a trauma unit.
Most travel agents can get a visa extension for you. Typically a 30-day extension sets you back US$25 and takes one week, while an express two-day service costs around US$40. Three and six-month extensions are also available for tourist visas. Chi's Cafe (40/27 Bui Vien St, District 1, T: (08) 920 4874) provides as good a service as any.
Saigon's immigration office is open Mon-Fri, closed for lunch 11:00 - 13:00. Save yourself the hassle of waiting in lines and dealing with bureaucrats by using a visa extension service through a travel agent instead. To process the visa by yourself, the first step is to pick up the correct form from the office. 254 Nguyen Trai St, District 1, T: (08) 839 2221
International ATMs are dotted all over District One and aren't hard to find. If staying in Pham Ngu Lao make use of the 24-hour ATM at Sacombank (211 Nguyen Thai Hoc St). In the city centre, the HSBC sits next to Notre Dame (235 Dong Khoi St) and ANZ is down by the river (11 Me Linh Square). Public ATMs are in the Tax Shopping Centre on the corner of Nguyen Hue St and Le Loi St, and at the Caravelle Hotel directly opposite the city Opera House.
ATMs have a withdrawal transaction limit of 2 million VND (roughly US$120). You can withdraw this amount as many times as you want up to your limit back home — but be aware your own bank will charge for each transaction. Reliable counters for changing your bucks can be found at 82 Mac Thi Buoi St (Dong Khoi area), and De Tham St (Pham Ngu Lao area). Places such as this have no commission, but charge a US$2 bank fee for traveller's cheques and a US$3 fee for credit card advance. Inside a bank, the charge on your traveller's cheque will be between 1.5 and 2.0%.
Saigon's main post office (Cong Xa Paris Square, District 1) doubles as a tourist attraction due to its architecture and the large portrait of Uncle Ho overseeing proceedings. Next to Notre Dame Cathedral this post office along with all others opens 06:00-22:00 daily. Smaller offices are all over the city — look for the 'Buu Dien' sign.
4 Phan Thuc Duyen, Tan Binh District T: (08) 3844 0995
6 Thong Long, Tan Binh District T: (08) 3828 0995
74 Nguyen Van Troi, District 1 T: (08) 3997 2888
39B Truong Son, District 1 T: (08) 3848 6822
Fahasa is the largest and only real chain of book shops in the city, with three District 1 locations. Try 40 Nguyen Hue Street and 185 Dong Khoi Street, good places to buy the all-important city map, though the English-language selection is limited. Another option is to sit in a Pham Ngu Lao cafe and wait for the sellers with their book stacks and catalogues of available titles. These are not original books — they've been photocopied so be prepared for the occasional missing or wonky page. Prices are around 80-120,000 VND depending on your bartering skills.
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