For my first week in Ho Chi Minh City, I used the Grab App which is like Uber, a cab calling service. What's unique is that I can also call motorbikes (xe ôm). The xe ôm are significantly cheaper than cabs, but, more importantly, it exposed me to the sights, sounds, and smells of the hustling city.
I definitely prefer it over cars, which isolated me from the city.
Each ride, when I rode from one far end of the city to the other, ranges from 50K VND to 80KVND. At the exchange rate of 22K VND to $1 USD, this converts to roughly $2-$4 USD. I was calling rides about 3-4 times a day, which cost me $10-$16 a day to travel.
That's not too expensive, but I was also losing time by waiting and coordinating with the Grab drivers. Ho Chi Minh City, is huge, with lots of narrows roads, and it's changing fast, so the drivers may not always know directions at the beginning and tale end of the trip.
Luckily, Google Maps is reliable in Ho Chi Minh City. I've been able to resolve most confusion by referring to that app. The drivers use Google Maps as well, but it's hard for them to view the app while they are driving. Usually, they will view it at the beginning of the ride. If they feel lost, they'll pull over to double check. It's helpful if you have Google Maps handy with the address of your destination entered. You'll be able to provide basic instructions while they are driving.
Just be careful with your phone. There are a lot of phone snatchers.
After a week of riding xe ôm, I decided to rent a motorbike, or as they call it here: xe máy. There are many foreigner friendly motorbike rental businesses in Ho Chi Minh City.
Most seemed legitimate and offered a wide range of bikes from manual to semi-automatic. I reached out to Tigit Motorbikes. They responded promptly via Facebook Messenger. Based on the questions they asked, they seemed to care about the the quality and safety of their bikes while providing a great customer experience. Both of which gave me great confidence in their business.
Before I headed to their shop to finalize the rental, I needed to figure out how to park it overnight. I'm staying at my sister in law's home in Ho Chi Minh City. Their home is above a 24 hour convenience store. Most homes park their bikes inside the gate of the first floor but since the first floor is a convenience store, there is no place to park.
I decided to ask my sister in law's father about where I can park a motorbike overnight. To my surprise, he offered to loan me one his bikes.
I couldn't have asked for a better bike. The objective specifics: it's a 4 speed, semi-automatic, 120CC bike. Semi-automatic means that there is no manual clutch, I just shift gears by with my left leg. The subjective: it's light, thin, and very fun to ride.
I used to own a Suzuki Boulevard cruiser so I'm not averse to riding manual bikes. In fact, I like manuals because of the mechanical/physical connection to the bike; however, Vietnam traffic is notoriously chaotic and dense.
If you haven't watched the cool video by Rob Whitworth, check it out below:
Traffic in Frenetic HCMC, Vietnam from Rob Whitworth on Vimeo.
Because of the stop and go nature of the traffic and the fact that I haven't ridden in a few years, I was seriously considering an automatic. By serendipity, I ended up with a semi-automatic. It's a great balance between pragmatism and the satisfying feeling of shifting gears.
The first 30 minutes was some of the most terrifying experience of my life. It's almost as terrifying as when I drove a brand new Mini Cooper S manual home 30 miles home. I had never driven a manual car before that moment.
The traffic is every bit as intense as the video I linked to. Only, I've heard from the locals that it is more dense now than it was a few years ago.
Red lights are not a rule, they are a mild suggestion. Lane dividers are decoration. They are reminders, that yes you are on the road and not the sidewalk, because sidewalks are valid motorbike lanes as well.
Of course of this is extralegal, but in a city of 8.4 Million, traffic enforcement is difficult. That or maybe, the Vietnamese culture is so used to slight bends in the rules that the traffic pattern evolved into what it is.
All of this chaos is beautiful.
After crossing a few intersections I've realized that the bikes in the lanes are like schools of fish. They cross paths and phase through each other with no contact. Each fish or motorbike, through subtle adjustments, correct their course to avoid collision and continue on with their school.
Ho Chi Minh City has traffic; however, I believe the small bikes help lessen it through their sheer agility. The bikes can split lanes and weave through the deadlocked cars. I wish more cities, with warm year round weather, would adopt bicycles and motorbikes, albeit with a better regulation.