Motorcycling in Vietnam

by Robert Strauss, Aug 1, 1995 | Destinations: Vietnam / Ho Chi Minh City

Vietnam is probably not the place to learn how to ride a motorcycle. The streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are astonishingly crowded with bicycles, scooters, motorcycles, cyclos, huge, grumbling trucks, and thousands of pedestrians, each of whom operates under different and mutually aggressive rules of the road. With awe-inspiring dexterity and split-second timing, the Vietnamese are able to glide through these high blood pressure arterials with complete equanimity. The foreign visitor, however, is likely to find crossing a city street to be as challenging as piloting a space ship through an asteroid belt. Vietnam is also not a place to motorcycle if you already know how to ride. The experienced Western motorcyclist will automatically assume certain common sense rules of the road. This is guaranteed to lead to disaster. In Vietnam, aside from the theoretical rule that traffic moves on the right side of the road (as in the U.S.), none of the rules common to driving elsewhere in the world are valid. This leaves the experienced rider worse off than the person who has never ridden. Some may think, "Yes, but I've ridden across the country," or "I was a motorcycle messenger in San Francisco," or "I won the Grand Prix at Laguna Seca." Assuming that previous riding experience will help you will lead to your figurative and literal downfall as none of this will prepare you for the mayhem called motorcycling in Vietnam.

All that said, motorcycling is probably the least expensive, most convenient, most enjoyable and most efficient way to get around the country. It is unquestionably the most exciting. Once out of the cities my wife and I were able to cruise down empty rural roads at fifty miles an hour while rarely encountering another vehicle. We were able to show up in villages that had seen few visitors and even fewer Americans. We had complete flexibility to come and go as we pleased. We followed small paths to deserted beaches and sleepy villages. We were able to escape the heat and cramping of busses and trains. We stopped at road-side attractions not yet in the travel guides.

Honda 50s, 70s, 90s and 100s are infesting Vietnam the way nutrias have taken over the Louisiana bayous. These bikes can be rented in most cities, fixed almost anywhere and are reliable and economical if not always comfortable or well suited for Vietnam's roads. If you're used to riding the latest superbike, these bikes might seem like toys. It's possible to ship a large cycle to Vietnam, but be aware that there's probably not a spare part available anywhere in the country. Even Japanese bikes over 150cc are still rarities. To see Vietnam by motorcycle, the best bet is to rent or buy what's locally available and, in most cases, that means a small Honda.

Before renting a bike and attempting your first merge into traffic, it would be useful and potentially life-saving to know what to expect. Because the Vietnamese are so wildly imaginative when it comes to inventing driving stunts never thought of before, the following list should not be considered as comprehensive but simply a general outline of potential hazards.

Never rent a motorcycle that doesn't have a functioning horn. In practice, motorcycle horns in Vietnam are about as useful as automobile alarms in the US: they are forever going off and yet no one pays any attention to either of them. Nevertheless, going out without a horn can only be described by terms like "death wish," "suicidal," or "wild, thrill seeker." You must have a horn, the louder the better.

Just having a horn is not enough. It took me several weeks to realize that horn signaling, like the Vietnamese language, is tonal. The same sounds can mean many different things depending on tone, inflection, duration, position and personal nuance. These tones are very difficult to master and can only be understood after several hundred near (and not so near) misses. For example, a short toot on the horn can mean, "Hi," "I like you," "Look here," "Where are you from?" "I'm overtaking," "Are you overtaking?" "I have no brakes, I'm going to hit you," "You just hit me," "That was my chicken you just ran over," or any combination of these. The only signal that is immediately distinguishable to the new rider in Vietnam is an extremely loud, heart-stopping, single blast that cuts through the general din like a fog horn. Almost certainly this means that a large military style vehicle or an overloaded bus with bad brakes and no tire tread is about to flatten you. In this case, immediate evasive action must be taken. From the time you mount until you have parked your bike the thing to remember is that your left thumb must never, ever leave the horn button.

The next thing to realize is that most Vietnamese drivers' field of vision is extremely narrow, generally limited to the 30 degrees directly in front of them. This approach takes some getting used to but once mastered is very convenient. Anything behind or to the side is not your concern (the exception being the large loud vehicles just mentioned). I did not understand this right away but suspected something was up from the positioning of the rear view mirrors on those motorcycles that had any mirrors at all. The fashion, particularly in Saigon, is to mount the right hand mirror on the left handlebar and the left hand mirror on the right so that the two come together in the middle like hands in prayer. With the mirrors in this position it's very easy to touch-up one's make-up or sunscreen but it is impossible to see anything behind the bike at all (which is, of course, irrelevant anyway).

At first I found this befuddling. Why not simply take the mirrors off, I wondered. I decided there must be some inventive reason for this, such as shielding the rider's face from the wind and dust. I unscrewed my mirrors and gave it a try. My eyes still became clogged with exhaust fumes and dust. The only advantage I could see was that I was no longer distracted by the riders about to run me over from behind.

Eventually I asked a young local rider what the idea was. He looked at me with the disdain of the hip informing the unhip. "It looks cool," he said and rode on.

Next to the horn, brakes are the most important piece of mandatory equipment. Unfortunately, the Vietnamese consider functioning front brakes, like mirrors, as fashion accessories. This will be most distressing to the experienced rider who, about to collide with a cyclo carrying twelve children home from school, grabs the front brake lever in last second desperation. In 99 out of 100 cases, this will have approximately the same stopping effect as Wiley Coyote's clawing at the air as he plummets to the bottom of a dry riverbed while tied to an anvil. In other words, there will be no slowing effect whatsoever. Apparently the Vietnamese feel there is an inherent contradiction in having a brake lever operated by the same hand that controls the throttle. In over a month of motorcycling in Vietnam, I never was able to rent a bike with a functioning front brake.

Motorcycle clothing is another concern for the Western rider. There are two schools of fashion in Vietnam. In the north, green army fatigues and matching pith helmets are the rage. In the south, women wear elbow length, Jackie Kennedy-style gloves, high collars, long skirts or slacks, and bonnets straight out of 1950s musicals. The men tend toward T-shirts and shorts. Open-toed sandals or flip-flops are common footwear throughout the country but cannot be recommended to the safety conscious or those with fresh pedicures. Quite a few Vietnamese ride barefoot which is pleasant and cool and also provides for extremely exciting Fred Flintstone type emergency stops.

For Westerners I suggest sturdy all natural fiber clothing such as cotton or khaki. Long sleeves and long pants are absolutely necessary protection against the sun. Pick colors that will look reasonably clean after a full day of riding through the red dust and mud of Vietnam's back roads. (Leave your leathers at home.) Bandannas for the face and neck may make you look like a bandit, but the extra protection against the sun is worth the sacrifice in style. A broad brimmed hat may be difficult to keep on your head, but provides still more relief. If traveling with a passenger, an umbrella for further protection against sun and rain can be a useful accessory. You can monitor your riding skills by how well you can keep all these things in place. The rider who keeps his hat on his head at forty mph while transporting an umbrella carrying spouse, two or three children, and a large farm animal has truly mastered the art of Vietnamese motorcycle riding.

Here are a few additional rules of thumb or advisories:

Advisory #1.

Expect anything. The more incredible or improbable a maneuver might be, the more likely it will occur directly in front of you. People making U-turns on one way streets, or veering across several lanes of traffic without signaling, or stopping to fix a break down in the middle of a jammed street are common-place and must not distract you from the more perilous things that other riders will be doing all around you. For example, as our Honda 70 struggled up the Hai Van pass between Danang and Hue, my wife and I couldn't help looking out over the lush hills, empty beaches and turquoise sea. "QL1," or Vietnam's Highway 1, is as serpentine and picturesque at this point as any road in Switzerland. I was constantly looking back and forth between the scenery and on-coming traffic. I heard my wife gasp and looked ahead just as two huge transport trucks came around the next bend, side by side, trying to overtake each other while coming straight at us. I veered off the right hand shoulder as the two smiling, laughing drivers continued to play chicken down the curving 15 percent grade.

What may be more dangerous than how the Vietnamese drive and ride is one's own reaction to what they are transporting. While struggling to keep me, my wife and our rented bike upright on a muddy, washboard section of road between Hanoi and Halong Bay, a scooter with a live cow harnessed to the back passed us going the other way. My wife was so stunned she started pounding on my back while screaming, "Did you see that?! Did you see that?!!!" Turning around to get another look, I lost control of the bike and we nearly plummeted into a rice paddy. Seeing a family of five or six with all their week's shopping on a sputtering Honda 50 is no reason to take your eyes off the road.

Advisory #2.

Do not think that a multiple lane road means you can take it easy. Although most roads in Vietnam are narrow, lightly traveled paths, there are a few stretches of wide, multiple lane, well-paved highways. These provide great temptation to let down one's guard. Don't do it. A four lane highway in Vietnam only means that rather than a single lane of opposing traffic to monitor there are now four. Heightened caution required.

Advisory #3.

Cyclos, Vietnam's pedicabs, like dirigibles and sailing ships, have absolute right of way and can be expected to stop or turn directly in front of you without so much as a glance over the shoulder by the cyclo driver. Although cyclos are a motorcyclist's most dangerous adversary they can also be one's ally. The traffic circles of Saigon make the etoile around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris look like a merry-go-round. Before entering a round-about in Vietnam it's best to let a cyclo run interference for you. Trying to enter without protection can induce catatonia in the most experienced riders. With a cyclo on either side you will miraculously slide through what appeared to be an impassable logjam.

Advisory #4.

The left hand turn. Even in countries with long driving histories, a left hand turn on a motorcycle is perilous. The rider waits unprotected in mid-intersection for a break in the opposing traffic. The Vietnamese have made a radical improvement on this dangerous maneuver, but, like bungee jumping, it is not easily done the first time.

When preparing for a left hand turn, begin edging to the left side of the street half a block before the intersection. Gradually ease into oncoming traffic at a 175 degree angle while maintaining speed. In this way, you will thread between the opposing streams of traffic and any collision will be more glazing than a direct hit. Once at a corner, fight for the inside edge. The apex of the turn represents the most dangerous situation in all of Vietnam's swirling traffic. Here you will meet pedestrians, sidewalk vendors and opposing traffic attempting right hand turns all at the same time. At the middle of this vehicular venturi tube no escape seems possible. Hold fast. Like a meteor flung back into space by the centrifugal force of a nearby planet, you nearly always will be propelled around the corner unscathed. Having completed the turn continue on into opposing traffic, again at a 175 degree angle, while edging over to the right side of the street. Practice this maneuver forty or fifty times during daylight and then attempt at night. When confident attempt without lights.

Once you have mastered these fundamentals, you can add new excitement to the experience by renting motorcycles made in the former Soviet Block. Fit and finish are not terms associated with the Russian "Minsk" or the East German "Simson." These bikes, while much more powerful than the Japanese scooters, hold the road like buckets of rusted bolts. The kick starter is mounted on the same shaft as the gear shift and is designed to remove all the skin on the inside of one's ankle each time you attempt to start the bike. The carburation systems are consumptive and, on a healthy day, require a full five minutes of priming, coughing, belching and backfiring before any forward motion is possible. A vile, grimy exhaust the color of tobacco juice, is produced by their two stroke engines. Handling is sloppy, the horn, lights, clutch, starter and other components are strictly hit or miss and make one long for the reliability of 1960s British-made equipment. One Minsk I rented had a worn rear axle bearing that caused the bike to whip rhythmically back and forth from end to end. Motorcycling in Vietnam provides enough excitement for most but some may find additional exhilaration from driving these relics of East European automotive engineering.

Renting a bike will probably cost anywhere from six dollars to twelve dollars a day depending on location and the type of bike with discounts available for long term rentals. For the long distance rider, the best bet may be to buy a used bike in good condition for resale at the end of the journey. Test ride it first and make sure the horn works before you get on. Most rental shops will ask you to leave your passport in lieu of a cash deposit (keep a photocopy!). In some of the secondary cities and towns there are no formal rental shops but by asking around you will certainly find someone ready to rent his bike to you. Licenses (international or otherwise) seem to be optional and are certainly irrelevant to the actual experience although this may not be the case if you get in an accident or are stopped by the police. To be safe, get an international license endorsed for motorcycles.

A final consideration for the motorcyclist is should one travel north to south or vice versa, I recommend beginning in Hanoi and heading south. Hanoi's traffic, though perhaps more reckless, is less congested than Saigon's. It's easier to get out of town and onto smaller, safer roads. By the time you get to Saigon you'll be ready for the Sunday night promenade which is Vietnam's answer to the Spanish paseo. Thousands and thousands of motorcyclists, scooter riders and bicyclists clogs the streets in the heart of Saigon with no purpose other than to see and be seen. Like threads crossing back and forth in a high speed loom, the riders shuttle past each other in a tight knit without ever touching. Not to be missed.

Finally, remember that riding a motorcycle in Vietnam is like John Wayne leading the settlers through Indian territory in an old Hollywood Western. You know that danger lurks just around each bend. You brace yourself and cautiously move ahead. Moments of quiet and calm will be followed by sweaty palms and complete mayhem. At times forward progress will appear completely hopeless. You may have to retreat and regroup. Projectiles will fly all around you. The noise, the dust, the frenzy, will be unfathomable. Your compadres will be lost in the swirl and it will be every man for himself. But eventually, miraculously, the road will open and you will emerge on the other side. It will then be time to give thanks, reposition your mirrors in prayer and ride on.

Happy trails.