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Getting around

Getting around

By taxi & rental car

Taxis are the most comfortable way of getting around, and very modest in price compared to other major cities in the world. Rates fluctuate over time depending on the cost of fuel, but in late 2010 with oil in the US$80s per barrel on world markets, honest Ho Chi Minh City taxis were charging in the range of 12,000 to 13,000 dong per kilometre. Taxis are numerous and it's usually not hard to flag one down anywhere in the city centre from early morning until about 1:00 am, though finding one in the rain or during workday rush hours can be difficult.

Taxi rates are not regulated by the city government, so each company sets its own fare structure which changes from time to time. You cannot choose a taxi at random and expect a standard fare; it is a caveat emptor market with a fringe of dishonest operators which prey on foreigners in particular. Fortunately, the market is fairly competitive and 80% of taxis are operated by reasonably honest companies with similar rates. The market of these companies is more than 90% local, so their policies are designed to win the trust of Ho Chi Minh City residents. For a list of taxi companies reported to be reliable, see "Taxi" in the "Getting to the city centre" section above.

Dishonest taxi drivers may start driving without starting their meters, then demand a high fare or try to negotiate for a fixed price at a location where it's difficult for you to hire another cab. Therefore, make sure your taxi driver agrees to use the meter, and turns it on before you get in. (As mentioned above, some taxi companies such as Mai Linh and Vinasun have meters in their taxis that start automatically once the vehicle starts moving.)

Drivers generally speak limited English and do not speak any other foreign languages, so it's wise to write the name and address of your destination, preferably in Vietnamese, to show the taxi driver. Your hotel staff can assist. It also helps to carry one of your hotel's business cards so you can return to the hotel without too much fuss. Carry small change and bills for paying fares, since drivers are often short of change. Taxi models in service are mostly Toyota Vios sedans (up to four passengers) and Toyota Innova minivans (up to six passengers), which are assembled in Vietnam and inexpensive to buy. Fares are almost always the same regardless of car model, though anything larger than an Innova generally costs more. Some older cars might lack working air-conditioners.

Taxi drivers are likely to drive too fast when given the chance. Ho Chi Minh City has a unique traffic pattern in which cars and buses drive in the centre lanes on two-way streets, or the left lanes on one-way streets, while the outside or right lanes are reserved for motorcycles. During weekday rush hours, the car lanes often barely move for blocks on end, while the motorcycle lanes move a bit faster. Taxi drivers vary in their tendency to squeeze into the motorcycle lane and jump ahead of other cars. In theory, they can be fined for doing so. Rush-hour traffic in the city has become so bad that you might consider just planning not to go anywhere between the hours of 7:00 and 8:30 am, and 4:30 to 6:00 pm.

For trips outside of the city or for the convenience of having a private vehicle for the day, hiring a car with a driver for the day is a good option, ( the English driver is required with more fee ). Vietnam Airport Tranfer provide this services.

Taxis are clustered around the bigger hotels and restaurants. They cost 10,000 VND to 15,000 VND at flag fall and 6,000 VND or so for every kilometer thereafter. Call Mai Linh Taxi (tel. 08/3925-0250), Vina Taxi (tel. 08/3815-5145), or Vinasun (tel. 08/3272-727). Stick with the larger companies listed here, as others (many with copycat names that sound similar) are famous for doctoring the meter and charging far more than the accepted price.

By speedboat

Saigon River Express Suite 2105, Me Linh Point Tower, No. 2 Ngo Duc Ke, District 1 (next to the Renaissance Riverside Hotel), ☎ +84 128 592 0018 offers VIP speedboat tours to the Cu Chi Tunnels, the Mekong Delta and jungle canal tours around Saigon. They use new speedboats and provide a 5 star service. A sunset tour around Saigon involves exploring narrow jungle canals with a village made of bamboo and thatch as well as visiting a floating temple.

Vung Tau by Hydrofoil is a good way to see the commercial maritime areas as the boat runs through the Saigon River to the sea. US$10 adult, US$5 child (age 6-11, under 1.4 m tall), 75 min. Depart from Số 5 Nguyễn Tất Thành, District 4 (just north of Elisa restaurant ship) and arrive in Cầu Đá Port, Ben Cau Da, Ha Long Street, Vung Tau.

There are 3 lines (Petro Express, Greenlines, Vina Express) running this route with the same ticket prices.

By Car

You can simplify your sightseeing efforts if you hire a car and driver for the day. Contact Ann Tours, Saigontourist, or any hotel concierge. Expect to pay about $30 for a day's rental with driver.

By Motorcycle Taxi

Motorbike taxis (xe ôm, literally hug-vehicle) are plentiful (get used to hearing "you want moto!?" everywhere), cheap, and are generally quite safe. As of 2007 all riders in Vietnam are now required to wear helmets, a rule that is strongly enforced. Make sure a driver supplies you with a helmet. If he doesn't - find another one, as you'll be the one stung for the fine.

Absolutely agree on a price before you set off, do NOT get on without an agreed price. A rough rule of thumb is 10,000VND per kilometer of travel plus some flat overcharge (around 10k dong) for being a foreigner (this isn't exact, but be sure you're not paying significantly more than this rough measurement). It is hard to bargain anyone down below 20,000VND even for a short 1km hop. Short hops around town shouldn't be more than 40,000 dong, if you go farther (like across multiple districts) this increases and all the way to the airport around 80,000 dong. Another way to calculate the rough price is to round up of half the cost of taxi ride for the same travel, but obviously this is only useful to those who have taken taxis. While drivers will not hesitate to overcharge you, they are generally quite friendly and will go slower upon request. They're also not adverse to a bear hug if you're really struggling to hold on to the motorbike. Many of the moto drivers, especially in District 1, speak some English and like many Vietnamese will repay you in a flood of smiles (and probably point out all the sights) if you make a little effort to get to know them.

Self-ride: This is absolutely the most convenient way to explore the city on your own terms. You can rent your own motorbike in many places, especially around the backpacker area (Pham Ngu Lao) in District 1. 120,000-150,000 dong/day should get you a decent 100-110cc bike. Driving in Saigon is best left to experienced drivers. The traffic is intense and has its own rhythms and logic. However, if you're up for an adventure, it's best to keep a few things in mind: drivers with limited experience should consider renting an automatic bike, as at busy crossroads there is not time for worrying about how to change gears. Beware of thieves: always keep your motorbike in sight or parked with an attendant. Most restaurants have guards/parking attendants out front who will issue you a numbered tag and take care of your motorbike. Independent parking lots are scattered around the sidewalks, alleys, and basements of the city. Look for rows of neatly-parked motorbikes or signs that say giu xe.

If you are here during the rain season, make sure to buy ponchos or raincoats before you start. They are available for as low as 10,000 dong for one. It daily rains for around 1-2 hours between 4-8 PM during July and August in Saigon. However, the traffic doesn't stop, it just becomes more chaotic. If you are hesitant or have not driven in such conditions before, it might be prudent to take shelter and wait

You will not be required to present a driving license. But legally a driving license is required above 50cc, it has to be a Vietnamese driving license (since January 2015, an international driving permit along with your national driving license is legally accepted but the police will not always accept it. If you are stopped by the police, be polite and smiling and you can get away for 200 or 300,000 VND. You will almost always need to leave your passport with the guy renting you the motorbike. Even though this is usually safe, one should try to argue with some other ID card, or advance payment (usually upward of 5 million dong). If you feel leaving your passport with a stranger is too risky, consider carrying an old expired passport along specifically for this purpose. They usually don't bother to verify the validity of the passport. If you don't have a driving license, be aware that your travel insurance might not cover you in case of road accident while you drive a motorcycle.

Riding in the big cities, especially Ho Chi Minh City, is a very different matter from riding in western cities, and not advisable for beginners. Traffic is intense and chaotic, with a long list of unwritten rules that don't resemble traffic laws anywhere else. "Right of way" is a nearly unknown concept. Riding in HCMC is like finding yourself in the middle of a 3-D video game where anything can come at you from any direction, and you only have one life. Expats who brave the traffic at all typically have an apprenticeship of a few weeks or months riding on the back of others' motorbikes to learn the ways of the traffic, before attempting to ride themselves. Extreme caution is advised for short-term visitors. Having said that, as speeds are quite low, just drive slowly and carefully and the risk of an accident is very low.

Riding long distance in the countryside can also be harrowing depending on the route you take. Major roads between cities tend to be narrow despite being major, and full of tour buses hell-bent on speed, passing slow trucks where maybe they shouldn't have tried, and leaving not much room at the edge for motorbikes.

Two main categories of motorbike are available to rent: scooters (automatic transmission); and four-speed motorbikes, the gears of which you shift with your left foot. The ubiquitous Honda Super Cub is a common 4-speed bike that has a semi-automatic gearbox i.e. no clutch so is relatively easy to ride. Other models may be fully manual and therefore you must also operate the clutch using your left hand - this takes a lot of skill and it's all too easy to over-rev and pull a wheelie or stall the engine - if you end up with such a bike then practice releasing the clutch gently before hitting the roads! Dirt bikes are becoming popular for rent in Hanoi, other cities are not yet ready for these beasts. Rental agents tend to steer foreigners toward scooters if available, on the (plausible) assumption that they don't know how to ride motorbikes that require shifting gears. Motorcycles of 175cc and above are only legal to ride if you make a connection with a Vietnamese motorcycle club.

Most places you would want to stop at have parking attendants who will issue you a numbered tag and watch over your bike. Sometimes these parking operations are overseen by the establishment you are visiting, and sometimes they are free-lance operations set up in places where a lot of people go. You will usually see rows of bikes lined up parked. Depending on circumstance, you might park the bike yourself, or just put it in neutral and let the staff position it. In all but rare cases you keep the key. Parking is sometimes free at restaurants and cafes (look for "giu xe mien phi"). Elsewhere, fees range from 2,000 to 20,000 dong at upscale nightclubs.

Traffic police in the cities pull over lots of locals (often for reasons that are hard to discern), but conventional wisdom has it that they rarely bother foreigners due to the language barrier. Obeying the traffic laws is nevertheless advisable, especially if you have failed to obtain a Vietnamese licence. Cities like Ho Chi Minh have several one way streets, and it is too easy to just steer into them unknowingly as there are limited signs warning you. BE SURE that if you break law, the police who are sneaking just at the right spot, will ask you to pull over and will fine you. They will also threaten to confiscate your bike. The quoted price for fines is negotiable, and being apologetic and friendly can get you back on road quickly, with a few dollars less in your pockets. It is less likely that they will bully or harasses you.

Helmets have also been required by law since December 2007, so if you don't have one already ask your rental agent to provide you with one.

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Saigon's crazy motorbike traffic is maddening in a car, which feels something like an elephant in a forest of buzzing mosquitoes, so a motorbike is a great way to weave through the chaos -- a quick trip is 10,000 VND for the savvy haggler (usually closer to 15,000 VND), while hourly booking can be in the ballpark of $1 per hour (don't bother with the English-speaking drivers in the Dong Khoi area who tell you that they'll be your guide for 50,000 VND per hour). A bit hair-raising sometimes, but it is a good way to get around. Ask for a helmet; most city drivers carry one in a plastic bag on the side of their bike for safety-conscious clients. Keep your knees in, and many drivers will appreciate if, when merging in traffic, you help out looking back and signaling your turn with a wave to oncoming traffic. You'll come back caked in city grime, with some good stories for friends back home.

By Cyclo

A ride on a cyclo, which is sort of akin to a reverse tricycle with the passenger sitting in a front seat, through downtown HCMC is a great way to see the city the way the locals do. The sights, sounds, and smells are a large part of the excitement of the city, and are best experienced from the relaxed pace of a cyclo. A word of warning: be careful with cameras, purses and watches while cyclo riding as these items are easily stolen by motorbike riders.

For many reasons, not least because of government attempts to restrict cyclos on busy urban streets, this form of transportation is disappearing. At around 36,000 dong/hr and because they are so slow, they can be a good choice for taking in the city. Be sure to bargain hard with the cyclo rider beforehand. Some cyclo riders have been known to attempt to change the agreed price after your journey has finished, whilst another trick may include the driver visiting places which benefit his wallet. To avoid these problems, make sure you are clear on the price and destination upon departing.

Cyclos are available for an hourly rental of about 20,000 VND, but they're simply not a good option in Saigon, especially outside District 1. First, drivers have an odd habit of not speaking English (or, indeed, any other language) halfway through your trip and taking you to places you never asked to see, or simply driving around in circles pretending to be confused. Second, riding in a slow, open conveyance amid thousands of motorbikes and cars is unpleasant and dangerous, and cyclo passengers are low to the ground and in the front, something like a bumper. A short jaunt around the Dong Khoi area or for hops between some of the city sights is memorable, but all-day cyclo tours are not recommended.

By Bicycle & Motorbike

Saigon traffic is chaos, so you might want to think twice before renting a motorbike or bicycle to get around the city on your own. Any hotel front desk can arrange rental at an inflated fee, or try the many little storefronts on Pham Ngu Lao, just west of the intersection with De Tham, where a full-day bike rental starts at $1 and a motorbike is from $5. Wear a helmet and drive slowly, staying in the middle of the herd.

By bus

Bright green public buses serve 150 routes throughout the city. You can find maps of the bus system at the large Ben Thanh bus station across the street from Ben Thanh Market in District 1 - just go into the waiting room to the desk in the middle. The buses are cheap, safe and not too crowded. Many are modern and comfortable, with such amenities as air conditioning, music, and even television. Finding the right line can be a challenge if you don't speak or read Vietnamese. However, it is now possible to use google maps to help plan your journey. Clicking on a bus stop will give you a list of the busses that stop there. Compare this list to the list of busses at your destination bus stop to find the subset of busses you can take. If you cannot find your way, ask the locals nicely, they will try their best to help. A piece of paper and marker pen may help to ease the conversation.

The buses are efficient and fast. Most are staffed by two employees: the driver and the fare collector. The driver keeps the bus moving while the fare collector interacts with the passengers. Locals claim, plausibly, that buses are even faster than taxis. The reason is that buses have an informal right of way on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City; when another vehicle sees a bus coming, that vehicle gets out of the way. Taxis know that they are supposed to back down from confrontations with buses. Buses are also cheaper (4,000-8,000 dong per ride, which is considerably less that $1) and safer than many of the alternatives. The biggest problem is that when you get off the bus, you become a pedestrian (see below).

For those who aren't staying in Ho Chi Minh City very long, or want to save some time the Vietnam transfer service [3] will take you to the famous places in Ho Chi Minh City. Price is from 15,000-75,000 dong, including the tour guide and the information in English.

On foot

Traffic is made up of a staggering number of motorbikes and, since import duty was reduced upon Vietnam's joining of the WTO, an increasing number of private cars. However its exceptionally rare to see a motorbike of more than 150cc, and the traffic rarely gets above 20-30 km/h in central areas.

However crossing the road in Saigon can be a nightmare. It is always scary, for some they will get used to it quite quickly. If ever in doubt, Saigon's "Tourist Security" officers (guys in marked green uniforms) will happily help you across. A quicker way of getting across is to simply follow the lead of a local crossing the street.

However the true trick to crossing the road is to stay aware, and walk slowly and confidently. The motorbike riders are actually exceptionally good and will simply move to avoid you - just don't make any sudden lurches forwards, backwards, or stop for that matter. Just look for a gap or seam in the traffic, and begin a slow but steady movement. If you hear a beep coming your way it's likely a motorbike rider is about to enter your personal space. Be a alert and prepared to stop putting your foot forward until he passes.

Adherence to traffic signals in Saigon is worse, and while they're not always followed, riders/drivers tend to use "best judgment". Just remember though that vehicles can always turn right at any time (regardless of lights). Motorbikes often drive in the wrong direction to make a short cut from point A to point B even if they are against the traffic. Crossing roads therefore maybe a challenge for westerners used to traffic laws and traffic lights.

A typical scenario played here, and in other big cities in Vietnam is motorcycles dash from everywhere. The thumb rule of crossing in the US of look to the left and at the median, look to the right does not follow. Look everywhere as you cross, in all directions - to your left, to the back at your left, to your right, to your right in front, even if you have the right of way, like 5 or 6 kamikaze ninjas against one, they will insist and even if you stare at them in the eye and raise your hand horizontally signalling them to stop. Even in sidewalks, they invade and will just appear next to you before you know. Sidewalks are not the domain of pedestrians, they are used for car and motorcycles for passing if not for parking, then whatever space left is for the pedestrian. That's the hierarchy.

The streets, sidewalks, and outdoor markets are covered by motorbikes, and not yet geared towards pedestrian traffic (although sidewalk clearing campaigns are now underway - a few areas of the centre are easy to negotiate as long as you keep your wits about you for speeding motorbikes). However walking along the edge of the road is easy enough. Not all motorbikes behind you will generally beep at you to let you know they're there.

The traffic police occupy themselves with random roadside checks and do not bother the motorcyclists that are running red lights or driving on the sidewalks. The police recently announced a crackdown on pedestrians. This does NOT mean that they will hassle you; the most likely meaning of the crackdown is that you will be held responsible if you are involved in an accident.

But there are some open sidewalks to walk safely on and just walking around the city helps you really get a taste of it. Seeing people prepare, cook food and wash dishes, and even shave, manicure and pedicure, not to mention sleep and pee on the side of the street and just standing watching traffic go by in awe is just as entertaining as anything.

Saigon's Districts

Metropolitan Ho Chi Minh City is divided into 19 administrative districts, numbered 1 through 12 and including Tan Binh, Bin Thanh, Phu Nhuan, Thu Duc, Go Vap, Binh Tan, and Tan Phu. Be sure to know the name or number of the district you need when looking for an address, and try to group your travels accordingly (you don't want to try to crisscross too many districts in 1 day). Most of the hotels, bars, shops, and restaurants are in District 1, parts of which are easily covered on foot -- though you'll want to hop a motorbike taxi or cab to cross the length of a district. District 1 is home to the central Ben Thanh Market and includes the city's most busy commercial area, Dong Khoi, as well as the backpacker district of Pham Ngu Lao. District 1 is flanked to the east and south by the Saigon River, which is where Dong Khoi Street terminates and marks the boundary of the most developed part of the city. Saigon's sightseeing attractions are spread among districts 1, 3, and 5 (Cholon). District 3 is just north and west of the central Dong Khoi area and is home to many foreign business offices and embassies. District 5 is a fair ride west of the town center and supports the city's large ethnic Chinese population, a number of older temples, and a market area.

See more Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) travel guide at here.