Sai Gon taxi public service announcement

This post is something of a public service announcement for new comers and travellers to my fair city.

There are many taxi companies in Sai Gon, but I only use two – Mai Linh and Vina Sun. I’ve never had a problem with their meters skipping, they generally go a (fairly) direct route to your destination* and they have air conditioning. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some pretty frustrating experiences with these two taxi companies, but I still trust them more than the rest.

I’ll tell you a cautionary tale about the rest – I’ve been on holiday and have just landed at Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport (the airport that services Sai Gon). I am tired, so tired I am almost swaying with exhaustion. I collect my bag and walk over to taxi ranks. I get a sudden surge of adrenalin; I’m going to have to fight to get one of the taxis to take me home. This is quite literally the only place in Sai Gon were you have to do any work at all to get a taxi. Anywhere else in the city, the taxis drive beside you, flashing their lights and beeping. But at the airport, you stand in a huddle and give your destination to different men with clipboards and in theory, they get you a taxi. Eventually. After a great deal of waiting.

But I’m not some confused tourist; I live here damn it. So I march around squawking my address and the taxi company I want in Vietnamese to anyone that looks official and I get one much faster than if I just waited for one. Don’t resent me, my tourist friends, I’m just using my local knowledge and doing it like the locals – don’t hate the player, hate the game.

As I trudge up and down the taxi ranks, a nearby conversation filters through.

“So, a million and half? To the city? No extra money?” In a heavy Italian accent.

Wait! What?

I turn to see a man and woman handing over their bags to the driver of a car without taxi tags.

Now, I don’t really mind people being a little scammed if they are fool enough to not research how much a taxi ride from the airport to the city is, but this amount is really excessive. The average taxi fare from the airport to the centre of the city is around VND150,000** to VND180,000. It really won’t go too far over VND200,000, even with traffic and road works.*** Though, it could be that they are going much further than Sai Gon and a million and a half is a reasonable amount. I felt that I should at least check and see if they know what they are doing.

I walk over to the couple.

“Ummm, excuse me. I just overheard you talking about the cost of this taxi. Are you going into Ho Chi Minh City?” I venture.

“No, sorry. We are not sharing, we are going to our hotel, we are very tired,” said the Italian man.

“Oh, I don’t want to share. I just want to find out if you know what you should be paying… how much…” I fade to a close.

He dismisses me with a wave of his hand in my face and jumps into the car.

Okay then, hope you’re not too upset when you find out how much the fare should have been.

So, to recap. At the airport, take a Mai Linh or Vina Sun taxi – the drivers of many other companies asking you if you want to go with them. Don’t.

Another thing to know is that you will probably be expected to pay the entrance and exit fee to get in and out of Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport; it is only VND10,000, don’t get upset and think the driver is ripping you off.

Another tip regarding taxis, whichever one you take, is to make sure you have a huge amount of change on you. It is very common for taxi drivers to claim they don’t have enough dong to give you correct change for the fare. Be aware that sometimes if you give VND100,000 note for a VND65,000 ride, you might not get much back as you would think.

Taxis at other airports.

Noi Bai International Airport to Ha Noi. There is a flat rate for the taxis from the Airport to Ha Noi. It is VND 350,000.**** If they turn the meter on it will cost you quite a lot more. This is signposted around the airport, but many people miss it. There are more reputable taxi companies in Ha Noi than just Mai Linh and Vina Sun. Ask a local.

Cam Ranh Airport to Nha Trang. The airport is 30 km from the city. There are taxis that offer fixed fares around VND380,000. Find them and take them.

Hue Airport – get the shuttle, just get the shuttle.

*If you start to get the feeling that you are being driven around in circles – it could be for three reasons. On one hand, there are many one-way streets in Sai Gon and you sometimes have to go around a couple of blocks to get to your destination. You might be taken on the scenic route to pay extra or your taxi driver is a little lost. If you are going to stay in Viet Nam for some time, invest in a local sim card (they are very cheap, as is credit) and check Google Maps while you ride and this should help you with all three reasons.

**VND is Vietnamese Dong – Viet Nam’s currency. Don’t worry, you’ll stop giggling eventually.

***Check the date this blog was published and please be aware that prices change over time and do some research yourself.

****The new Noi Bai terminal is opening soon and this will probably change and again please check the date this blog was published and be aware that prices change over time and do some research yourself.

Taxi spotter’s guide below.

White style Mai Linh
White style Mai Linh
Green style Mai Linh
Vina sun
Vina Sun

Second gear

Oh God, the shuddering, the labouring, the painful tremors. I feel every inch of you vibrating, struggling to stay alive, to stay in motion. I feel your agony, and I would help you if I could, but I am as powerless as you are.

You’re a taxi and I’m your passenger, and our driver is trying to go five km/h in second gear.

We’re crawling in typical HCMC traffic and the car is just moments from stalling, saved only by judicious use of the clutch, but not by shifting into first gear.*

I wouldn’t be too bothered if this was a one off, but it is the same for all the taxis I ride in. Every. Single. One.

Over and over in my head “Oh please, shift down, put it into first gear, SHIFT DOWN!”

I’m worried that one day my internalised screams will suddenly come flying out of my mouth and terrify a random taxi driver.

I can’t figure out drivers’ reticence to use the first gear. I’ve asked some people but I’ve never been given a truly satisfactory answer. So in the place of facts, I’ve developed some working hypotheses; People’s first experience with motor vehicles are motorbikes which tend to be a little more forgiving when it comes to driving in the wrong gear and gear change – so when they learn to drive a car, they take the same habits with them. Maybe people think that lower gears use more petrol/power, I’ve heard this in relation to headlights and both are myths. Perhaps driving in traffic jams all day makes people not want to bother changing gears.

I think my last theory seems most likely – the longest I have ridden my bike in HCMC is two hours and it was exhausting. The taxi drivers do it all day, most days, with limited breaks. One day I’ll learn how to say, “Jump out, and have a rest in the back seat, I’ll drive.” Until then, I’ll hunker down in in my seat and anthropomorphise the feelings of a car.

Vinasun Taxi – I feel you Buddy.

* I’m not going to assume that the majority of people exactly understand how a manual transmission works, but I’m sure that most people know that you start a manual car from stationary in first gear and shift gears up and down as you go faster and slower. Go too slow for your gear, you stall. Go too fast for your gear your revolutions per minute (RPMs) go crazy. RPM matching and gearing changing is an art all manual car drivers must master so they aren’t bunny hopping their car and damaging their clutch.