Getting Around Ho Chi Minh City

As Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, is a sprawling metropolis that is home to around 9 million people including visits from hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, there is a multitude of transportation options available, which is why getting around in Ho Chi Minh City does not have to be a problem for tourists who want to explore the city and its many attractions.

However, the struggle usually comes with figuring out how to make full use of each of the transportation options, which include taxi, bus, cyclo, motorbike, rental cars, etc. Walking is also a possible form of transportation but not for the weak as traffic in some areas of the city such as Saigon Square can be quite intense and crossing the busy intersections is akin to crossing the street in London or New York City only without any rules.

We are going to look at the most popular methods of getting around Ho Chi Minh City and assess their effectiveness.


Walking

Walking is certainly the cheapest way to get around, even if it does take somewhat longer to get to various places. If you have been to both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi then you will know that the sidewalks and walking conditions are much better in Ho Chi Minh City. The sidewalks are kept in decent condition, it is much more modern in its construction which means that there is more room to walk and people generally try and follow the traffic signs such as ‘Stop’ and the red lights.

Many of the main attractions in Ho Chi Minh City such as the Reunification Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral and various pagodas can be reached on foot. While they may take slightly longer as walking a few kilometres in the heat of Vietnam can be tiring, it is doable, and walking is a favoured method of many to get around the city.

Always take great care in crossing the road. While it is not something that you put much thought into at home as it is an everyday thing, it is a little different in Vietnam. While road rules are generally adhered to more often in Ho Chi Minh City than in the North, scooters still come out of nowhere will people driving down the wrong side of the road is more common than not. Just practice taking extra precautions, looking both ways several times and learning to anticipate traffic and you will be fine.


Bus

We have all heard horror stories of the bus in Vietnam – crowded beyond belief, pickpockets everywhere and the driver deciding not to stop in some places. The reality is somewhat different.

The public bus system is fairly reliable, most buses are clean, modern and safe. For sure, many bus routes, especially the main ones, can be extremely busy and almost suffocating inside however they are generally much better in Ho Chi Minh City than in Hanoi.

It is always a good idea to keep a hand on your valuables and ensure you can see your bag at all times however pickpocketing is not as common as you might think.

Bus routes serve most of the major attractions such as the Notre Dame Cathedral, Mariamman Hindu Temple and the Reunification Palace although some might have a sort walk involved from the bus stop to the sight of several blocks. It is also incredibly cheap to travel by bus in the city; a single journey will costs 5000 VND (25 cents) and most will take out kilometers of walking.

To get a bus route map then heads to the Ben Thanh bus station which is just across from the Ben Thanh Market (a few hundred meters walk to the east of Le Lai) and they are just at the middle desk in the main hall. Bus maps could also be scattered everywhere on the streets or sometimes even just in the waiting room of bus system stalls.

Those who simply want to see the city should check out the City Look Bus which will take you around the city with a tour guide that speaks English.


Xe Om (Motorbike Taxi)

While this is not often the favoured method for tourists to the city, it is one of the most common ways in which to get around. Every street corner is sure to have 2 or 3 guys asking you ‘motorbike’ as it is a very common method of travel in the country. Xe Om literally means Hug Bike and it is essentially a motorbike taxi. You sit on the back and they drive you to where you want to go.

A new law in the country has made all Xe Om drivers carry helmets and all riders on a motorbike whether driving or not need to have a helmet. Unlike many laws in Vietnam this one is strictly enforced and it will be you, as the tourist that gets hit with the fine. Might not seem fair but this is how it works in Vietnam. If the driver does not provide you with a helmet then simply walk away and find one that will – there is no shortage of Xe Om drivers in the city.

Negotiation is the key here. They know you are a tourist regardless of how much money you have so they are going to charge you a much higher rate than normal. A short trip in the city – Le Lai to the Reunification Palace, etc. should not be more than $1 (20 000 VND) and if you are going to a different district then it will be more, however negotiate from about 50-60% of what they original quote you. Most drivers in District 1 will have decent English and while the majority are just trying to make a living ensure that you keep your valuables close and watch out for other motorbike riders trying to grab your bag as this can be a common occurrence. In saying that, a Xe Om is an easy way to get about Ho Chi Minh City in an effective manner if you get the right price and a good driver.


Taxi

Most tourists find that taxis are the easiest way to get around Ho Chi Minh City and can actually be quite cost effective when you compare what you would pay for a taxi ride in other large cities to what you would pay here. Taxis are usually easily found within the city and it is pretty easy to flag one down as needed although finding one during the rainy season or during rush hour after the work day ends can be a little difficult.

Many are available however what is the best company to choose? By far this is Mai Linh. There are numerous cab operators such as Vinataxi, Petro Vietnam, Vinasun, etc. in the city and most are fine however Mai Linh which are distinguishable by their all green and green and white colors are by far the most reliable and often market themselves towards tourists especially in the District 1 area.

The meter usually starts at around 13 000 VND and it is the same per kilometer thereafter. So a 2km journey in a taxi should only be $1.50 or so. Always ensure that the driver puts the meter on and get out right away if they do not as they will try and charge you an extortionate amount.

Some taxi drivers will try to scam you given that the government does not regulate taxi rates. Also, keep an eye on the meter price as some have rigged meters which can go up $5 or $10 every hundred meters or so.

A lot of the drivers in District 1 will have a reasonable level of English and should be able to take you to the main sites although it is a good idea to write down the address. Also, going back to the traffic; the driving may seem strange and erratic especially with Xe Om and taxi drivers however they are used to it and it is best to let them get on with it as they know what they are doing. Accidents concerning tourists are actually very rare in Ho Chi Minh City.


Cylco

Cyclo is a less popular method of travel as it is designed to cover short distances and lets you sit back and see everything happening around you. It is essentially a bike with a seat on front for one or two people and the driver cycles around main areas of the city.

It costs around 35 000 VND ($1.75) per hour for the ride however some will quote you much higher prices and ask for more money when you finish. Simply negotiate the price based on this figure before you leave and just give him the money you decided on. They will try and get more out of you but in a busy street there is not much else they can do.

The government has been trying to restrict these bikes in urban areas as they are slow and take up room so it is becoming less popular however for tourists who want to see the small parts of the city at a slow pace it can be a good form of transport.

This is a cheap way to ride through the city and to tour Ho Chi Minh City at a relaxing pace, however be aware of the fact that many thieves will reach out and snag watches, purses, and cameras as you pass so it is important to pay attention and tuck these items safely into your body while riding.


Bicycle

Bicycle is an old fashioned way to get around but one which is both healthy and practical for Ho Chi Minh City. Like we have already said, the roads are somewhat less chaotic in Ho Chi Minh City than they are in the north so getting around on bicycle is not dangerous at all if you use common sense and stick to the main roads. Although pollution does remain a problem and you will inhale petrol fumes if you don’t have a mask (ask your hotel or your bicycle renting service about acquiring one - Pham Ngu Lao Street is the best place to do this). A bicycle in the city can be rented for as little as 40 000 VND ($2) for day and it will allow you to get to some nearby attractions that are only a few kilometres away a lot quicker than walking.


Motorbike Rental

If you are feeling brave enough and have a good amount of motorbike experience then you can rent one in the city and drive around yourself. Taking the traffic situation out of the equation for a minute this is probably the best way to get around; it is cheap to rent a motorbike, petrol is inexpensive and you can go at your own pace and effortlessly get to the major and out of the way attractions however the traffic causes a lot of problems.

Pham Ngu Lao Street, the major backpacking street in the city with bars and travel agents, is where you can rent a bike and all pretty much offer the same service so it is just a matter of picking one. It will cost you around $5-6 (100 000 to 110 000 VND per day) for an 110cc bike (automatic ones are a few dollars more expensive) and petrol is inexpensive at around $1 per litre.

Now, onto the traffic. There are rules and regulations surrounding traffic in Vietnam (everyone needs a helmet on a bike for instance is enforced) however it is really just a case of using your judgement; people going the wrong way, cutting people off, driving on the sidewalk are all parts of everyday life so if you have little experience of riding a motorbike at home then it is best that you do not drive in Ho Chi Minh City. There are many places to park bikes outside of tourist attractions and it will cost a few cents to the security guard to keep an eye on it. They will present you will a ticket with a number and usually write the number on the seat of the bike in chalk. ‘Giu Xe’ is the sign you need to look out for to park your bike in the city.

Obviously avoiding rush hour is a good idea so setting off mid-morning – early afternoon and then in the evening is the best advice. Also, if you are there in the rainy season from May to November then buying a cheap waterproof poncho (around 50 cents or 10 000 VND) that most motorbike rental places will stock is a good idea as the rain can come down unexpected and out of the blue.


There are many ways to get around Ho Chi Minh City as we have detailed here. Walking is obviously the cheapest and is much easier in Ho Chi Minh City than it is in Hanoi with wider sidewalks and less chaotic traffic. For more out of the way attractions on other districts the bus provides a good way in which to get there as it is inexpensive and usually not too crowded – it is also very regular. If you are confident and have good motorbike skills then you can easily hire and bike and drive around yourself however it is best left to those who have considerable experience given the nature of the roads.

Ho Chi Minh City is a fantastic way to get inducted into Vietnam before making the trip northwards and the multitude of transport options means that you will have no trouble getting around regardless of which option you choose.