Modern mobility has made its way to Vietnam – and it’s changing more than just prices.
Mr Quang’s icon wiggles its way across MT’s iPhone screen, stopping and starting as it brakes for imagined mopeds. Several taxis toot as they pass, perplexed as to why one would turn down a ready lift in favour of frowning at a phone screen. Then, around the corner comes a black, pocket-sized Chevrolet Aveo – and, with it, Modern Traveller’s first experience of Uber in the Socialist Republic.
Almost anyone who has visited Vietnam will be familiar with the usual fun and games of finding a trustworthy taxi. You generally know where you stand with VinaSun (though recent reports of speedy meters might suggest otherwise), and MaiLinh isn’t a bad backup – but the ranks of other cabs and cars can be as unpredictable as they are expensive.
Now, though, like Paris and London before them, Uber has been welcomed to Vietnam’s busy streets – or, at least, to the bustling arteries of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. What does this mean for those looking to get around in four-wheeled comfort? Cheaper prices, easier directions and a lot less frustration: from tiny Chevrolets to a fleet of luxury black sedans, Uber’s got Vietnam’s mega-cities covered when it comes to hitching a lift.
Launched in the country just a couple of months ago, Uber’s on-tap taxis are taking the northern and southern hubs by storm, helping tourists and locals alike pick up lifts for (often) half the price – in part thanks to the simplicity and security of Uber’s service offering.
Keen to jump on board? You’ll need internet on your phone and a credit card to charge. For the former, just US$10 at the airport will bag you a healthy amount of monthly megabytes, served by superb network coverage across both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. As for plastic, be ready for a block if your card’s non-Vietnamese: penny-cheap fares aside, foreign Uber bills can look decidedly dodgy to bank fraud teams.
Once you’re up and running, though, there’s plenty to celebrate. Anyone who’s used Uber ought to appreciate the benefit of dropping a destination pin on a map – and this is oh-so-beneficial when you don’t speak the language and there’s no A to Z. Smiles aside, Uber might mean you miss out on miming your way to Ben Thanh Market, but it’ll get you there with consumate ease (and a lot less round-the-block gesticulation).
Throw in cut-price fares (compared to the standard cabs), and you’d be forgiven for thinking that Uber will have an easy run as the next best thing in Vietnamese transport. Indeed, with a growing network of drivers and users alike, the app seems to be going down better than a round of 333s.
It’s not all plain sailing, though: surge pricing is as much a presence here as anywhere – particularly when it rains. As the skies break in biblical proportions, the Dong-per-mile rate soars, leaving soggy flip flops and a battered umbrella as the cheapest option.
Pinging for an UberX – the most inexpensive car option going – can also see some seriously small vehicles turning up. Whilst this isn’t a problem if you’re looking to nip from Dong Khoi to Bui Vien, having a Kia Morning roll up outside the airport will put your luggage Tetris skills to the test.
That said, every vehicle MT took a ride in was modern, air-conditioned and seatbelt-equipped – which is more than can be said for many of the taxis cruising Saigon’s streets. What’s more, you can always opt for an UberBlack: paying your way, luxury and leg room are on the cards.
Is Uber onto a winner? With the addition of the UberMoto service recently – offering plenty of spare pillion seats to willing penny-savers – it’s certainly doing all of the right things to rule the roads in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
Like a close encounter of the taxi kind, though, Uber is not alone: get ready to greet Grab, a Southeast Asian rival offering urban transport services in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and – you guessed it – Vietnam.
Almost as slick and without the surge pricing, Grab, too, has a fleet of local cars and bikes just two taps away. According to the company behind it, more than 11 million movers and shakers are using its app to access 200,000 drivers on Android and iOS.
If those figures are accurate, Uber could well be in for a fight. As advertising billboards in downtown Ho Chi Minh City implore travellers to grab Grab, prices continue to tumble as the two combine tech and transport in the city.
For now, it’s a good time to be a taxi-taker in Vietnam: as the networks spread – it’s now possible to make it all the way to Ben Tre from Saigon – and the costs continue to fall, having both apps installed is a sure way to scoop the smartest price-per-mile.
As Mr Quang’s automobile arrives to deliver MT fuss-free to yet another rooftop bar, there’s no denying that there really is a new way to move in Vietnam – and it’s all in the palm of your hand.
WORDS BY CHRIS ROWLANDS
Content correct at time of publication. A changing world is one of the joys of travelling!