What do pho, a financial hub, and French colonial architecture have in common?
They’re all iconic features of Ho Chi Minh City.
Ho Chi Minh, which many people still call its former name, Saigon, is the most populated city in Vietnam, with over 9 million residents.
If you’re a wheelchair user contemplating a visit to Ho Chi Minh, I’ll do my best to shed some light on wheelchair travel in the Pearl of the Far East.
Note: The information here is based on my observation as a non-wheelchair user. If you have firsthand experience as a wheelchair user in Ho Chi Minh City, I’d love to hear about your time there in the comments section. I appreciate it, and I’m sure our future readers will too.
Overview of Wheelchair Travel in Saigon
Despite modern highrises and progress in the financial and business sectors, Ho Chi Minh is not an ideal wheelchair accessible destination.
There’s a myriad of reasons for this, the most notable being:
- Accessible parking is next to none
- Scooters, noodle stands, and other objects block sidewalks
- Many sidewalks don’t have drop-down curbs
- Accessible shops, restaurants, and restrooms are uncommon
Furthermore, crossing the street in Saigon involves a significantly higher risk than you’re likely used to.
Even when you come across intersections with pedestrian signs, the green signal to cross is more of a suggestion than a recommendation. The golden rule of thumb for anyone wanting to cross the road in Ho Chi Minh is to move in front of oncoming traffic and slowly make your way across, maintaining eye contact with the drivers.
Since most vehicles on the road are scooters, they can maneuver around people more easily than a car. But this is far from an ideal—or safe—situation.
Furthermore, drivers often pack into the lanes on a road three or four scooters across. And when they run out of space on the road, they use the sidewalk as a makeshift street to reach their destination more quickly.
It’s a nightmare for non-wheelchair users, let alone people using wheelchairs.
The silver lining is that there are a few public places where it’s safe to explore by wheelchair without putting your life in jeopardy or arriving at an impassible area. I describe them in detail in the “accessible things to do” section.
The Benefit of Friendly Locals
The Vietnamese are friendly people. And from my experience, they go above and beyond to help anyone who needs assistance, even when smiles and hand gestures are the only ways to communicate.
Furthermore, because of injuries sustained from the Vietnam War (or the American War, as they call it in Vietnam), the Vietnamese are no strangers to helping wheelchair users get around.
So, if a place appears seemingly inaccessible, you may soon have a group of willing locals offering to help you inside. Some businesses with stair-only access (which is most of them, unfortunately) have portable ramps.
Nevertheless, from my observation, it seems that Ho Chi Minh City is better suited for manual wheelchair users rather than people who use electric chairs.
I encountered several areas where the ability to pop over a step or curb made the difference between having or not having access to a destination or shop without assistance.
Wheelchair Transportation in Ho Chi Minh City
Sadly, I wasn’t able to track down any companies offering wheelchair accessible vans in Ho Chi Minh. Please let me know if you discover otherwise and share it in the comments section so that other readers can benefit from your find.
In the meantime, I recommend traveling to Saigon if you can transfer out of your chair and into a taxi.
Grab and Gojek are the most common taxi apps in Ho Chi Minh. You can select from different-sized vehicles, helping to secure a vehicle that will fit your chair and anyone else traveling with you.
As mentioned before, the Vietnamese go above and beyond to assist. So, you can expect your driver to offer help and not make you feel like you need to rush getting in and out of your chair.
Accessible Restrooms in Saigon
I encountered the following two accessible public restrooms in Ho Chi Minh City:
- Bitexco Financial Tower
- Tao Dan Park
Though accessible restrooms are limited in Saigon, there are surely more. So, please leave a comment if you know of any others.
Of these two options, Bitexco is a nicer option. The Tao Dan Park entrance is tricky for wheelchair users to arrive at, given that many parks in Ho Chi Minh place small bars along otherwise accessible access points to prevent scooters from entering.
11 Accessible Things to Do in Ho Chi Minh City
Below are some wheelchair accessible places to visit in Saigon. I strongly encourage you to take a taxi between them, for the reasons discussed above.
1. Admire the City Hall
One of the best accessible things to do in Saigon is to explore the wide pedestrian boulevard that Nguyen Hue Street straddles.
Ho Chi Minh City Hall & the statue of former president Ho Chi Minh steal the show. However, you’ll also get to soak in the surrounding French architecture and a lotus flower water fountain.
I highly recommend visiting this area in the evening. Seeing the buildings lit up at night and the color show that the fountain puts on is nothing short of stunning.
You’ll be among many tourists visiting Nguyen Hue Street at night, so there’s little need to worry about safety.
Pickpocketing is the most common crime in Saigon, with violent crimes rare. So, keep your valuables in front of you and expect an enjoyable visit.
2. Ben Thanh Market
The Ben Thanh Market is the most popular tourist market in Ho Chi Minh. It’s quite close to the city hall, but I recommend taking a taxi to get there.
Ben Thanh has many entrances. I passed through three of them, and all were accessible. They are as follows:
- Gate 1 (south gate)
- Gate 11
- Gate 13
I recommend having your taxi drop you off directly at one of the entrance gates. Many vendors line the sidewalk outside the market, making it challenging for wheelchair users to navigate.
Once you’re inside Ben Thanh, two main aisles cut through the market, forming a cross-like shape, with the center of the cross being in the middle of the market.
The main aisles are wider, making them the most comfortable for wheelchair users to get around when it’s crowded.
However, there are many side aisles you can explore.
Be sure to brush up on your bartering skills—the Vietnamese expect you to haggle!
3. War Remnants Museum
The War Remnants Museum is a chilling reminder of the American war in Vietnam and the psychological and physical toll that the war and agent orange has had on past and current generations.
The images school children drew of their congenital disorders from their parents being exposed to agent orange are particularly heartbreaking.
I recommend allotting two hours to explore the museum. All text is in Vietnamese and English, though sometimes the photos on display speak the loudest words.
All levels of the War Remnants Museum are wheelchair accessible. You’ll encounter a ramp leading to the entrance of the building on the left-hand side, and elevators will take you to the three different floors.
4. Go to the Top of the Bitexco Tower
The Bitexco Financial Tower is an iconic sight in Ho Chi Minh. Its nickname is the “Lotus Building,” and for good reason—artist Carlos Zapata designed it to look like a lotus flower, the national flower of Vietnam and an important symbol in Buddhism.
Bitexco is refreshingly wheelchair accessible. It has a flat entrance and a spacious elevator to take you to the Skydeck on the 49th floor.
As a wheelchair user, you’ll receive a discount on your ticket.
From 2010 – 2011, the Bitexco Tower had a short stint as the tallest building in Vietnam. But the Saigon Trade Center soon took the title.
You likely won’t care about this height distinction when you’re on the 49th floor and enjoying the 360-degree views of Ho Chi Minh City far below, though.
5. Hang Out at the Port
The Bach Dang Speed Ferry Terminal is a great accessible area to spend time in Ho Chi Minh.
Several sidewalks crisscross through a park-like area beside the river, offering breathtaking views of Saigon. And, of course, the Bitexco Tower is among them.
The Bach Dang Speed Ferry Terminal is one of the only truly accessible restaurants I encountered in Ho Chi Minh. It offers beautiful views over the river.
However, you might not even make it to the restaurant. Many vendors line a portion of this area, selling local food that looks too enticing to pass up.
6. Drive Through China Town
Saigon’s China Town is located in Cho Lon, District 5 (although it spills into Districts 6 and 11). It’s a short drive from District 1, which is where Ho Chi Minh’s main tourist attractions are located.
I found China Town to be an even worse offender than District 1 in terms of sidewalks unsuitable for wheelchairs. So, I recommend sightseeing in this area by taxi.
Some sights that are noteworthy to pass by in China Town include:
- On Lang Pagoda
- Thien Hau Pagoda
- Tran Hung Dao, an area selling natural medicinal medicine
While driving around, it’ll be impossible to miss the signs, as everything is written in Mandarin and translated into Vietnamese.
7. Gawk at District 2
District 2 is the upscale expat area of Ho Chi Minh City with many coffee shops. Despite this, many of the buildings are from the French colonial days, and the sidewalks abound with cracks and obstacles—when sidewalks are even present.
So, District 2 is yet another part of Siagon that’s easiest for wheelchair users to explore by taxi.
The ride there alone is worth it. You’ll cross the river, seeing beautiful views of District 2 on the way there and stunning views over the rest of the city on your return.
8. Party It up at the Backpacker’s District
Backpacker’s District, which spans along Bui Vien Street, offers decent accessibility for wheelchair users. By day, the road is a through-way filled with scooters, cars, and some restaurants.
But at night, Bui Vien transforms into a pedestrian street, and the area comes to life with clubs, bars, and street vendors.
Since the restaurants take up most of the sidewalk space with seating, your best bet is to stay on the road for your explorations. It’s a flat area, making it easy for manual wheelchair users to get around.
Although most restaurants have a step or more to get inside, you’ll find several accessible sidewalk seating options.
I recommend arriving early, though. The tables fill as the night goes on, so it’ll be easier to settle into a spot and enjoy people-watching while you dine.
9. Cu Chi Tunnels
The Cu Chi Tunnels are a far cry from an accessible experience. But, if you’re a history buff and have your heart set on taking this day trip from Ho Chi Minh, you can do a modified visit as a wheelchair user.
The ticketing area to the Cu Chi Tunnels is accessible via a ramp. From there, a long, steep cement ramp leads to dirt paths through a forested area.
These dirt paths aren’t on an incline, but the surface is bumpy from rain carving mini streams into it.
You can watch an introduction video above the underground cinema, though it will be at a distance.
You’ll also be able to see several above-ground displays they have. And with assistance, you’ll be able to go into some of the bunkers that the Vietnamese pulled up from the ground.
10. See the Buddhist Temple
Chùa Vĩnh Tràng is a mouthful, so I’ll refer to it as the Buddhist temple moving forward. This temple is located by the Mekong River Delta, making it a popular stop for people touring the delta.
The entrance to the premises of the Buddhist temple is accessible, and the entire area is flat.
You’ll be able to admire many small gardens and Vietnamese architecture around the area, including a pagoda and a massive Buddha statue.
If you have assistance with the steps, you can enter the temple.
The area outside of the temple is a great place to buy coconut water straight from the coconut or try some of the other local snacks that vendors sell.
11. Tour the Mykon Delta
The Mykon Delta sits around two hours from downtown Ho Chi Minh City, depending on traffic. Taking a riverboat tour to several islands is a popular day trip from Saigon.
Unfortunately, the islands offer poor accessibility. While wheelchair users could visit them with a private tour and assistance, a more comfortable alternative is to take a river cruise without island hopping.
There are some ports in the Mekong River Delta with sturdy ramps that will take you right up to the boat. From there, the staff will assist with lifting you and your chair onto the wooden boat.
Most boats have enough floor space so that you can stay in your chair without having to transfer to a bench.
Ready to Explore Ho Chi Minh City?
I won’t beat around the bush—I was disheartened by the lack of wheelchair accessibility when I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City. Saigon has a long way to go before it becomes accessible for wheelchair users. As a silver lining, Ho Chi Minh City is safe.
Nevertheless, there are workarounds, thanks, in great part, to the Vietnamese’s helpful spirit.
Knowing that Saigon is supposed to be the most modern part of Vietnam, I cringed thinking about what would await wheelchair users elsewhere in the country.
To my surprise, my next stop in the city of Hoi An helped revive my faith. If you’re planning on visiting Hoi An, be sure to check out my article on accessibility there.
And, of course, don’t hesitate to leave any questions in the comments section or share advice from your Saigon experience.
P.S.—Are you contemplating where to base yourself in Vietnam? If so, check out my comparison of Hanoi vs Ho Chi Minh City.