At the Airport
The international airport of HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City) is Ton Son Nhat International Airport. It was built by the French back in the 1930s and later on it was used as a military airfield during the Vietnam war (renamed to Tan Son Nhut), and it became famous after footages of refugees trying to escape towards the end of the war.
Even today you can still see the remnants of the war along the taxi way and it can send hair standing and the realisation that you are indeed in Nam for real!
There are two terminals here, an international terminal and a domestic terminal. The domestic terminal was still being used as international terminal a few years ago when I arrived in Vietnam and that terminal was really a shocker!
At this point of writing, there is no need to fill in any arrival/landing card. They did away with that, reinstated it again, only to do away with for good some years ago. Upon arrival, I hope you have already applied your VISA (if you need one) before traveling.
If not you can still apply at the counter upon arrival. Though I have never needed to apply one, I always see a long queue of tourists at the counter, and sometimes people flared up.
The VISA upon arrival counter is on the left of the immigration counters. You will most likely see people queueing up all the time.
Clearing immigration is average. They will open additional counters if the passengers arrivals are high. The immigration officers are not paid to greet you or give you any sense of welcome, which is quite typical.
Hold on to your toilet trip for now if you can. Try to get ahead of the hordes!
Try to head towards the far rear end of the row of immigration counters towards the right. Most people especially locals like to crowd at the first few counters. The rear end are usually less crowded.
Try to queue behind Asian. Most Asian do not require VISA and the clearance speed is way faster than those queues with Europeans, middle-east, or Africans.
During festive seasons, especially if you arrive during the first couple of days during Tet, expect the immigration officers to pull a long face. I have met some who asked for Bao Li Xi (Red Packets containing money given out to relatives during Tet). If you encounter one who is so persistence that he/she refuses to let you pass until you give a “Bao Li Xi”, a 200,000VND “Bao Li Xi” should suffice.
A Bao Li Xi is a little red packet given out during Tet New Year or during festive celebrations.
After having your passport stamped, the luggages belt is just downstairs. It takes a short while just for the luggages to reach the belt. If you have oversized luggages then it will be at either ends of the hall. Sometimes they will trolley it to your belt, sometimes they just left it sitting on the floor at the end of the hall.
Now is a good time to look for a toilet while waiting for your luggage to arrive on the belt.
Also, keep your eyes open for other people taking your luggages be it intentional or by accident.
Once you have all your luggages, proceed to clear the custom. All luggages and hand carry bags MUST pass through the x-ray machine. Don’t try to be funny here. If you have any electronics in unopened boxes you will be asked to justify their purposes.
Here, a quick “settlement” will be accepted in order to avoid the lengthy paperwork. From where I come from such practices comes with a strong consequences but it is perfectly “normal” here. Just do what Romans do when in Rome.
You can use any of the channels including RED channel even if you have nothing to declare!
All customs officers can speak English but they like to speak to you in Vietnamese just to intimidate you.
Getting a Taxi
If you have cleared the customs without incidents, then congratulations and welcome to Saigon. Phew! You have survived thus far!
A lot of people still refer to the city as Saigon, rather than the mouthful Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)/Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh (TP HCM).
DO NOT rush to exit.
Here you will see a row of counters. You will see staffs waving to you shouting “SIM cards”, taxi, money exchange.
Get the SIM card. It is not much cheaper down town or here at the airport. Get them to install the SIM for you! Save yourself trouble getting a pin to open the SIM tray if you are using an iPhone 😉 Get them to activate data for you at the same time as well so you can start to tweet or FB your arrival.
Next, if you have not change any dong (Vietnamese currency is called dong) back home, here you may want to change a little dong for your immediate needs. Rate is not the best until you know how to get to Ben Thanh Market. Follow this link below to my article about where to find the best rate in the city.
After feeling more confident with some dong in your pocket, the next step is to get a taxi to your hotel.
You can pay a flat rate of US$10 or 220,000VND (at the time of writing this) to get from the airport to anywhere in District 1, or you can try risking it out taking a taxi outside the arrival hall. I have a page that helps you get your way to the metered taxi outside the airport here.
But trust me, unless you know your way around the city, there is no way you can be certain your metered taxi fare is going to be cheaper.
If you are interested in finding out how to get a metered taxi from Tan Son Nhat Airport you can read about it here –
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