For traffic-dodging speed and convenience, the xe om (sometimes called a Honda om; motorbike taxi) is the way to go for many. Xe om drivers usually hang out on their parked bikes on street corners, touting for passengers. You'll rarely have to walk more than 10 steps before being offered a ride. The accepted rate is around 30,000d for short rides (Pham Ngu Lao to Dong Khoi area for instance) or you can charter one for around US$5/20 per hour/day.
You’d expect to pay extra for the relative comfort and safety of an air-con taxi as opposed to a white-knuckle motorbike ride, and in theory that’s the case. However, overcharging by xe om (motorbike taxi) drivers in the tourist areas can make any difference negligible. Until you’re familiar with the distances and fares involved, catching a metered taxi can help avoid being ripped off. Plus, if there’s more than one of you, taxis will be cheaper. However, weaving through the traffic on the back of a motorbike is often faster, especially in rush hour.
There are still dodgy taxi operators with meters that spin around faster than normal, but the taxi situation in Ho Chi Minh City has definitely improved in recent years. If you catch taxis from the two most trustworthy companies – Vinasun Taxi and Mai Linh Taxi – then you should have no problems.
If catching a xe om, agree on a price in advance. A trip from Pham Ngu Lao to Dong Khoi shouldn’t cost more than 30,000d. One common trick is for drivers to offer to take you for 15,000d but then insist that they really said 50,000d.
A vanishing icon of Ho Chi Minh City, the cyclo remains a slow-moving feature along certain streets, particularly along Ð Pham Ngu Lao and around Ð Dong Khoi. Some Vietnamese may still enjoy them, but their use has long been overtaken by motorbike and taxi, and tourists remain the shrinking bedrock of this poorly paid trade. In HCMC, a few of the older riders are former South Vietnamese army soldiers and quite a few know at least basic English, while others are quite fluent. Some drivers weave stories of war, ‘re-education’, persecution and poverty into the pedal-powered experience (and will often gladly regale you with tales over a bowl of pho or a beer at the end of the day).
In an effort to control HCMC’s traffic problems, there are dozens of streets on which cyclos are prohibited. As a result, your driver must often take a circuitous route to avoid these trouble spots (and possible fines levied by the police) and may not be able to drop you at the exact address. Try to have some sympathy as it is not the driver’s fault.
Overcharging tourists is de rigueur, so hammer out a price beforehand and have the exact change ready (get familiar with the currency – cyclo drivers may exploit ignorance). If more than one person is travelling, make sure you negotiate the price for both and not a per-passenger fee. It sometimes pays to sketch out numbers and pictures with pen and paper so all parties agree. Unfortunately, ‘misunderstandings’ do happen. Unless the cyclo driver has pedalled you to all the districts of HCMC, US$25 is not the going rate. That said, don’t just assume the driver is trying to cheat you.
Short hops around the city centre will cost around 30,000d to 40,000d; District 1 to central Cholon costs about 60,000d. You can rent a cyclo from around 70,000d per hour – a fine idea if you will be doing a lot of touring. Most cyclo drivers around the Pham Ngu Lao area can cook up a sample tour program. If hopping aboard a tour, aim for morning or late afternoon to avoid the hottest part of the day.
Enjoy cyclos while you can as the municipal government plans to phase them out, and it won’t be too long before the cyclo disappears entirely from the city’s streets. In the cause of charity, the annual Saigon Cyclo Challenge pits teams of high-paced riders against each other in a fun spectacle.
Getting to the border The busy Moc Bai/Bavet border crossing is the fastest land route between Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh. Pham Ngu Lao traveller cafes sell through bus tickets (US$10 to US$15) to Phnom Penh; buses leave from Pham Ngu Lao between 6am and 3pm. Reliable bus companies include Mekong Express (www.catmekongexpress.com) and Sapaco (www.sapacotourist.vn). Allow six hours for the entire trip, including time spent on border formalities.
At the border Cambodian visas (US$30) are issued at the border (you’ll need a passport-sized photo). Moc Bai is two hours from HCMC by bus and is a major duty-free shopping zone. It’s a short walk from Moc Bai to Bavet (the Cambodian border) and its enclave of casinos.
Moving on Most travellers have a through bus ticket from HCMC to Phnom Penh, a further four-hour bus ride away.