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.


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.

Having just gone back to the United States for a week, here are some reasons why I no longer live ther. I didn't move abroad because of these reasons, but now that I'm living in Vietnam, these are some of the reasons why I won't move back.

1. Lawn-mowing. I'm allergic to not only the job of mowing lawns and the grass clippings and plant matter that gets tossed into the air, but now the sound itself puts me on edge. Somehow all the dust in the air and sound of motorbikes in Saigon doesn't have the same effect.

Read the rest of this article...

This is in response to a recent news article quoting an idiot Vietnamese-German "traffic expert" on a new traffic reduction proposal (read article).

Reducing traffic in Vietnam's big cities is as simple as this: limit private automobiles (cars), increase public transportation (busses and trains with grade separation). Focus on cars because:

  • Cars disproportionately increase traffic problems.
  • Compared to pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorbikes, they take up much more space per traveler.
  • They are bulky and less maneuverable, so they force everyone else to stop, slow down, be blocked, and block others.
  • Vietnam's roads are generally not wide enough for two cars to pass each other without causing traffic to slow down or stop.
  • Many roads and alleys are hardly wide enough for a car yet they are allowed to use them while blocking all other traffic.
  • Roads in Vietnam are constantly under construction which often means reduced width of lanes and more bottlenecks for cars.
  • While both bikes and cars often stop in intersections after the light turns red, a car jamming an intersection causes a much bigger traffic jam, because unlike bikes it's much harder to go around them. So one car blocking an intersection means other cars who now have the right of way can't move.
  • There is generally no parking for cars so they end up illegally parking on busy streets, reducing capacity, or they drive around idly increasing traffic.
  • Cars and bikes often use each others lanes illegally, but blockage caused by a car in a bike lane is much more severe.
  • Cars are a major culprit causing traffic jams wherever they are. The 500,000 cars in Saigon cause a lot of traffic congestion.

Clearly, taking one car off the road is more effective than many bikes for reducing traffic congestion. It's also a more equitable use of resources like land and fuel.

So-called traffic expert Nguyen Minh Dong says an odd-even license plate number scheme for keeping cars out of the city center every other day wouldn't work, mainly arguing about pollution and ignoring congestion. The problem at hand is congestion, and the corollary to his argument is that we should all buy cars in order to reduce pollution. Absurd.

Pollution would be better addressed by encouraging public transit, bicycles, walking, and affordable housing close to jobs.

But odd-even rationing has been tried many times before successfully. In nearby Guangzhou, an odd-even scheme kept 800,000 cars off the road over two months. While in other countries where cars are cheap it may make sense to buy a second car just to drive it on other days, cars are expensive here and incomes are much lower. It's ridiculous to assert that most would buy another car rather than use ways that almost all other Vietnamese take to travel, and it's ridiculous to say that an odd-even scheme would therefore not be effective.

The article argues that the "most important mission of transport police officers is to control traffic." I think that enforcing an odd-even scheme sounds a lot like controlling traffic. They then go on to argue that such a scheme "may cause" corruption. In Vietnam, enforcing any and all traffic rules causes corruption. Is that a reason to make it legal to run red lights?

There are many ways to reduce the number of cars. This reporter conveniently ignored all of them so I'll suggest a few.

  • We should restrict cars from roads that are too narrow for them and use physical barriers to stop them from entering.
  • We could make and keep roads one-way for cars but bidirectional for other traffic.
  • We can add tolls around the core.
  • We should add barriers to prevent cars from taking over bike lanes, while still making all lanes accessible to bikes.
  • We should also be considering London's congestion charging (with free routes through the city to discourage long avoidance routes) or Singapore's electronic road pricing.
  • We should NOT continue reducing fees for cars.
  • We should NOT be misled into thinking that building more highways leads to less congestion. We should learn that lesson from the US.

And finally, we should NOT just sit around and do nothing. Market forces will mean increasing car ownership in Vietnam for an infrastructure that is overloaded by them as it is. I haven't even begun to address the taxi and busses impact on traffic! That will be a future post...

Syndicate content
© 2010-2014 Saigonist.