You’ll be forgiven if, at first glance, you conclude that Hanoi traffic is insane. Swarms of motorbikes slalom down boulevards and clot intersections. Cars navigate spaces not much wider than they are, and buses muscle through as if their drivers were trained on bumper car tracks. Horns blare constantly, as if adding noise to the equation will somehow speed things up. Traffic regulations are more like vague suggestions than firm laws—a red light, for example, seems to mean to some drivers, “Be careful as you speed through this intersection,” rather than “Stop!” It’s a vehicular chaos that can be shocking when first encountered, and you may never get used to it, but as time goes by you’ll learn how to get from place to place as comfortably and efficiently as possible.
There’s no subway or elevated train system in Hanoi—the only public transportation is buses. These can be extremely crowded and slow. Other options are faster and less stressful without being prohibitively expensively.
Vietnam is a “motorbike kingdom.” With small, crooked alleyways and high population density, a motorcycle or scooter is often the best way to get around. Locals carry everything from refrigerators and plasma TVs to live chickens and huge baskets of vegetables on motorbikes, and often you’ll see a whole family of five putting down the road on a motor scooter. Many expats get motorbikes of their own. This is the option of greatest freedom and flexibility, though of course it carries its own stresses and dangers.
“Xe om” (pronounced “say-ohm”) is the local word for motorbike taxis. At every corner a handful of men recline on their motorbikes, waiting and hoping to spirit you across town for a small fee. This is a fast and reliable option, as the drivers know the town and the best way to get where you’re going, and you can get almost anywhere for $2-3.
Some expats refuse to take part in the motorcycle mayhem of Hanoi, finding it too dangerous or unpleasant. (The noise and air pollution can be overwhelming.) Taxis are plentiful and inexpensive in Hanoi, and provide a barrier against the unpleasant aspects of the traffic. However, keep in mind that at peak hours (7 – 9 a.m. and 4 – 7 p.m.) the city becomes so jammed with motorbikes, cars and buses that it can take literally hours to travel even a short distance by car.
It doesn’t make any sense to own a car if you’re living in the center of Hanoi, but it may be useful in an outlying district such as West Lake. Most expats who own cars do not drive in Hanoi, due to difficult driving conditions and the low cost of hiring a driver. A local driver will save you lots of time and, more importantly, stress.
While the price of flights from Europe and America has increased in recent years (about $1000 for economy class, $2000 for business), regional carriers have introduced cheap fares to destinations in Vietnam and neighboring countries. Flights to Saigon or Bangkok can be as low as $100 return, depending on the season and day of travel.