Sticking with my Southeast Asia travels it is interesting the differences in transportation from area to area.
Thailand seems to be the most complete and varied in its transportation offerings. In many areas a Toyota pickup with a row of seats down each side and a set of steps off the back with hand rails seems to be the least expensive and pretty safe. They run a route and in many ways are like the Jeepneys in the Philippines. There are tuk-tuks much like in India which are comfortable and will take you to a location of your choice, rather than a route. Motorcycle taxis are common and very practical, but I have personally (unfortunately) seen two people killed on separate occasions right in front of me on motorcycle taxis so I will not use them. That and the one time I did, the rider took a short cut between rows of oncoming traffic and then up the sidewalk. I would rather be back flying a helicopter in combat than do that very often.
The shining star in Bangkok is the overhead rail system. The trains cover very well planned routes and are fast and clean. They are crowded during rush hour but other than having to stand they are great. During non rush hour they are a dream and an all day pass is inexpensive and a great way to explore and visit the wonderful malls. There are buses but I have not used them in town, although I see lots of them and they always seem crowded. I have used them cross country but the language issue popped up and I almost got on the wrong bus more than once.
Have the desk clerk or someone that speaks your native tongue write down your hotels name and address in Thai before you go, it may save you a panic when you are returning. Also if you are going to the airport, there are two of them, be sure the taxi driver understands which airport you are going to unless you don’t mind missing your plane.
Vietnam seems to be least varied as the most available transport to tourists are the venerable Toyota taxi. Mai Linh and Vinasun (green and white in color) are reliable and have meters. I prefer Vinasun since it has always seemed less expensive to me. My experience from the airport in Vinasun is 1/3 what a non metered cab is (150,000 dong vs 500,000 dong) to my hotel, as an example. I have been dropped off blocks from my desired destination because of language issues. Maps and written directions are a must. I have learned not to leave the hotel without written instructions of where I am going and a well written description of the hotel and its surrounding area, all in Vietnamese. If you are English speaking don’t expect much help in an understandable fashion, although the people are wonderful and do try.
Prices by taxi are so reasonable that I would not try to figure out the city bus system although I understand it is very good, the language issue can be a real problem. There are motorbike taxis but are your nerves really worth the money saved, and the same language issues. Vietnam is a wonderful place to visit but Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are easy to get lost in. Be prepared and spend your time enjoying instead of frustration.
Finally I am not so hot in math and even the metered taxis have a shortcut in dealing with the dong so when trying to figure out a $1.00 US is d22,300 and when the meter shows 190 and you don’t see the 000 in small numbers to the side (the fare is 190,000) and you have bills in denominations of 1000, 10000, 100000 (some in similar colors) for someone like me it gets a bit hairy. Just saying!
Philippines has a vast network of Jeepneys, buses and trikes which can get you anywhere you wish to go and being a series of islands (7107 of the) both air and water transport abound. The most picturesque are the jeepneys which come in various capacities, condition and decoration. Universally if you are over five and a half feet tall you are bound to bang your head from time to time. As time goes by and some restrictions kick in much of this will change. Other areas besides Luzon have different designs and in many cases safer and more comfortable vehicles but the traditional Jeepney may live on for a long time.
Buses are also somewhat varied. The old idea of a chicken bus (literally a bus in which some passengers may have a few chickens with them) seldom is seen but there are different bus ‘classes’ so one must determine what they are willing to trade – money or comfort. The least expensive are crowded and have no air conditioning. The next level is crowded and has air-conditioning. The best are fairly modern buses with WiFi and air-conditioning and more spacey and comfortable seating. Most of the buses are second hand from Japan, as most of the jeepneys are made from surplus parts removed from used vehicles in japan. Even some of the small boats I have used for island hopping are powered by used Isuzu truck diesel engines with the trucks transmission giving them forward, neutral and reverse. In bad weather an extra night in a hotel prevents a horrible amusement park ride. Small boats and big waves are not for the faint of heart. If you need a ride and see a jeepney or a bus stick out your arm. They will stop regardless if you are at a bus stop or just along the road side. The conductor will collect your fare along the way.
The trikes are a motorbike with a sidecar. Many of them are so small that it is worthy of Charlie Chaplain trying to get in and out. I have been stuffed in some that I had to be pulled out by the driver or an onlooker and ended up on my hands and knees. Some are driven by the same kamikazes as the motorbike taxi’s in Thailand and prices can be widely varied. So the cheapest ride is in a jeepney but it travels a route and the most flexible is a trike but your nerves may suffer a bit. There are a number of private services which operate with new vans from Toyota or Hyundai that are swift, convenient and comfortable, but significantly more expensive. Still, they remain cheaper that similar services in America or Europe so it is all relative.
The biggest savior in the Philippines is that MANY people speak English (and many other languages also) so it is easy to get directions. I have found, for me, that basing myself in the Philippines and traveling from there is extremely convenient. It is actually cheaper to go to Bangkok and return to the Philippines and then Hanoi and return to the Philippines than it is to go to Bangkok, then Hanoi, then return to the Philippines. Of course I have friends that live in Vietnam and Thailand that feel that where they are is the best place to be :-).
Transportation is a part of the culture and experience of the country you are visiting. Enjoy and experience the thrill of it all.