Driving a Motorbike in Saigon

The post that will give my poor parents a heart attack.

In Saigon, hardly anyone walks anywhere. You might walk the length of a few streets, pop to the convenience store or wander around a market, but that’s about it. Hardly anybody drives a car. You might get an Uber X or a taxi if you’re headed out with a group of friends or going to the airport, but the primary means of transport for most Saigon-dwellers is a motorbike.

There are nine million bicycles in Beijing, and 7.43 million motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh- or so was the case at the last official count in July 2016. Cars in Vietnam are significantly more expensive due to import tax (we’re talking between 40%-150% depending on the size of the vehicle), and Vietnam is significantly poorer than most western countries. Roads here are also narrower and prone to jamming; therefore, a motorbike is not only far cheaper, it’s also faster, too.

Riding a motorbike in Ho Chi Minh City is certainly an experience. In order to drive here, you have to forget almost everything you learned about driving back home. The list of things you should and shouldn’t do is legally pretty much the same, it’s just that everyone does it all anyway. Driving the wrong way up a street? No problem. Checking your mirrors? Never. Giving way? What are you talking about?

On the Vietnamese roads, a good rule of thumb is to only focus on what’s ahead of you. Cars and buses will let you know with liberal use of the horn if they want you to move. The incessant beeping here is not a display of aggression, but rather an indicator that ‘I’m behind you!’. When it’s another bike beeping at you, it’s usually just a warning that they’re about to overtake you, so don’t swerve suddenly. On the other hand, if a car flashes its lights at you, that does not mean “Go ahead!”. It means “don’t you dare.”

One of the most chaotic and intimidating aspects of driving here is roundabouts which are, quite frankly, a hot mess. There are no lanes and very little indication, meaning you usually just have to take a deep breath and navigate a busy roundabout slowly and calmly, one metre at a time.

Turning left at an intersection can also be a bit of a nightmare and often means you have to drive very slowly through a stream of traffic heading in the opposite direction, because doesn’t that make so much sense. Again, the key is to stay calm and take it slow.

Accidents are frequent here; which is unsurprising given the lawlessness of the traffic and the number of people who use their phones while driving. Often, accidents are very small, like bumping into the bike in front as you both slow down. Sometimes, they’re more serious. Road safety is not seen as very important in Vietnam; you would only need to glance at the ‘helmets’ the locals wear to deduce as much. I believe that this is due to a lack of education: there is no such thing as driving lessons here, and although the driving test does have a written component that is, like so many things in Vietnam, a problem that can be solved with money. The practical test is also, as we all saw on Top Gear, a bit of a joke: you simply have to prove that you can handle a few basic manoeuvres, rather than interact with oncoming vehicles.

You might be wondering why I chose to take on this madness, and, of course, you don’t have to drive here. You can rely on Uber motos and Grab bikes to get you from A to B, but these drivers’ questionable navigation skills and complete inability to read a map will more often than not leave you frustrated. Plus, sitting on the back of a bike gets really uncomfortable after a while. I also didn’t like not being able to drive myself, and I worked so far from where I was living that getting a bike meant I halved my monthly transport costs. Besides, after a while the traffic doesn’t seem quite so bad; a few months of Ubering around familiarised me with its flow and unwritten rules.

Most motorbikes here are not Harleys or Kawasakis; they’re the ‘scooter’ variety, often with a footwell and under 150cc. My bike is a 110cc Honda Lead named Colin. It’s an automatic, so it’s very easy to drive; ‘stop’ and ‘go’ is about all there is to it. It’s one thing to control a bike, however, and quite another to drive it through the city during rush hour.

Like with anything, the best way to learn is by doing it, and so the day after I resolved to do so, I went to the bike rental place on my alley and hired one for a month. I practiced driving around the block a few times, filled Colin up with petrol, then drove to work. I’ve been driving ever since, and the craziness feels normal now. It was honestly one of the best decisions I’ve made here. I had a much greater sense of freedom and control, and I was no longer spending half my life shouting addresses down the phone at Uber drivers.

My advice to anyone thinking about getting a motorbike in Saigon would be the same as my advice to anyone thinking about moving abroad: just go.

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