Getting Around Ho Chi Minh City: Guide to Public Transportation

Street view and traffic in Ho Chi Minh City
Flickr Vision / Getty Images

Getting around Ho Chi Minh City is relatively easy, but you’ll need some patience for dealing with the relentless traffic. The metro system in Ho Chi Minh City is still under construction with the first of many lines set to open at the end of 2021. Until then, travelers rely on a combination of taxis, rideshares, and buses to get around.

If, like many visitors, you opt to stay in District 1 (home of Pham Ngu Lao and Ben Tanh Market), you’ll find that walking is often sufficient to cover the busy district’s three square miles. For getting to and from the airport or moving between Ho Chi Minh City’s 24 districts (e.g., going to see the famous Binh Tay Market in District 6), you’ll need to use public transportation.

How to Take Taxis in Ho Chi Minh City

Most short-term visitors use taxis to getting around the city. When all goes well, fares are surprisingly inexpensive—but there are some challenges. Ho Chi Minh City has struggled with taxi scams and a local transportation “mafia” for years. Rigged meters are common, and airport drivers have even been known to extort newly arrived passengers for more money by stopping the car in the middle of nowhere!

The easiest way to avoid potential taxi scams is by using only the most reputable companies: VinaSun and Mai Linh. These two companies have a reputation for honest drivers and therefore get mimicked by rogue taxis. Pay close attention to the official logos and car designs before getting inside a car. Authentic VinaSun taxis will have “38 27 27 27” (the phone number) painted clearly on the side.

If you’re forced to go with an unfamiliar taxi company, keep your luggage in the backseat with you so it isn’t held hostage in the trunk for an additional “tip.” Legal taxis should have a working meter, but you’ll want to follow along with your smartphone to see that you aren’t going in circles. A taxi from the airport to Pham Ngu Lao will cost between US$10 to $12.

Tipping drivers isn't expected; however, you can round a fare up to the nearest whole amount as both a courtesy and convenience.

How to Use Rideshare Services

After taking over operations from Uber, Singapore-based Grab is the heavyweight of rideshare services throughout much of Southeast Asia, Ho Chi Minh City included. You’ll need to install the app on your phone and can choose to pay via credit card or cash directly to the driver. A few drivers may sometimes ask for additional money beyond what was agreed upon in the app. Regardless, rates are fair, and there is more accountability than when taking random taxis.

Don’t feel bad about using rideshare services in Ho Chi Minh City. Many taxi drivers and local passengers have switched to using Grab. Be mindful, however, that the taxi mafia is sometimes hostile toward rideshare drivers. Be discreet when taking a Grab from busy places such as the airport. Grab is certainly one of the safest options for getting home after a night on the town.

Riding the Bus in Ho Chi Minh City

Public buses are an inexpensive way to get around in Ho Chi Minh City, but the route signs can be a little intimidating at first glance. Yes, buses are slow and make many stops, but paying more for a taxi doesn’t save any time when traffic is gridlocked.

The green public bus #152 is a reliable way to get from SGN airport to Ben Thanh Market (and close to everything) in District 1. Fares are typically 50 cents or less (around 5000 dong local currency); you’ll need to buy an additional ticket if you have more luggage than will fit in your lap.

Several useful public buses call into different stops around Ben Thanh Market. Ask someone at your hotel reception which bus is best to take. For Chinatown, look for city bus #1 (the sign should read “Cholon”). Bus numbers are clearly marked.

Taking the Airport Shuttle Bus

Taking one of the yellow airport shuttle buses is a comfortable, cost-effective way of getting from SGN airport to the city center or District 1. Fares are typically $2 or less; the journey should take around 45 minutes, but that largely depends on the traffic situation. Managing luggage on airport shuttle buses is a little easier than on public buses.

Buses #109 and #49 will get you into the center of the action. Once at the last stop, you’ll need to navigate the rest of the way to your hotel on foot or take a short taxi.

Riding Motorcycle Taxis (Xe Ôm)

Along with phở and nón lá conical hats, motorbikes are very much a part of Vietnamese culture. Feeling the rumble of horsepower while knocking knees with adjacent drivers in crammed roundabouts is arguably part of enjoying a true Ho Chi Minh City experience.

Xe ôm (pronounced a bit like “say ahm”) motorcycle taxis are a fast way to cover short distances. Drivers can expertly weave through traffic that holds up taxis and buses. You’ll need to negotiate the fare, but prices are inexpensive. The driver should provide you with a helmet. Be careful with your belongings, and keep your knees tucked in tightly.

Unlike in Bangkok, motorcycle taxi drivers in Ho Chi Minh City don’t wear orange vests. Instead, you’ll probably find them lounging in busy areas, some with signs that say “xe ôm.” Drivers will call out to you outside of markets and popular tourist stops. Choose a nice driver, agree on a price, then hold on!

Hiring a Cyclo in Ho Chi Minh City

Although antiquated, a fleet of iconic cyclos (three-wheeled bicycle taxis) still creak and rattle along the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. You can hire cyclos by the hour or opt for a half-day tour; although, the latter may begin to drag on for both you and the driver.

Realistically, cyclos are more about enjoying some slow-paced sightseeing than actually getting around Ho Chi Minh City. Touring by cyclo is a good way to sample a district without having to navigate yourself or worry about dodging scooter drivers on the sidewalks. If you choose to hire a cyclo, keep your bags and smartphone secure. Bag snatches by thieves on motorbikes do sometimes occur.

Tips for Getting Around Ho Chi Minh City

  • Renting a scooter is an option for getting around in Ho Chi Minh City though only expert drivers should even consider trying to navigate the city's traffic.
  • Renting a bicycle is also an option; although, some of the rusty rentals have seen better days. Remember that you’ll be at the bottom of the driver's right-of-way hierarchy. Stay as far to the right as possible.
  • Hop-On Hop-Off city tour buses make a one-hour loop past top tourist sights in the city between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m. A ticket starts at $7.
  • Many hotels offer airport pickup for an additional fee. Although the airport transfer service costs more than taking a taxi, the peace of mind after a long flight—especially if arriving late—is worth it!
  • You can pretty well count on all motorcycle taxis to provide a wild ride, but drivers don’t want to crash any more than you do. Their livelihood depends on that motorcycle. That said, if at any time you feel unreasonably unsafe, you can always tap the driver and ask to get off immediately.
  • Keep small denominations of Vietnamese dong handy for paying drivers and bus fares. Drivers usually can’t make change for larger denominations.
  • Tipping isn’t expected, however, you can round up the fare to an even amount that's convenient.
  • Hailing a passing taxi (ideally, an official VinaSun or Mai Linh car) usually results in a better experience than approaching one of the drivers who park outside of popular places to poach tourists.