The traffic in Vietnam is known as chaotic and crazy. The endlessly flowing sea of motorbikes tends to cause a culture shock to those who travel Southeast Asia for the first time. Only crossing a road feels like a mission impossible and every time after crossing the street, you feel thankful that you are still alive. The fear is not unfounded indeed as more than 12.000 people die every year in only traffic accidents in Vietnam. But what to do when you feel tempted to hop on a motorbike on your Vietnam trip?
For us, it took some time to get used to the traffic in Vietnam but already after a week, we had learned to cross the street without getting a heart attack every time. The same concerns motorbiking: the best way to learn to drive in Vietnam is simply to get on the road. It’s recommended to practice driving in a quiet place first, especially if you don’t have previous motorbiking experience.
We managed to drive more than 2.000 kilometers across Vietnam without any accidents. During our one-month motorbike adventure (read all the stories here), we got very familiar with Vietnamese traffic culture. Motorbiking in Vietnam is never risk-free, but with these tips and common sense you can minimize many risks and also understand what you should or shouldn’t do while driving in Vietnam. At the same time, it’s good to remember that most Vietnamese are guilty of doing these things every day. This means that you have to stay aware and be prepared to all possible situations. These tips might be useful for other Southeast Asian countries too and not only Vietnam.
On the other hand, the best parts of motorcycling in Vietnam are seeing amazing landscapes and places and meeting locals outside tourist areas. This is why daring to hop on a motorbike is very rewarding!
While motorbiking in Vietnam, at least do not:
drive reclessly to crossings without looking around and hope that nobody or nothing hits you. Unfortunately, 90 percent of Vietnamese drive exactly like this, even if they turn from a small street to a highway. Such things as warning signs or right of way are not recognized in Vietnam. That’s why you have to be ready to give way or brake any time even if you are just driving straight. Also remember that many drivers go wrong way on the opposite lane, whether it’s a one-way street or a highway.
drink and drive. The sad truth is that drunk driving is more a rule than an exception in Vietnam. The people just don’t like walking and not everyone can afford a taxi so they grab motorbikes even when going out. You can go to any bar in Vietnam and you will see locals who get drunk and wobble back to their bikes in the late night. The helmet barely hits the target (if the driver has a helmet in the first place) and the keys barely find the lock, but driving home in this condition is generally accepted behavior. While watching this, you will not wonder anymore why more than hundred people die every day in traffic in Vietnam.
We tried to avoid driving in the evening and night completely because of drunk drivers. It is a pity that also many backpackers follow the local way and forget all their principles when they travel. Anyway, our advice is to stay tough and go to parties only by foot or by taxi which is very cheap in Vietnam. Even if you experience social pressure and your friends think you are a weirdo. If you wouldn’t drink and drive in your home country, don’t do it in Vietnam either.
drive in dark without lights. In fact, it’s the best to avoid driving in dark in general, because of the reason mentioned above and because of the bad condition of some roads. Our most scary driving experience was a rainy and dark road to Dalat when our travel day extended because of some incidents on the way. We saw several motorcyclists that drove in the dark without any kind of lights. It was impossible to see them before we were less than 10 meters apart from them. Repairing the lights costs only a few cents but it can save your and other people’s lives. Sometimes there are huge holes in the road and speeding to them can be lethal.
drive overspeed. When cruising on Vietnamese roads, you must be ready to hit the brakes anytime so driving overspeed just doesn’t make sense. The general speed limit is 50km/h and inside cities 40km/h. You rarely can even drive faster than this because the road can be bad or the traffic heavy. The more you speed, the more probably you also get caught and fined by the police.
load the motorbike with your family, furniture, ten chickens, bathroom pipes and 50 kilos of bananas. In Vietnam, the motorbikes are used not only for traveling but also for transporting stuff as cars are rare and expensive. Sometimes you can see quite interesting transport solutions on the road. A ten meters long and sharp metal pipe on the shoulder or a loosely fastened pile of bricks don’t really make the traffic safer. The more weight there is on the bike, the stiffer it reacts to turns and quick stops. From backpacker’s point of view, this means that it’s not wise to take a 70-liter backpack with you, especially if there are two travelers on one motorbike. Pack as lightly as you can and attach the luggage evenly on the motorbike. We had our less than 10 kg backpacks attached to side racks and some extra stuff at the back.
drive without a helmet. Helmets are obligatory according to Vietnamese law but you can still see many drivers without helmets, especially in the countryside and in Northern Vietnam. Many don’t seem to understand that a helmet might actually have some other function too than just avoiding fines. A sad but common sight is a family traveling on a motorbike where the parents have helmets but the child doesn’t. Driving with the helmet’s strap open is also common and basically the same as driving without a helmet. You can often see dropped helmets at the roadsides that the driver didn’t apparently bother to pick up again. Closing the strap takes about one second so there is no reason to leave it open.
drive with flip flops. A while ago we saw a picture of some guys foot on Facebook who had been motorbiking with flip flops. It is very difficult to forget that sight. You should definitely get proper shoes for driving that don’t fly away even in sudden situations.
When motorbiking in Vietnam, do this instead:
blend into the traffic. The most important thing in Vietnam is to understand how the traffic, that looks completely insane in the eyes of a foreigner, actually flows. The lack of traffic rules is actually sometimes a good thing as the traffic kind of rolls smoothly. You will do well in the traffic when you simply follow others and don’t drive too slowly or quickly. Normally the motorcyclists drive on the right side of the lane and overtake from the left side but there are also people who overtake from the right side. That’s why you shouldn’t do any fast movements to any direction but have a look behind before turning.
invest in a good helmet. Even if you are backpacking on a small budget and don’t want to spend much on motorbiking, a helmet is not the right place to save money. Most of the Vietnamese cap helmets are just a joke and don’t protect your head more than a hat in an accident. You can find some shops in Hanoi and Saigon that sell proper full-face helmets. We were lucky because we got two almost new quality helmets with our motorbike. This reduced the fear and stress significantly when we started our motorbike trip. It’s easy to resell even more expensive helmets as they are very wanted stuff. We also wouldn’t have survived without the visors. We can say from the experience that it doesn’t feel pleasant when a dragonfly flies into your eye.
maintain the motorbike regularly. When driving an old, manual motorbike the oil disappears surprisingly quickly. Maintaining the bike might not be similar to what you are used to back home. We had to change the oil every 300-400 kilometers which is a ridiculously short distance. Anyhow, an oil change costs only a couple of dollars and we could really feel the difference every time! Remember to tighten and oil the chain regularly too. The resell value of the motorbike stays higher when you take good care of it during your travel. Repairing a motorbike is ridiculously cheap in Vietnam and there are repair shops even in every small village.
wear long-sleeved driving clothes. Even one day of driving under the burning sun will be tough for your skin, not to mention a long motorbike trip. Long sleeves also protect your skin in a possible accident situation and help you to blend in with locals. Shorts and a tank top reveal a tourist as easily as a bright safety vest which is not what you wish if you want to avoid the police.
have many breaks. Vietnamese motorbikes are not meant for such long journeys as what backpackers driving across Vietnam usually make, so it is wise to let the engine cool down every hour or two. Believe it or not, also your bum will shout a break after driving for a while and your body needs plentiful and regular hydration in the heat.
What kind of motorbiking experiences do you have from Vietnam or other Asian countries?