Surviving Traffic in Vietnam

Anyone who has been to Vietnam knows that our motorbike traffic is the stuff of legends. In fact, it is a common sight in most Vietnamese cities to see foreign tourists stranded on the pavement, looking fearfully across the street to seemingly-unreachable destinations on the other side. This is a particularly serious problem in our two largest cities, Hanoi and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), where the flow of motorbikes is endless at all times of the day. In fact, the flow is apparently so impressive that I’ve seen tourists taking photos of motorbike traffic (which always struck me as rather odd, since this is essentially our equivalent of tourists taking photos of traffic on Wilshire Boulevard, but who knows what tourists think). I have even seen YouTube videos on traffic in Vietnam.

So in the face of this unceasing onslaught of motor scooters, what is a hungry traveller to do when some of the ubiquitously excellent food lies tantalisingly just across a stream of motor scooters? Simple! Just start walking, don’t hesitate, and stop only for cars, trucks, and buses; the motorbikes will change course to avoid you.

What about driving? Many foreign tourists think that they can rent scooters and drive around Vietnam, Top Gear-style. While getting on a scooter and moving is fairly easy (especially on an automatic), navigating traffic is not, and tourists have the reputation of being particularly bad drivers among locals, as most have little clue how to navigate traffic and as a result cause many accidents (indeed, my car driving instructor warned us all to stop if we saw foreigners on motorbikes, as more likely than not, they would be accident-prone). Moreover, as far as I know, without a motorbike licence from elsewhere, driving a scooter in Vietnam is, in fact, illegal, regardless of what scooter rental shops may tell you.

Let’s assume everyone on the road has a licence. How, then, do you navigate Vietnamese traffic? Most of my driving experience has been in Hue and Saigon. While at first glance, driving in Hue appears easier due to the far lower volume of traffic, in my experience, counter-intuitively, driving in Saigon is in fact easier. Due to the low traffic volumes in Hue, bad drivers can get away with driving quite poorly, and often will merge into lanes or emerge from alleys at higher speeds. Running red lights and abruptly stopping are also lower-risk, due to the overall lower levels of traffic on the roads, and blinkers seem to be mere suggestions. In Saigon, despite the overwhelming volume of traffic, most rules are followed quite closely, as bad driving could be fatal. Running the red light usually means getting caught in a large stream of traffic, and signals are followed religiously by everyone. For example, if I were to put on a left turn signal in Saigon, all bikes behind me will drift to the right to give way. In Hue? Probably no one will notice. Speeding is also a much bigger problem in Hue, as the consequences of speeding in Saigon are far more serious. Sometimes, some young men in Hue will try to drive “dangerously” on the road by swerving and speeding to show off, but ironically, these “daredevils” do not dare drive in bigger cities such as Saigon. Another trick worth remembering in Saigon is that driving is ultimately a group activity. One scooter crossing a busy junction is nearly impossible; however, wait long enough and you’ll have your very own bikers’ gang that will exploit the next opening in traffic and collectively cross. This is particularly important at major junctions with traffic lights.

Now with these rules in mind, armed with a licence and a helmet, you should be able to zip down a tree-lined Saigon avenue in no time! That said, I make no promises about driving in Hanoi. I myself do not dare drive there, so if you find yourself in need of getting around our nation’s capital, I wish you all the best while I look for a taxi…

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