Getting around Saigon

There are 4 ways of getting around Saigon but only two good options.

The Bus

Saigon does have a bus system.

Fares are cheap, with prices starting at 13 cents.

There’s a pretty good mobile app by the Department of Transportation that has an English version and GPS tracking of buses.

It covers quite a lot of the downtown area.

And yet…no one ever takes it. I only met two foreigners who have ever taken it. Even my Vietnamese friends and colleagues never take the bus.

In large part it is the problem that most bus services suffer from: other types of transportation are just more convenient. It isn’t much fun to wait in the Saigon heat for a bus.

Saigon adds two additional wrinkles: the buses are often extremely crowded and they can often be uncomfortably hot.

It can get hot & humid in Saigon. Even with air conditioning, no vehicle that is constantly opening the doors is going to stay well air conditioned. Then throw in buses with broken A/C systems or people who prefer to open the window (what is tolerable for them is probably not tolerable for you, at least not until you’ve had a few years to acclimate to Saigon weather).

I’ve also heard from my Vietnamese friends that many of the buses often stop running quite early (like 7pm), which can it tricky to use them to get home in the evening.

Buy your own car

This one is easy. Don’t do it. Seriously. This is not even an option.

First, cars are expensive here. A Honda Civic will run you $42,000 compared to the $22,000 the same car would cost in the US.

Secondly, parking is largely non-existent. So you will have the constant stress of needing to find parking. People will often resort to parking on the sidewalk. Or just stopping in the right-most lane of traffic and using that.

Finally, driving a car in the traffic of Saigon is not exactly a pleasant experience. Though this is changing as the middle class expands and starts buying cars, cars have been a luxury item so most people who have a car will also have a driver for the car.

There’s no good reason to have a car in Saigon. Especially because…

Uber, Grab, and Taxis

Taxis are cheap and convenient in Saigon. Uber and Grab make them even cheaper and more convenient.

Most Uber rides will cost you less than $5. If you’re just taking an Uber within the downtown area, it’ll probably only cost you $3.

And if you’re adventurous enough to take a motorbike taxi things are even cheaper with trips rarely costing more than $2.

A friend of mine owns a car. He basically never drives it anymore, since it is always more convenient to take Uber, even when he needs to pack his baby stroller.

Virtually no taxi or Uber driver will speak any English. With Uber or Grab that’s not a problem, since you put the destination into the app. With a taxi it might take a bit of back & forth before you finally just show them on Google Maps.

Your own scooter

This is the best option but I understand it takes a while to work yourself up to it. It took me about 3 months after I moved to Vietnam to finally buy a scooter. And it took me a few months of driving around to finally get comfortable with Saigon traffic.

You can buy a brand new top of the line scooter for $2,000. You can also buy an older one for substantially less: $500 or so. You can also rent them for around $50 a month.

Insurance is completely useless but that also means it isn’t very expensive: I pay about $5 a year. I’m not totally clear on what it is good for. I’ve heard that if you kill someone in an accident it covers some amount of liability. But I’m sure as a foreigner that won’t help you at all.

Gasoline isn’t especially cheap (it is around $3 a gallon) but scooters are much more fuel-efficient than cars. I spend about $5 a month on gasoline. Most shops have scooter parking and it will either be free or cost around 20 cents.

Yes, the traffic takes getting used to.

And I won’t pretend they are just as safe as a car. No matter how safely you drive, you’re still somewhat at the mercy of other crazy drivers. That said

  • Accidents in the city center are rarely deadly. When your max speed is 30 kilometers an hour, you’re just not going to be doing fast enough. That’s not to say that non-deadly accidents are fun.
  • This is purely subjective without any data to back it up but…it is hard not to feel like most of the accidents are probably caused by people who largely bring it on themselves. A few hours of watching Saigon traffic will show you people running red lights, cutting in front of buses and large trucks, passing with just a few inches of clearance, and in general driving in ways that seem crazy to most foreigners.

I have many friends who drive slowly, cautiously, and have never been in an accident. But I also know that it doesn’t always matter how you drive and not everyone is going to decide that taking a scooter is for them.

That said, it is the best way to get around. It is certainly the most cost-effective in the long run. But it also offers a flexibility that the others don’t have.

Especially as a foreigner, you might not always know the exact address of where you want to go. “That little noodle shop on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai somewhere after Nguyen Dinh Chieu.” That’s pretty hard to explain to a taxi or Uber driver.

It also means you can drive around and stop whenever you feel like. You can tell your partner, “I’m hungry, let’s just drive until we see something that looks good.”

It also means you can take advantage of serendipitous spottings. Not too long after I moved to Saigon, I wanted to buy some running shoes. I didn’t yet know good places to buy relatively specialised things like that. One day while driving around (I think I was going to lunch?) I spotted a sporting goods shop on the side of the road. I was able to suddenly pull over and go in for a look around. Trying to pull that off in a taxi when you don’t speak Vietnamese is tricky.

Sure, there are downsides to the bike: Everyone complains during rainy season. When you go grocery shopping, it takes you a while to figure out the “Vietnamese scooter carry” so you’re limited to how much you can buy. Scooter thieves are a big problem in Vietnam (though I’ve never had a problem with mine). They can get flat tires, which you’ll need to deal with suddenly.

But scooters are the way to go.

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