Airports: the one destination that simultaneously inspires both joy and dread. If you’re feeling intimidated by your first trip to Vietnam, let Team Christina’s put your anxieties to rest with this handy-dandy survival guide for the Tan Son Nhat/Ho Chi Minh airport. First up: the international terminal. Stay tuned for the domestic edition.
Tan Son Nhat International Airport (airport code: SGN) is the largest airport in Vietnam and one of the three main gateways into Vietnam for many international visitors. The airport is only 8 kilometers north of District 1, a short ride away from downtown Saigon. Comprised of two terminals, Domestic Terminal 1 and International Terminal 2, the airport welcomed 35 million guests in 2016. The numbers will rise with the increasing popularity of Vietnam as a tourist destination. The international terminal is less than a decade old, opened in September 2007.
Fresh Off The Runway
Upon touching down in Ho Chi Minh airport, you’ll be greeted by fairly new facilities and clear-cut directions to the immigration desks. Count the good signage as a blessing. The immigration process is notoriously slow and chances are if you are arriving at the same time as other international flights with non-Vietnamese passengers, you’ll be in line for quite some time. Pick up your heels and try to take a potty break prior to deboarding as a pitstop to the bathrooms before will more or less determine how long you’ll be waiting in line.
Note: If Ho Chi Minh isn’t your final destination and you have a transfer either to another domestic airport or international flight, all you have to do is follow the appropriate arrows and signs.
Visa to Vietnam
As of August 2016, citizens of 79 countries are exempt from pre-arranged visas and/or visas in general, albeit the cap on travel days. Most citizens of the Asian continent (Japan, South Korea, Russia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, The Philippines, Brunei, Myanmar) and Western Europe (Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, France, Germany, Spain, The United Kingdom, Italy, Germany) can enter the country without a pre-arranged visa. However, the duration of stay is variable depending on nationality.
- If you are an overseas Vietnamese or child of an overseas Vietnamese, you can stay without a visa for no more than 6 months.
- Same goes for foreigners whose spouses are Vietnamese citizens.
- And if you are traveling to Phu Quoc Island, you don’t need a visa for a stay less than 30 days.
Just A Head’s Up
The visa rules are always changing so always double-check. Also, the waiver agreements between many of the Western European countries and Vietnam will expire in June of 2017 and may/may not be extended so if you’re planning your visit after that date, figure out the status of your exemption before booking accommodations.
Here is an all-you-need-to-know about Vietnam visa that will be super useful.
Visa on Arrival
Visa on arrival (VOA) can only be procured with a pre-arranged approval letter issued by a third-party. You need to apply for a letter of approval in advance. Remember, this letter of approval is NOT a full visa! Word of advice: try organize this at least a month before your departure. The penalty for arriving without an approval letter is steep so don’t try your luck (a Canadian friend arrived in Vietnam having to pay $350 USD without a visa letter… yikes!)
The visa on arrival is a much cheaper, legitimate alternative to a visa issued by the Vietnamese embassy or consulate. However, the downside is that visas on arrival take a very long time to issue if you’re not the first in line. If you choose to go this route, you’ll be paying a fee to a VOA agent to request a letter beforehand for you and then another fee at the airport to process your visa. The fastest way to pay at the airport is in $USD and in exact change. Research in advance what the fee is.
There are tons of third-party VOA organizations but VOA Vietnam is our recommendation. Another tip to make this process go by quicker is to have the application form already filled out instead of wasting time filling it out at the counter. If you queue up with your processing fee in exact change and $USD, a filled-out application form, and two passport-sized photos, it’s very likely you’ll be cutting down the wait time by almost half. After that, make your way to a second set of lines for the immigration desks.
You also need to submit a passport size photo of yourself that is recent (taken no longer than 6 months before). If you do not have a photo with you, they will lean you up against a white wall and take one, but you will have to pay 5USD just for that single photo. Plus this is kind of inconvenient as sometimes there are group tours waiting for their visa and it takes absolutely FOREVER.
Just A Head’s Up
If there’s a crowd, you have to babysit your application. The issuance is not streamlined and the officers tend to file the applications randomly so stand near the window to make sure your application isn’t getting pushed to the bottom of the pile. But don’t be pushy; always be courteous when pointing out your grievances.
For Americans Only
On September 2016, the Vietnamese government issued an ordinance that only yearlong tourist visas would be served to incoming Americans, abolishing the month-long and three-month-long visas. Rumor has it that this mandate has been overturned but it is imperative you check with your VOA agent that this statement is true.
Click here for a more in-depth guide on how to get your hands on Vietnamese visa.
Already Visa Equipped? Smart Thinking!
Look at you, you overachiever! No, congratulations for bypassing the pandemonium at the VOA counter and getting your visa ahead of time at the embassy. The lines at immigration are another queue that needs to be filed, so luckily you only have to deal with one set of obnoxiously long lines. When you arrive at the desks, having the page with your Vietnamese visa open wins you brownie points from surly immigration officers. Also, have your incoming flight number in hand (i.e. give them your ticket stub.) You don’t have to fill out anything in advance. After passing the immigration desks, you’re only a short distance away from freedom!
Go one level down (the stairs and escalators are right after the immigration) and you’ll find yourself smack dab in the middle of the baggage claim hall. Funny enough, there are no televisions alerting passengers the whereabouts of their baggage. The best way to find out what carousel to head towards is to scout a fellow passenger who flew with you or ask your attendant. The hallway is not as jarringly spacious as other airports, which is quite nice. You’ll see the doorway at the northernmost end of the hall, where customs is. Head there once you have your bags in order.
If your baggage is delayed or lost, you must make a claim at the Lost & Found counter. Contact details are mentioned below in the “Tips & Tricks” section.
The Welcome Hall… Minus The Welcome
Most arrival hallways allow passengers’ loved ones or pick-ups to congregate indoors. At the Ho Chi Minh airport, this is different. Instead, your first human interaction passing through those doors (after the immigration officers) will be people trying to tout taxi rides and SIM cards. Here are the steps to follow to ensure you evade any scams.
Money exchange / ATM withdrawal
You will most likely lose money exchanging cash at a currency exchange counter. Instead, the best advice we could give any traveler is to stick to withdrawing cash. The Citibank ATM should be directly in front of the doorway. Stick to Citibank as this international banking service provides the highest denomination of cash (10,000,000 VND max withdrawal). If your card isn’t working, try HSBC or Shinhan Bank. Because Vietnam is high on the fraud list, make sure to notify your bank before traveling to Vietnam so they don’t freeze your card while abroad. Also try to keep some USD on you as some transactions in more touristic areas are easier with USD.
The local currency is Vietnamese Dong (VND for short). As of November 2016, 22,300 VND is equal $1 USD, making for an easy conversion rate.
Further reading: Cash, credit cards and ATMS in Vietnam
Getting a SIM card
For those who are hesitant about getting a SIM card, we can’t advise you enough to invest in data while in Vietnam. Not only will you be able to look up things at will, but you will also have access to the likes of ride-sharing apps, which are vital to successfully enjoying Vietnam. SIM cards are relatively cheap. For those with a phone requiring unlocking, a month’s worth of 3G data and phone calls is about 200,000-250,000 VND (less than $11 USD). Go with either Viettel or Mobiphone. Viettel has better coverage all over Vietnam but if you’re staying in HCMC only, Mobiphone works. Getting a SIM card outside of the airport is way more difficult. So save yourself a headache and just do it then and there.
Further reading: Mobile in Saigon
Duty-Free Shopping, Dining, and Cafes
There are two duty-free shopping stalls near the baggage claim area where you can get your usual array of items, from chocolates and perfumes to alcohol, tobacco, and confectionaries.
Outside you will also find a Burger King if you want to get a few carbs in you after a long flight. Or if you want to wake up, there are a couple cafes. Make sure you order a Ca Phe Sua Da – Vietnamese ice coffee with milk. It will be a great introduction to the country 😉
What else? Tips & tricks.
Free WIFI access – lucky for you, there is free wifi access. Just check your wifi settings and you will see the familiar “Tan Son Nhat Airport Wifi”. Follow the instructions and voila, you’ll be online within seconds.
Tourist information desk – can be found by the baggage claim area. Any problems you face or any questions you need answering can be brought up to anyone manning the desk.
Smoking rooms are also available throughout the airport. They will be marked appropriately.
There is a postal service counter. This small “post office” can handle postcards and letters but struggles with larger items.
Luggage storage services – If you are just transiting, there is an airport service counter that will keep your bags. You can spot the counter after your arrival exit to your right. There will also be signs pointing your way. You have to pay 27,5000VND per bag per hour, which is about 1.40USD, so if you leave your bag for 10 hours, it will equate to about 14USD (275,000VND).
Lost and Found counter – Make sure to contact this counter if anything of yours is lost or if you didn’t find your luggage in the baggage claim. If you can not find this counter, ask the Tourist Information Desk and they will guide you.
Telephone: (84-8) 35470415 or (84-8) 38446665 extension 6062
Get Me Outta Here!
You’re ready to be on your way! There are four options to get to the city center or any destination you wish:
- Song Viet Transportation Service
- Uber or Grab
- Taxi Services
- Airport Shuttle
At the last booth upon exiting the Ho Chi Minh airport, Song Viet is a fixed price taxi service that will arrange your transportation into the city and also provide SIM card services. We cannot advise it enough for all first-time guests to make a beeline for Song Viet. Even though it’s a bit pricier than the other alternatives (not by much thought,) the convenience of a one-stop shop is well worth it to any newcomers. Be aware – fake Song Viet drivers will try to approach you. Do not go with them. Instead, go straight to the ticket counter and pick up a ticket. An agent will then escort you straight to your vehicle. There have been instances of the taxi drivers demanding a tip at the end of the ride, but do not feel the need to. Overall, this service is the best for those looking for hassle-free transportation.
Not only are ride sharing apps convenient, they are also the cheapest mode of transportation in Vietnam. You cannot download Uber or Grab without a working phone number so install the app before your arrival. With the SIM card in place, you can use either Uber or Grab. A ride to the city center should round in at about 100,000 to 150,000 VND. For people coming in past midnight, it can even clock in at less than 100,000 VND. You can pay either in cash or credit.
Uber and Grab drivers tend to have limited English ability so you may find yourself struggling to communicate your pick-up. Vietnamese people are quite obliging and will help you translate if need be. There is a Burger King stand to the far right of the exit. This is always a good landmark for drivers who are hard up with English. But there is one on the departure floor too so be clear!
In Ho Chi Minh City, beware of fake taxi companies looking to scam clueless passengers with rigged meters and overcharging. There are only two reliable taxi companies: Mai Linh (white and green) and Vinasun (white). Do not get into any other cab, and always ask to turn on the meter and never agree on a price beforehand. A ride into the city should cost between 120,000 to 180,000 VND, maybe 200,000 VND max if you’re arriving during rush hour traffic. After exiting, veer left and you’ll see a taxi stand between columns 1 to 3.
Passengers with disabilities, elderly, and pregnant women can ask for priority. Make sure you have the address to your destination written down somewhere as Vietnamese addresses are actually very hard to convey if you’re not a native speaker. A screenshot of the location is also very helpful. There is a 10,000 VND airport exit fee but that is on the driver, not the passenger.
In March 2016, an airport shuttle from Ho Chi Minh airport was launched and is highly popular among visitors. There are two routes (Route 109 and Shuttle Bus 49) that operate as early as 5:15 am and run to 2 am. Head to column 15 to catch the easy-to-spot yellow buses that take you straight to the downtown area for as low as 20,000 VND (~$1 USD).
Route 109 takes riders to the Ben Thanh Bus Station from the Ho Chi Minh airport and terminates at Park 23/9 (September 23rd park), right near Pham Ngu Lao backpacker district. Traveling all the way to the final stop costs 20,000 VND (~$1 USD). Don’t worry about the amount of luggage you have; there’s no extra cost. And these buses all have air-conditioners, which is fantastic for the 50-minute long ride.
Operating hours: 5:45 am to 1:30 am
Route 49 is a tad more expensive but that’s because it stops in areas with the bigger hotel chains. The line just launched in May and features brand-new buses and a skilled fleet of drivers who speak English well. For a flat fare of 40,000 VND (~$2 USD) and a journey around 30-40 minutes depending on the traffic, this is a very reasonable offer. The bus concludes at Ben Thanh Bus Station.
Operating hours: 5 am to 2:30 am
A place to stay near the Ho Chi Minh Airport
We are Christina’s, a social accommodation spread throughout Vietnam, and recently we launched our Transit House near the airport. If that is what you are looking for, click here. Otherwise, if you would like to be closer to the heart of the city, we have many places in District 1, 3 and 4 as well. You can browse our website to see if there is anything you like: christinas.vn
So. We hope that you now have an understanding of how the Tan Son Nhat (Ho Chi Minh) Airport works. Save this guide if you need to refer back to it just in case. And PLEASE double check your visa!!
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