Just last year, a census in Vietnam revealed that this tiny coastal country is home to an estimated 37 million motorbikes. That’s about 15 million more motorbikes than there are people living in Australia. And, if you compare it to Vietnam’s own population, that’s approaching one motorbike to every two people. When I first arrived in Vietnam nearly four years ago, I took one look around and resigned myself to the fact that I’d never be able to cross the road again. Had you told me that in a matter of weeks I’d be whizzing around in the melee on my own motorbike, I’d have called you crazy.
But that’s exactly what happened. After a few weeks ambling to and from work by foot, I decided that it was time to throw caution to the wind and jump in. I’ve now been conquering Vietnam’s frenetic streets for over three years on my prized 70cc Honda Cub – rubbing shoulders with the same motorists I used to shake my head at in amazement. Suffice it to say, I’ve learned a few things along the way.
Getting around in Vietnam is an experience you’re unlikely to have anywhere else in the world, so it’s worth giving it a go on your visit. Before you stroll out into the chaos though, there are a few things you should know about Vietnam’s roads – and how you fit into the mix as a pedestrian, a cyclist or a driver. Here are my top tips for getting around and following the road rules in Vietnam without losing your head (or some other body part).
Tip #1: Just keep moving
Sometimes I compare crossing the road in Vietnam to a shark swimming. The moment a shark stops moving forward in the water, it stops breathing. The same can be said for crossing the road in Vietnam’s big cities – but no matter how many motorbikes are whizzing toward you, the key is to keep a steady forward momentum.
That’s because crossing the road in Vietnam is actually a joint effort, a sort of unspoken agreement between a pedestrian and a motorist. Even if it looks like dog-eat-dog, motorists always have their eyes trained on the road in anticipation for pedestrians crossing. When they do cross, the assumption is always that the pedestrian will keep moving forward – never backward – and the motorist should adjust their speed and trajectory accordingly. If you stop or back up, it throws off that unwritten rule between the pedestrian and the driver and forces them to over-correct.
Obviously there are exceptions to the rule – if a car is barrelling towards you with no signs of stopping, it’s a good idea to halt so it can pass. Just make sure you don’t step backward – cars and motorbikes are used to passing pedestrians within just inches, the key is to not get spooked.
Tip #2: Expect the unexpected
Whether you’re walking, riding a bicycle or driving a motorbike, this is one rule to live by in Vietnam. Sometimes locals like to joke that traffic rules in Vietnam are more suggestions than they are laws. You can’t assume that a red light means that everyone will abide by the rules. In Vietnam, the trick is to hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
So, when you’re waiting for a green light to cross the road at an intersection, make sure to look before you set off. Even when you’re crossing, keep your eye on the motorbikes and cars in case someone decides to hit the gas. If you’re cycling or driving, keep your hand on the brake and try not to get too close to the pavement at crossroads. Cars and motorbikes will often turn onto roads without looking beforehand, so it’ll be up to you to slow down or swerve to avoid them.
Tip #3: Keep your eyes on the road
Since Vietnam’s traffic is almost entirely made up of motorbikes, some of the popular road rules common in car-filled countries are obsolete here. Unlike cars, motorbikes don’t need to switch lanes to pass someone, nor do we have so much mass to consider before doing so. Motorbikes are small and agile, and it’s easy to weave between traffic to make the commute a little faster.
But that kind of agility means that Vietnamese drivers are much less likely to check their side view mirrors or glance back before they merge or turn. Part of that is because we need to be ready for anything up ahead (like a pedestrian). We like to make it easy with this simple rule of thumb: anything within your line of sight or immediate periphery is your responsibility. Anything that lies outside of that isn’t.
Basically, if you’re looking forward on your motorbike, anything that you can see on either side is up to you. Otherwise, you rely on everyone else to take responsibility for their own line of vision. If you’re whizzing around on your motorbike or bicycle, keep this in mind – that motorbike in front of you probably isn’t going to give you much of an indication that they’re merging. If they can’t see you, be prepared to correct if they decide to swerve.
Tip #4: Slow and steady
The biggest lesson you’ll learn while getting around on Vietnam’s roads is that going fast is the quickest way to get hurt. There’s a reason why cars and motorbikes don’t move too fast in Vietnam – the faster you’re going, the harder it is to anticipate what other drivers are going to do. Pedestrians, cyclists and motorists all tend to hit the brakes more than they do the gas. So take your time, don’t get in a hurry and enjoy the chaotic atmosphere of urban Vietnam at a strolling pace. You’ll be happy you di.
About the author
Originally from Arizona, Karen Hewell is a senior content manager at Buffalo Tours and the proud owner of a 70cc Honda Cub. She spends most of her days off exploring her chosen hometown of Hanoi, Vietnam and beyond. When she isn’t researching her next road trip, she’s travelling around Southeast Asia in search of her next adventure… or at least her next cup of coffee.
Want to book a Vietnam tour with Buffalo Tours and Flight Centre? Speak to one of our consultants today by calling 0800 678 1134, visiting www.flightcentre.co.uk or heading in-store.