how to

When you first arrive in Vietnam as an American you are blown away by the number of motorbikes on the roads. In the average US city you might see one scooter a day in good weather. In Vietnam you can see hundreds of them lined up behind a red light.

So living in Vietnam, where automobiles are prohibitively expensive (but still within reach for the country's bourgeoisie) you can either go with the flow and ride a motorbike or you can be forever inconvenienced by having to bum rides, walk, or take taxis.

Learning to ride a motorbike is actually quite easy if you can ride a bicycle.

First, you should learn how to ride a bicycle - in Vietnamese traffic. By riding in traffic you will learn how traffic works. When you are a pedestrian you are always walking outside of the flow of traffic or across it. As a cyclist, you'll learn how to weave in and out of the flow, how to recognize when someone in front of you is about to turn (they will slightly cock their head to the side more often than they'll use a turn signal), and how cars treat everyone else like second class citizens.

Second, you need a bike to practice on and a place to practice. You may think that riding an automatic scooter (xe tay ga) is easier than a manual (xe so) especially if you compare it to manual transmission shifting on a car. But changing gears on a manual bike is as simple as clicking your heels, and a manual motorbike will be slimmer and lighter than an automatic, thus easier to handle.

So find, or make, a friend who can take you to someplace to try riding. If you live in Saigon, you can find empty roads out in the suburban districts (Tan Phu, District 6, District 12, etc.) as well as in suburban expat areas like Phu My Hung and An Phu. If you wait until night, the financial district of Saigon around Nguyen Cong Tru Street is fairly empty.

Third, sit on the bike. Your right hand controls a hand brake as well as the gas. On an automatic you may have a second hand brake on the left. On a manual, you will actually have to use your feet. Your left foot changes gears - press your toes down to go to a higher gear and press your heel back to go back down. You can go from Neutral to 1st and on up to 4th gear, and you can also go directly from 4th to Neutral. If you don't want to mess with the gears at first just stick it in 2nd or 3rd gear and learn to ride. You will lose power but still be able to ride.

1. You do need a driver's license to ride a motorbike with an engine larger than 50 cc. This applies to most common bikes aside from Honda Cubs.
2. You do need to wear a helmet, even if you swear the helmets don't give you any protection in case of an accident.
3. Stay in the rightmost lane as every other lane is reserved for cars despite nearly all vehicles and people being on bikes. Car drivers make the rules.
4. Right of way isn't the same as in other countries. Don't expect anyone to yield to you.
5. Despite the lack of any signage, there is a speed limit which depends on the type of vehicle and type of road.
6. Despite what you see constantly, it is illegal to run a red light, to drive in the "wrong" lane, and go the wrong way against traffic on a street.

Tips on handling traffic cops:
1. Have a license. This makes it harder for the officer to extort a lot of money from you.
2. Have a fake second wallet with a small amount of money. Vietnamese cops will take as much as they can from you so don't show them millions of dong. But even if you only have 50k VND they will take it.
3. Avoid eye contact when passing them at traffic stops.
4. In the past, foreigners would get away from being ticketed or fined by speaking English and not being able to communicate with the police but now the police will either be able to speak rudimentary English or will call in someone who can.
5. At night, be careful of two things: drunk drivers and cops. Drunk driving is common in Vietnam and restaurant workers will help stand up a drunk patron so that they can drive home. And night time is when traffic police can set up traps and make a lot of money without doing much work (it's easier to catch people for minor traffic violations in common spots than to chase after drunk drivers, for example).

Finally, remember to carry a raincoat on your bike especially during the rainy season.

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