Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is the Southern capital of Vietnam, where motorbikes outnumber the population of about 8 million; The explosive sounds of motorbikes and the chaos of traffic can be overwhelming at first, but the energy of HCMC (and the food, OH — the food) is what makes it one of my favorite destinations.
I first arrived to HCMC in 2015 after a trip to Phuket, Thailand, where motorbikes are a typical means of getting around, but as my taxi left Tan Son Nhat International Airport, I found myself completely unprepared for the sensory overload of the thousands of motorbikes and the noise that comes with them. As we left the airport gates, we were met by a whirlpool of bikes at a traffic circle that looked impossible to enter. I can only compare it to what it must feel like to enter a hive full of angry bees, but my driver seemed totally un-phased and edged the car slowly towards the seething mass, honking like he had Tourette’s (as I clutched frantically at my bag in the back seat wondering how this was ever going to work).
It takes a day or two to adjust to, but if you stop and take a look, you’ll notice it’s a system of organized chaos; Rarely is anyone moving more than 25km/ph, and the tinging of bike bells is meant to signal to neighbors, ‘hey, I’m here (please don’t hit me)’. As my friend Huỳnh says, ‘[everyone takes] a driving test, but when you get on the road you follow the flow, not the rules’. Here is my guide to navigating Ho Chi Minh City.
Taxis and Uber: Getting around HCMC on foot is not easy. You can do it but it’s much simpler to take a taxi. There are only two reliable taxi companies — Mai Linh and Vinasun. The others have accelerated meters and you’ll end up paying much more than you should. I stayed in district 3, which is close to the airport and costs around $6USD per ride.
Uber has entered Ho Chi Minh City since my last visit, and you can even order a motorbike ride! Since I’m traveling solo here, this is my preferred method. All the drivers carry a passenger helmet, and some will even have a spare poncho in case it rains. A motorbike ride into district 1 (downtown) from district 3 typically costs $0.50-$1.00 USD, and a car ride will be around double.
Cell Service: If you have an unlocked phone, you can buy a local SIM card, commonly sold in grocery stores, mini marts, and the airport. I’ll be in Vietnam for a month so I purchased a Viettel 3gb card for 129,000VND ($5.60 USD) at at the airport, and the service rep activated it for me to confirm it was working. This took all of about 5 minutes, and you can top off by buying a scratch card with a reload code.
If you don’t have an unlocked phone, you can download sections of Google Maps for offline use and get your wifi fix at most coffee shops and restaurants.
Local Currency: The Vietnamese currency is the Dong, and it’s all paper notes from 500 to 500,000 denominations. You can exchange cash for VND at the airport, or take currency out of an ATM. I’ll be sharing a post in the future about managing money overseas, but I recommend Charles Schwab’s High Yield Investor Checking Account, which refunds international transaction fees.
Crossing the street: Now that you’ve arrived in town and are ready to explore, let’s talk about the complicated art of crossing the street. This can feel like taking your life into your own hands the first few times, but if you do some people-watching and do as the locals do, you’ll feel confident in no time.
Basically, you’ve gotta channel your inner superhero and step out into that street like you’re made of military grade steel. From there, look for an opening to start walking out into, and if you don’t find one then… make one! I like the ‘I’m-sticking-my-arm-out-and-walking-and-this-is-happening’ method.
Now that you have the basics down, you’ll be ready to explore all that HCMC has to offer! And–be on the lookout for an upcoming post about street food!