A bicycle can be a useful (if sometimes scary) way to get around the city. Bikes can be hired from several outlets, including hotels, cafes and travel agencies.
Bicycle parking lots are usually just roped-off sections of pavement. For about 2000d you can leave your bicycle, bearing in mind that theft is a big problem. Your bicycle will have a number written on the seat in chalk or stapled to the handlebars and you’ll be given a reclaim chit. Don’t lose it. If you come back and your bicycle is gone, the parking lot is supposedly required to replace it.
Local buses are cheap and plentiful, serving more than 130 routes around greater HCMC. A useful, free Ho Chi Minh Bus Route Diagram (map to you and me) is available at the Ben Thanh bus station.
Useful lines from Ben Thanh include the 109 or 49 to Tan Son Nhat International Airport, 149 to Saigon train station, 1 to Binh Tay Market and Cholon Bus Station, 102 to Mien Tay bus station and 26 to Mien Dong bus station. All buses have air-con and the ticket price is usually 7000d. Buy your ticket on-board from the attendant.
Car & Motorbike
Travel agencies, hotels and tourist cafes all hire cars (with drivers) and motorbikes. Many expats swear that motorbike rental is the fastest and easiest way to get around the city – or to the hospital, if you don’t know what you’re doing. Note that your travel insurance may not offer cover, so check beforehand as things could get expensive and troublesome in the event of an accident. Even if you’re an experienced biker, make sure you’ve spent some time observing traffic patterns before venturing forth. A 100cc motorbike can be rented for US$10 to US$15 per day, including some sort of helmet, and your passport may be kept as collateral. Before renting a motorbike, make sure it’s in good working order.
Saigon Scooter Centre is a reliable source for restored classic Vespa scooters, new scooters and trail bikes. Daily rates start from US$10, with a minimum rental period of four days. For an extra fee it's possible to arrange a one-way service, with a pick-up of the bikes anywhere between HCMC and Hanoi.
A vanishing icon of HCMC, 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 50,000d; District 1 to central Cholon costs about 100,000d. You can rent a cyclo from around 80,000d 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 programme. 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.
For traffic-dodging speed and convenience, the xe om (sometimes called a Honda om; motorbike taxi) is, for many, the way to go. 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. If you're catching a xe om, agree definitively 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. so confirm the fare upfront. An increasingly popular option – and almost always cheaper than a normal xe om – is to book a motorbike taxi through the excellent Grab smartphone app. That way, the cost of your fare is confirmed before the journey starts.
Metered taxis cruise the streets, but it is worth calling ahead if you are off the beaten path. The flagfall is around 12,000d for the first kilometre; expect to pay around 25,000d (US$1) from Dong Khoi to Pham Ngu Lao. Some companies have dodgy taxi meters, rigged to jump quickly, but both Mai Linh Taxi and Vinasun Taxi can be trusted. Uber is popular in the city and the Grab smartphone app also provides similar booking and mapping capabillty for cars.
Motorbike or car?
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, however, overcharging by xe om (motorbike taxi) drivers in the tourist areas traditionally made any difference negligible. What's now different however is the adoption of the new Grab smartphone app which confirms the cost of your journey before you set off. Note also that a car booked through the Uber or Grab smartphone apps will be cheaper than two motorbikes when there is more than one person travelling, but weaving through the traffic on the back of a motorbike is often faster, especially in rush hour.
Going Underground: the HCMC Metro
Ho Chi Minh City sorely needs a metro system to help marshal the transport chaos above ground. First proposed in 2001, the system will run to an estimated five or six lines, with the 20km (part-underground, part-elevated) first line – linking Ben Thanh Market with Suoi Tien in the east – currently slated for a 2020 launch. Sandwiched between Ð Dong Khoi and Ð Nguyen Hue, the central station is taking shape near the Opera House. Up to 88% of the scheme is being funded by the Japanese government. You'll also notice significant construction work and road closures at the western end of ÐL Le Loi and Ben Thanh market.