Ho Chi Minh City is a sprawling metropolis, with twenty four districts spread over 2000 square kilometers and a population of almost 9 million. It's a big place, full of vibrant culture and lots of great food. Anyone who wants to explore needs transportation. Here's how we get around, and our recommendations for others. WALK: Erin and I spend a lot of time walking in Ho Chi Minh City. Most major sights are reachable on foot if you have patience and a stout set of legs. To give an example, Erin and I regularly hoof it from the area around Tan San Nhat International Airport (way in the Northern part of the city) to district 1. This distance is about 6.5km, and it takes us an hour to an hour and a half, depending on route.
Upside: It's cheap. All you need is time.
Downside: It can be bloody dangerous. Ho Chi Minh City doesn't really do sidewalks, especially away from touristy areas. And most of the sidewalks they DO have are parking lots for armies of motorbikes and street food stands. As such, a pedestrian will find themselves forced to walk in traffic more often than not. It's either that, or climb over parked vehicles, food stalls, and roadside coffee stands. And since the streets in Ho Chi Minh City are insane...
...a walker runs the very real risk of ending up in an accident. Or squished flat when they try to cross the street.
Additionally, a pedestrian will be treated like a crazy person by anyone who sees them. Local Vietnamese do not walk. They take a motorbike when they need to go somewhere. Cab drivers seem honestly baffled when I chose to use my feet, rather than a ride in the safety of a big metal box. Sometimes, I don't blame them.
But this leads to my next transportation option...
TAXIS: Cabs are cheap in Ho Chi Minh City, which makes them a great option for seeing the sights. Additionally, you can find them everywhere, so it's no trouble to flag one down. Erin and I regularly use cabs when we need to get somewhere that's too far to walk, or when we're feeling lazy. That same 6.5 km trip I mentioned during our walking section, from the airport to downtown, costs about 120,000 VND-150,000 VND, depending on route and traffic (roughly $5.00 to $6.50).
Upside: Cabs are a ubiquitous, cheap, and convenient transportation option. And they're the safest way to see the city (with some caveats that I will discuss in the following section).
Downside: Hoo boy... there are a couple big ones.
1st: Because Ho Chi Minh City traffic is so crazy, and because the streets are so narrow, a big, bulky cab is not always the fastest way to get around. Taking a taxi at rush hour is a great way to spend quality time with your driver, as the two of you sit in impossible congestion waiting for the flow to shift forward a few inches.
2nd: Ho Chi Minh City is lousy with taxi scams targeting tourists. The most frequent are: the driver has a "rigged" meter that doubles, triples, or quadruples the cost of the normal fare; the driver refuses to give change on big bills or claims he doesn't have change; the driver pulls over several blocks short of the destination and demands a "tip" that is several times what the fare is worth (complete with threats of violence if said "tip" is not immediately provided); the driver will simply take you all over the city on the assumption you don't know local roads, to run up the meter.
The easiest way to avoid 99% of these scams is to limit yourself to two specific cab companies. First, Mai Linh...
And second, Vinasun...
Both companies have very good reputations, and Erin and I have never gotten scammed when riding in them. But there is one catch. Check your prospective cab carefully! Some scammers try to play off the reputation of these two companies by putting out decoy cabs. These will look similar, but not quite the same, or they will have different phone numbers. All I'm saying is, stay alert when picking your taxi.
Additionally, you may be worried that limiting yourself to just two companies will mean you have a harder time catching a cab. But I can assure you from several months experience now that this is definitely not the case. It's no problem to catch one.
But if you're looking for cheaper transportation options...
MOTO: Moto is the name the locals use for motorbike taxi. And they are EVERYWHERE. Every single neighborhood in Ho Chi Minh City will have a couple of men draped across their motorbikes, waiting at the entrance to the narrow, local streets. Whenever you walk past, they're happy to ask if you need a moto anywhere.
Upside: They're faster and cheaper than taxis. A moto should cost roughly half what a taxi would cost. Additionally, motos don't get stuck in traffic the way cabs do, since the daredevil drivers are more than happy to cut across sidewalks, parking lots, and busy pedestrian markets to get you to your destination.
Downside: the daredevil drivers are more than happy to cut across sidewalks, parking lots, and busy pedestrian markets. Riding a moto is a great way to experience Vietnamese traffic like a local. They're a truly breathless way to get around the city, and fun as well. But they're considerably more dangerous than a cab. The risk of accident is much, much higher (the safety and security warnings for the US state department actively discourage visitors from taking motos).
Additionally, most moto drivers do not speak English, which can make it complicated to negotiate fares. Motos don't have meters, so you have to set the price before you get on. Which can be difficult when you and your potential driver don't share a language. And lastly, many moto drivers will try to scam tourists by charging exorbitant prices. Try to know how much the fare should be before you get down to the nitty gritty of negotiation.
As a final note, if you decide to ignore the warnings and make motos your transportation of choice, it is strongly recommended you buy your own helmet. The drivers will have loaners for you, but they're often astoundingly dirty. And Vietnamese traffic laws require all moto passengers to wear a helmet at all times.
BUS: Ho Chi Minh City does have an extensive bus network, with 152 routes spiderwebbing the city. We often see the big green and white vehicles roaring up our street, honking to get the motos out of their way.
Upside: they're the cheapest option aside from walking, at 3000 VND to 10000 VND per fare ($0.13 to $0.45). That's... pretty much it.
Downside: Sadly, there are many. The bus system is inconsistent and difficult to navigate. I haven't found many decent guides for routes. Many stops are surprisingly far from tourist destinations. Buses run infrequently, so you'll find yourself waiting a long time if you want to catch one. And if you do catch one, you have to check the number carefully to make sure you're boarding the right bus, because the driver will not speak English. Honestly, unless you are literally traveling across the city, it's probably faster to walk. And if you are traveling across town, cabs or motos will be more expensive, but save so much hassle.
Anyway, that's our roundup of transportation options in Ho Chi Minh City!