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.

As a tourist or expat living in Vietnam you'll get used to hearing "xe om" (motorbike taxi) guys call for you - by yelling "You!" - at every street corner offering to take you places you probably don't want to go and otherwise offering you drugs and/or prostitutes. And if you're here alone while in Vietnam then it will often make sense (financially) for you to take a xe om instead of a regular tax. If you're with at least two other friends then it makes sense to take a regular taxi instead.

Most people in Vietnam nowadays have their own motorbike so they don't need to take a taxi, whether two- or four-wheeled, but when they do they - even they! - have to haggle with the xe om driver over the price.

How to get a sense of how much it costs to ride a xe om / motorbike taxi?

When trying to figure out a price for a motorbike taxi, keep in mind at least two things. The first is that it should cost about half as much as a regular taxi. The motorbike is not air conditioned and you don't have comfortable seats even though a xe om can slip through traffic quicker (OTOH a taxi will go faster on a clear straightaway). If a regular taxi cost around 12,000 VND/km then a motorbike taxi should be about half that or around 5000 or 6000 VND per kilometer. The glaring difference of course is that a taxi has a meter (if it doesn't, get out immediately!) so you know exactly how far you're traveling whereas the motor bike taxi does not have a meter so you have to kind of gas how far you're traveling and so does he.

Next, to know how much half of the taxi fare is, take a taxi first! You can take the same route by regular taxi once so you know how much that would cost and the halve it. Amazing.

Another thing to keep in mind is if you're a fat Westerner then you probably weigh three times as much as a normal Vietnamese person and even though xe oms don't charge by weight don't be surprised if they take this into account when calculating a price for your journey.


- Make sure the price is clearly agreed upon before you get on the bike. Otherwise there will be an argument when you reach the destination.

- Befriend a local driver near your house and get his mobile phone number (because they all have cell phones). And then anytime you need a trusty driver you can call him up and he will take you home. If you're too drunk to find your way home this can be helpful.

- Another thing to know ahead of time is that often people in Vietnam don't use maps. Instead they will ask around to get the general direction and then when they get closer they will ask again and eventually they will find the place. But they may get lost a few times on the way and hopefully it's not further than they thought in which case they'll bug you for more money. Not that it's your fault.

- Have Google Maps on your smartphone and show them exactly where you want to go because they won't understand your Vietnamese pronunciation of street names. They are much more likely to recognize the street name by seeing it written down rather than hearing you try to pronounce it. This applies to regular taxis as well though. One day we'll all have Androids and this will no longer be an issue.

- If you don't have a map you can also try writing down the name even without the accent marks (called diacritics). It's not your fault that Vietnamese is hard to pronounce at first. P.S. Learning Vietnamese, while difficult compared to learning Spanish, is definitely possible.

- As always when haggling on prices, be prepared to refuse and walk away. This means you should keep in mind the locations of a few other motor bike taxi drivers in case this one says no. So you might walk past the first one you see and not start bartering until the next one you see. Often times they won't agree to take your price until you turn your back to them. Practice showing people your back side a few times.

At the end of the day, though, a lot of xe om drivers outside the touristy areas are trying to earn a meek living and aren't just scheming to rip you off. Know what the approximate going rate is, be prepared to pay it, and don't get upset if he (and sometimes, though very rarely, she) tries to charge a 20% premium for having to make sense of the noises coming out of your mouth or to carry your bonus hundred pounds of weight. Just so long as you're not paying what it would cost to take a taxi.

And there's always the bus. For only 4000 VND you can cross the city in style.


We were only just going to a cafe, just a two minute drive away. I pulled onto a wide one-way street, a stretch of road which connected four major throughways, and drove along the straightaway while doing my best to not hit anyone in front of me - the only rule of the Vietnamese road. But out of nowhere another bike came in on my right, leaning into me, tangling our bikes together like knotted headphone cables.

When I first learned to ride a motorbike, I was a foreigner who came from an extremely car-based culture to Vietnam, a country which shows how a society can be built to work around motorbikes rather than cars. I wasn't used to seeing so many bikes and so few cars on the roads, nor was I used to riding a motorbike yet. But living in Vietnam the Vietnamese way means eating with chopsticks (for noodles, but using hands to eat chicken feet) and getting around via scooter.

After several years of riding a Honda motorbike in Vietnam, including a fantastic voyage from Saigon to Hoi An via the central highlands, I finally got into my first accident. If you ride in Vietnam long enough, it will happen to you too. It's like cancer - survive everything else long enough and cancer will kill you. You can lead a safer life and reduce your odds but the odds aren't great. Cut out bad habits like texting while riding, rubbernecking at Vietnamese girls. But if you live long enough without anything else killing you you'll wreck your bike.

Each year some 11,000 Vietnamese, and a handful of foreigners, die in motorbike accidents. For those who like gruesome soundbites, that's 1.5 deaths every hour. The number of non-fatal accidents is clearly orders of magnitude higher as they occur more often. In the middle are the statistics who sustain serious injuries and who will not be able to work to pay for their own medical bills. Sometimes the dead ones are the lucky ones.

You can drive slow. You can ride a 50cc Honda Cub that can only ride slow at its maximum speed anyways. You can concentrate on avoiding hitting anyone in front of you, as you must trust everyone behind you also does. You can be the minority who uses turn signals and stops at red lights. But you can't do a damn thing about someone running a red light or quickly passing you and then pulling into you well before they've cleared you (which is what happened to me). You can't get out of the way when a drunk-driving car fails to stop at a red light and smashes through rows of stopped bikes.

If you ever do "put your bike down" while you're moving, your two options are to stop suddenly or to skid. Both have their downsides. Stopping suddenly can lead to death (unless your bike is equipped with an airbag), while skidding can cause road rashes (unless you're wearing elbow pads and knee pads and some protective gloves).

"Sorry, I couldn't see anything because of my hood and I was running late to class!"

In my case, either the impact or my bike getting twisted up with the other person brought my bike down quickly and I slid down the street for what seemed like a while and I mangled my fingers and slid on my arms, elbows, and knees and somehow tore my pants at the hips and crushed my chest, while keeping my passenger (and the laptop I'm writing this on) protected. In hindsight, I should have leaned away from the ground as much as I could including taking my right hand off the handlebar.

I have advice for both cases. If you die, I'd love to hear from you - please leave a comment. If you get road rashes, after cleaning out the wounds (you should go to the hospital if you see bones or anything more than the first few layers of skin), you should apply generic Neosporin, which you should go find right now, before you ever need it, under the generic name of the 3 drugs it contains. What you find may include a topical anaesthetic as a bonus. It's actually quite hard to find so you want to have it on hand before you get into an accident. If you get nothing else from reading this post, just go out and buy a bunch of bottles of that stuff and give them away to your friends and loved ones.

Face it, Saigon is a hot and dirty city. You want to keep the wound moist, but not sweaty. Once you venture out you'll see how many different ways that germs could get into your wound from the dust blowing in the air off the street. You'll stare at all the people nearby not washing their hands, sneezing and coughing at you. You might think how if there was another plague we would be so screwed.

General hygiene aside, if you do get a road rash, expect it to hurt fairly constantly for a few days. This is where basic painkillers like ibuprofen (ibu in "Vietnamese") and topical analgesics help a lot. Until they scab over, try to not let the wounds get infected.

I just wrote about how to ride a motorbike. It's not hard but fairly necessary in Saigon, but that also means you're sharing the road with a lot of people who shouldn't be on motorbikes (or cars). Until Vietnam starts taking public transportation seriously though you will have to choose whether to take the risks in choosing how you want to join and be a part of Vietnamese traffic.

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