How to Live in Hanoi Like A Local – Expat’s Guide to Hanoi
- November 11, 2019
- Expat Guide
If you’re going to live in Hanoi (or already are), you probably want to blend in with the locals and learn their…Read More
For most expats, living in Hanoi is all about that slow-paced lifestyle. You know what I’m talking about, chilling with a cup of coffee in the morning, hanging out with friends in the afternoon and trying out Vietnamese food for almost every single meal. In this article, I’m going through all the getting-around-Hanoi options so you can enjoy that lifestyle like the locals.
Most two-wheeled vehicles in Hanoi (and Vietnam) are small and technically classified as scooters. However, expats and locals here just refer to it as motorbikes so I will do the same.
In case you haven’t known already, it’s the most common vehicle to get around in Vietnam. Why? Cars are very expensive and it’s much easier to maneuver around with a motorbike, considering the traffic here.
But don’t be intimidated by the traffic, it’s quite easy once you’re used to your motorbike, I guarantee that! I’ve got a few friends who didn’t dare to try it at first, but eventually learned and it’s how they get around Hanoi now.
Motorbike is common mainly because public transportation in Hanoi is not so great and for the sake of your savings, you don’t want to get a cab everyday.
Moreover, you probably should get one for the “local experience”. But before you do so, here’s everything you should know before getting a motorbike in Hanoi.
Whether you’re buying or renting a motorbike in Hanoi, there are so many options to choose from. Let me break it down to a few categories:
Automatic vs. Manual: There is a drastic difference between the two. Like a manual car, you constantly have to adjust the gear level if you go for a manual motorbike, making it twice as hard for you to control on the road compared to an automatic one. Because of that, a fully automatic motorbike is better for moving around within the city.
Size: Most commonly found and “normal” type is small/mid-size motorbike (50-100cc), also referred to as scooters. However, you can opt for much larger type if you want (200cc or more). Still, I’d advise to go ahead with a small size motorbike unless you’re a speed enthusiast.
Brand: The distinction between motorbike brands is not as strong as among carmakers so you don’t really need to pay much attention here.
Electric vs. Petrol (Diesel): Yup. We have electric motorbikes too. Still, the cost of gas for a typical petrol-run motorbike is only a few dollars a week and there’s not that many charger stations around for electric vehicles yet.
If you don’t plan to spend your next 5 years in Vietnam, it makes a lot of sense to rent rather than to buy.
You can rent a fully automatic motorbike for $50-$100 a month and there are countless shops around Hanoi for you to choose from. It’s best for you to find one nearby your apartment, so you can easily exchange for a better motorbike in case yours isn’t working properly.
I recommend checking motorbike rental shops with great ratings on Google & TripAdvisor. After all, reviews don’t lie.
Motorbike Rental Procedure: There’s no fixed or required-by-law procedure to rent a motorbike (yeah, it’s pretty awesome here). However, most shops will require your IDs (Passport, visa, etc) and a deposit.
That’s right, you don’t need a license to rent a motorbike, so don’t worry about getting one. I got my license and it’s totally useless.
Try to negotiate and insist on keeping your IDs at all cost, maybe by telling them you need it to apply for a job or something important. Most of the time, the rental shops are quite reasonable and will ask for a picture of your IDs instead.
Most shops are okay with $200-300 in deposit. If you’re a good negotiator, they might even let you get away with $100.
If you intend to stay in the country for a long time, it might make financial sense to buy a motorbike. Brand new mid-range vehicle is around $1,500-3,000 while pre-owned (used) can be $1,000 or less.
The only advice I have about buying a motorbike in Vietnam is to go to authorized dealers only. Brands like Honda set up official stores to sell motorbikes and you can find one near your place.
Here’s a breakdown of necessary costs you will have to pay for, excluding rental & buying cost since I already mentioned above:
Petrol/Fuel: It’s really, really cheap. For a small-size motorbike, it typically costs you $2-3 a week if you just travel within the city.
Parking: Since your apartment, company, cafes, restaurants all have free parking for motorbike, the only time you will pay for parking is if you’re using private parking space (typically charges $0.20, but it can be $1.20 at The Old Quarter during the weekends).
That’s all if you’re renting. Excluding the rental, these add up to be just $10-20 a month.
There obviously will be maintenance cost as well if you’re buying.
Actually, there’s one more fee. You know how you will have a ticket for speeding in your home country? In Hanoi, the equivalent is police bribery fee.
If you follow all the basic rules (wearing helmet, signalling, turning on front light in the evening, not speeding past the limit), the police won’t pull you in. Still, in the case that they do, you might need to fork out $4-8.
Pro Tip: Don’t give policemen the money right away. Most of them don’t speak decent English and dislike dealing with foreigners. Pretend you don’t understand what they’re saying, keep asking them what you did wrong and explaining to them. Speak really fast (but not in an aggressive way), pull out your accent if you have one (really). After 5-10 minutes, they usually let you go once they realize it’s a waste of time.
If not, give them the money $4 and insist that’s all you have. 99% of the traffic police will let you go by this point. But if you’re so unlucky, you’ll have to increase the amount of money until they let you go. I’ve never heard such story before.
The hardest part of riding a motorbike is balancing and if you can ride a bicycle, you shouldn’t have any problem at all. Here are the dummy-proof steps:
Step 1: Push the side kickstand (located at the right of your left foot once you’re seated on the motorbike) and balance with two legs on the ground.
Step 2: Gently (yes, gently) turn the gas handle (the right handle). Remember, gently.
Step 3: As the motorbike accelerates (as you turn the gas handle), maintain the balance.
Step 4: If you see obstacle or start panicking, release the gas handle and pull the brake.
It might sounds easier than it actually is. A friend can definitely help you learn faster. If you don’t know anyone, some motorbike rental shops are more than happy to teach you how to ride.
Once you’re familiar with the vehicle and confident with your skill, it’s time to ride to the main (and crowded) roads. This is probably the worst part and you can panick easily with everyone around you honking.
Therefore, you should avoid peak hours at first. Always stick to the right of the lane and go slow until you’re more confident to speed up.
All it takes is one day of practice and you’re already a great rider!
Your motorbike will have a trunk, typically beneath the seat. That’s because there are a couple of things you must have with you. Here are 4 necessary items and some optional:
Helmet: It’s required to wear one. If you take it off while on the motorbike, the police can pull you in. Plus, you know, for your safety.
Cash: Pretty much a must everywhere you go in Vietnam.
Raincoat: Avoid riding your motorbike without a raincoat or you might just be sick the next day.
Windbreaker: You probably hang out at night at a bar or a friend’s house. You should wear a windbreaker on the way back or risk getting a cold.
And here are some common, but optional, items:
Sunglasses: Pretty important whenever you’re outdoor.
Pepper Spray: You probably won’t have to use it, but just in case.
Sunscreen: It gets crazy hot in Hanoi in the summer. Temperature above 40°C (104°F) is common.
Sun Protection: Vietnamese culture associates fair-skinned to be pretty, so you will always see a lot of ladies in complete cover on their motorbikes.
Face Mask: Air quality is pretty bad in Hanoi, so wearing a face mask is not a bad idea.
Eyeglasses: There are lots of dust on the street too, so for extra safety, you can get a pair of eyeglasses. Plus, you look cool!
You can probably tell that it makes the most economic sense to move around the city with a motorbike. Coupled with that, it’s a mode of transport that everyone is able to choose since you know, no license required and easy to learn.
I totally understand if you prefer not to ride a motorbike around. That’s fine! Let me walk you through the rest of your options.
For expat anywhere, public transport is always the preferred way of getting around the city. It exists in Hanoi too, though the adoption is very low compared to other large cities.
There are only buses available since all the metro lines are still under construction. Ask the locals about it and you can feel their frustration since it has taken so long to be built.
Getting around by buses is a huge challenge for expats because there is little information in English, so be prepared to use Google Translate for almost everything.
I think we can all agree there is nothing as useful as Google Maps. You can use it to find the buses from one direction to another within Hanoi, like you would anywhere else in the world.
In the screenshot above, I searched for direction from Ciputra, a great neighborhood to live in Hanoi, to Noi Bai International Airport.
As you can see, because the public transport system here isn’t comprehensive, you might have to walk 21 minutes (or more!) to a bus stop. Also, I found that the bus arrival timing on Google Maps is nowhere near accurate.
That isn’t the only problem.
Google Maps Direction in Hanoi doesn’t show you the bus number, either! Instead, it shows you the interchanges where a specific bus starts and ends its service.
Because the departure and arrival interchanges are shown in front of the bus, you can compare with the one in Google Map and that’s the only way you make sure it’s the right bus to catch.
I know… As I mentioned, it’s a huge challenge.
The app has a very user-friendly and modern interface, with comprehensive bus routes. The best part is that it shows the number of the bus you’re supposed to take, unlike Google Maps.
Now that you’ve found your bus, here are a couple of things to take note of.
Do prepare yourself for some surprises.
The first thing to take note of is there is a fixed bus fare throughout the route. In other words, whether you’re alighting after just 1 stop or 20 stops, the fare is the same.
Secondly, since different buses charge different rates, you should take note of how much to pay for the bus fare to make sure you’re not tricked into paying more. The fares can be found on both Google Maps & BusMap.
In Hanoi (and Vietnam), there is still manual fare collection, meaning there is a person on the bus just to collect your fare.
It’s pretty much the standards like everywhere else, such as giving seats to the elderly, children and pregnant women, not occupying more than one seat, be polite, etc. Also, don’t be so loud because no one likes that.
Despite the challenges, there are 2 awesome advantages of taking the bus in Hanoi:
Low Fare: Each bus ticket will cost you a very small amount (~$0.5 at most). However, if you’re taking special route like bus 86, it charges $1.5 it goes straight from Noi Bai International Airport to City Center with so few stops.
Hardly Crowded: Because so few Hanoians opt to travel by buses, you can often find yourself in an empty bus during the day.
So to sum it up, you can consider taking buses as your everyday transport, though it might be hard at first. Once you’re used to how it works, you might even like it.
Ride hailing is probably the most convenient option of transport anywhere. Many expats staying in Hanoi for the short-and-mid-term prefer it too, and in Hanoi, the most popular ride hailing app is Grab.
If you’re travelling short distance, it costs you $0.5 for each motorbike ride (GrabBike) and $1-1.5 for a cab ride (GrabCar). Thanks to the large base of Grab drivers, your booking is usually accepted instantly. They even have a monthly subscription plan if you travel around by Grab often and it makes each ride significantly cheaper.
The drivers might call you to confirm pickup/dropoff points and don’t worry, that’s the norm here.
Because it’s so easy to get around Hanoi this way, I’m not going much further into it.
The short answer is, you don’t. That’s how the culture here is, so locals almost never tip drivers.
However, you can tip if you want to, you know, if you enjoy the ride. No matter how small and insignificant the amount you tip the drivers, it always cheers them up.
All the 3 ways of getting around Hanoi I mentioned work great and don’t break the bank. If you hang out with friends frequently, I’d advise to get a motorbike because not only it makes the most financial sense, it’s also is a one of the best local experiences you should enjoy in Vietnam.
I hope this guide helps you decide on your mode of transport so you can get around easily, save a lot of time and have lots of fun in Hanoi.