The gateway to Southern Vietnam, Tan Son Nhat International Airport, located just 7km from Ho Chi Minh City began as a small unpaved airfield constructed by the French Colonial Government back in the 1930s. In the 1950s United States foreign aid enabled a 7200 foot runway to be built and the facility became South Vietnam’s International Airport and one of the world’s busiest airbases. The airport has seen continual growth throughout the decades and today is a vast terminal encompassing 100,000 square metres with a capacity of 8 to 10 million international passengers per year.
There are two separate buildings; the Arrivals Terminal does not have much to offer except a tourist information desk, post office and foreign currency exchange. It is really just a place to grab your bags and head in to the city. The Departures Terminal was completed in 2006 at a cost of $260 million and is a modern structure with air-conditioning, restaurant, duty-free shopping and a medical centre among other services.
You will find the airport staff to be friendly and warm however English language skills may be wanting.
Some flights arriving at Tan Son Nhat are parked away from the jetways and in this case busses will taxi passengers to the terminal building however most passengers disembark through the jetways and then it is just a short walk to the Immigration area. This is where you will be able to pick up your visa in arrival(VOA) if you haven’t been to a Vietnam Embassy overseas. There is a VOA desk located before the Immigration counters and the procedure is that you hand in your passport along with the letter you received from the online visa application you made prior to your flight. It may be a bit chaotic however be patient and soon your name will be called to receive your passport with the visa firmly stamped in.
There are Immigration desks for ASEAN and non-ASEAN residents. Once you have cleared Immigration walk through to the Baggage Hall where toilet facilities and duty-free shops await. After you get your baggage head straight for the Customs clearance area. Through this you will see a Tourist Information Centre on your right and a foreign currency exchange on the left just outside the doors. If you continue outside the building you will find taxis, motorcycles and busses connecting to the city.
The four-storey departures building processes domestic travellers on the ground floor and international passengers on the second floor. When entering the airport your baggage will be checked on the ground floor then head up to the international check in hall on the second floor. Once you have checked in head through the security checkpoint. Trolleys are not allowed past this point however just inside you will find smaller ones to carry your hand luggage. Passport control is the next checkpoint before you enter the Departures lounge. You will find a few duty-free shops and a restaurant here to kill time before your flight. When your flight is called you will need to complete baggage screening at the gate before boarding via the jetway.
There are a few transportation options to reach Ho Chi Minh City from Tan Son Nhat International Airport. The air-conditioned airport bus, service number 152, is the cheapest option. This bus passes most of the major hotels along De Tham Street and Dong Khoi Street and will stop to let you off if you tell the driver where you are staying.
Foreigners are not permitted to drive in Vietnam hence there are no car hire places however you may like to hire a car and driver for a negotiated period and price.
Minibuses and cyclos are available but you will have to negotiate the prices. Your best alternative is to catch a metered taxi however always go for a taxi that is in the cue rather than taking a private taxi where you may have payment problems. Always have some small change for the taxis as many of them do not like to change large notes.
Eating & Drinking
There is only one restaurant in the airport which is located on the third floor of the Departures Terminal. There is table seating and some booths offer more comfortable seating however the meals here are very basic. You can have a beer or a cup of coffee but if you are in need of something more substantial you had best eat in the city before you reach the airport. The restaurant bills in US dollars or Vietnamese dong.
Apart from the customary TV screens blaring out around the departures lounge there is little in the way of entertainment at Tan Son Nhat International Airport. There is free wireless internet access in the Departures area. Should you need some medical attention there is a medical centre in the departures lounge and international telephones as well.
Shopping and duty free
The shopping at Tan Son Nhat is by no means extensive but will satisfy you if you are merely browsing or looking for standard duty-free items. On the second floor of the Departures Terminal you will find a small souvenir shop which presents an interesting array of items for last minute mementoes of your trip to Vietnam. The duty-free area has the typical selection of chocolates, perfumes, bags and alcohol.