People really don’t drive any worse than most places, in fact, driving, riding two wheelers make you drive much better, otherwise you don’t last very long.
There is no road rage. None. People will stop in the weirdest places, everyone just goes around, with nary a glance.
I’m getting accustomed to the “45° left turn”. We are taught to stop in the intersection and make a sharp 90° turn. 4 wheeled vehicles do that here, but not two wheeled conveyances, no they make a turn which puts them into opposing traffic for a while. It looks much scarier than it is to actually do. Doing it, it seems more natural since it’s easier to visualize the clear line.
Speeds are slow and the heavier the traffic, the slower the traffic, so the contacts that happen between motorbikes are usually less than 10 mph, more often only 5.
Anticipation (Defensive Driving) is the key. Everyone seems to assume that no one will stop if making a right turn or opposing traffic is just that.
Larger vehicles, trucks, buses and cars are very timid and not very aggressive.
Yes, there are rules and I for one, find them quite logical.
But then I grew up in New York City riding a bike as soon as I could everyplace. And like real New Yorkers there reason we rode bikes was because there were no rules, beyond the obvious: Don’t hit anything and don’t get hit.
Why would anyone wait for light if there is no traffic? Going against traffic on a one way or even a two-way street, of course, it’s easier to see traffic, especially for younger kids!
Ride on sidewalks? In NYC that’s where we learned.
So rewind the clock. Before the war 1960’s to 1975, Saigon was a place of bicycles, being so flat, like Holland. What has evolved is a bicycle culture using bikes that have motors. Even now, there are many stores that sell both bicycles and motorbikes.
So as soon as you put the context of the traffic in terms of bicycles, then everything that happens makes sense. Even today, watch how cyclists ride in NY and you will see the same behaviors here, only magnified by about a 10 million.
I got my little motorbike last week. It has transformed by experience in that this is not a walking town. Walking around this town is as rare as seeing an Ostrich walking down the street. The sidewalks are full of holes, but worse are the parked motorbikes all over the place.
So I joined in.
Having been a passenger on Trinh’s motorbike for the last month, I was often terrified.
But as soon as I was driving all alone, my bicycle instincts kicked in and it was easier and is even fun.
Now, if this is the last post I ever make because I was killed, then you will get the last laugh. But don’t mourn for me because I won’t know the difference.
So, as you watch my videos (sorry no GoPro, as I left them on Dauntless), all taken while a passenger by the way (I may die, but I’m not suicidal), try to put what you are seeing in the contact of riding a bicycle.
While traffic laws are seemingly ignored for motorbikes. There are rules that are enforced. Helmut’s, fastened, all the time. Trinh admonished me after I got my bike that I must keep both hand on handle bars at all times. You cannot ride with kick-stand down. I seem to forget that, but even if Trinh is not around to point it out, someone else always does!
More importantly, cars get the left lane, and they do stay out of the right lane, even to the extent that most will turn right from the left lane. Which is always exciting as motorbikes will be whizzing by constantly. Buses will sometimes stop with enough room for a motorbike to get by on the right, so exiting passengers must always be cognizant of the motorbikes.
Police are not everywhere, but they are around. Never in cars, always standing on corners or along the edge of the street. They will stop you if they see any of the no-noes mentioned above (helmets, kickstand, driving too fast).
Speaking of speed. It’s really not a problem. With little traffic, motorbikes seem to settle in the 35 to 45 km/hr. or 20 to 30 mph. With traffic, everyone is going half of that. Even more importantly, the few cars, buses, trucks and other things, that are out there, are going the same speeds. So, unlike in USA or Europe, where there are massive speed differentials, here there is very little. And no matter what you have been told, speed does not kill, speed differential kills.
Which then brings me to the carnage on the roads or lack thereof.
Having read the Expat forums before arriving. I expected to see blood flowing down the streets. Instead, in the last two months, I have seen three “accidents”. The first was two bikes getting tangled together cause one to drop. But since they were in this big traffic scrum that was moving like at 5 mph, once they got untangled everyone gets underway again. The second was more serious and it happened right next to me.
I was left of a little box truck and all of a sudden I see this motorbike lock his front brake as the truck slowed. He then hit the truck. Now since we were all initially going only about 20 mph, he probably only hit the truck at 10 and since the truck was going 5, the speed differential was only about 5 mph.
He picked himself and the bike up and drove to the side of the road. His mirror was broken and while he seemed a bit shaken, nothing was seriously wrong.
The third, just a few days again, as I was having my Ca Phi, I looked up to see the motorbike on the ground as a truck had turned right and the motorbike was inside of that. The truck driver got out immediately to see if she was OK. He and some bystanders, then helped the lady get her motorbike upright. At that point, I saw the driver ask if everything was OK. She said yes, and they both got on their way again.
I must emphasize that the average speeds here are very low, in this case both truck and motorbike were going about 5 mph and moderate traffic pretty much stays in the 15 to 20 range.
That’s it for the carnage.
I will say that if you are a foreigner and expect to come to Vietnam, in the biggest city, and learn how to both navigate a new traffic culture and learn how to drive a two-wheeled motorized vehicle. Well, good luck with that. I learned to drive a motorcycle in California with no one around. I can’t imagine doing it in real traffic.
Oh, another observation I made in my first days in trying to understand how everyone could be so willy-nilly and yet not have endless accidents, was that each driver is responsible for not hitting what’s in front of him/her.
Sounds simple and it is. It means you must be prepared for driver in front to stop, turn or whatever, all with no signals. Now, many people do signal, but you can NOT count on it.
Speaking of lights. Motobikes are NOT allowed to have headlight on in day (Italy used to have this rule for all motor vehicles before the advent of Daytime running lights). And at night, as soon as I enter garage, light must be turned off.
Horn honking. Cars, buses, trucks are expected to do it routinely. It sorts of means, “hey, look out, I am big not that minerally so don’t do stupid stuff in front of me”.
When I’ve been a passenger in a bus or a few times in Uber car, I thought the honking was a bit excessive.
But now after the first week of driving my own bike, I see some more rationale. It’s like this. When a bunch of birds are flying together, as one turns they all turn. When you are in a pack of two wheeled vehicles, motorbikes and bicycles, there is some synchrony to the movement Everyone must move over one foot to make room for the “thing” near the curb. We just all do it.
But I realized that cars are more out of touch. Without the wind in your face, it is a different environment, so they honk more, like saying, “hey, watch out, I’m sort of oblivious here, so beware”
Better words were never said.
Which also get us back to why there is no carnage. For anybody who has ever driven a motorcycle, it’s quite apparent that in any kid of accident, no matter who is at fault, it will be painful.
So it is here. And in a city of millions of motorbikes, everyone is keenly aware that it doesn’t matter how stupid the driver is in front of them, they must simply drive like their life depended on it.
And they do.
Meanwhile in the USA, while our cars become safer and safer every day, drivers are losing what little skills they may have once possessed. Accident, no problem; insurance pays and I go on.
Riding a motorbike in Vietnam that may have cost you a year’s salary to buy and being a vulnerable as you are, you drive with a totally different sense. It may not seem obvious to a stranger, but it’s as real, as real can be.
Lastly, in all this, I have yet to see any anger. I have seen some strange things. I have seen some stupid car drivers here too, but everyone just seems to accept what is. No significant horn honks in anger, motorcyclists never yell or say anything for that matter. Certainly, nothing bad. Though once when I was leaving with my kick-stand down, someone pointed it out to me immediately.
Initially to an Outsider, it certainly looks like mayhem. Motorbikes and bicycles going every which way, against traffic, on the sidewalks and driving right inside buildings!
In any new situation, I try to watch as an observer and withhold judgement until I have some data.
Watching as an observer, not biased by the framework you know, but looking for patterns and understanding of the system in front of you, then the picture will become ever clearer.
My first couple weeks, riding as a passenger on Trinh’s Honda Air Blade, one of the most numerous motorbikes. (In this blog, I call all these very small engine (50 to150cc) bikes, motorbikes. This includes was we in USA call scooters).
So, sitting behind Trinh in the first weeks, I was ??Nervous. I quickly realized in many situations it was best to just close my eyes! Yes, that was amazingly effective.
Leaving the hotel, if we had to go west, just make a U-turn in the middle of the block. Traffic too heavy for the U-turn, go around the block, are you kidding, go against traffic at a 45° angle until we are on the right side of the road. Sorry, I have no video of some of the most outrageous hijinks, because I either had my eyes closed or I was awestruck.
In the first days, I derived their first rule of the road, don’t hit what you can see.
Now a simple rule like this can be amazing effective. It certainly seems to work. Let me say now that after 6 weeks, I have seen all of two accidents, which were not so much accidents, as unintended touching, causing one or both of the motorbikes to fall down. And seeing how the traffic is all low speed, between 6 and 25 miles per hour (mph) or 10 to 40 km/hr., these incidents don’t incur significant injuries. (In fact, now that I think of it, I have only seen an ambulance racing down the street once. Contrast that with NYC where it’s a few times per hour).
When you develop and rule, a theory, you then test it against the data. So, I looked at everything with that in mind, don’t hit what you can see. What I saw was that while less than half the bikes (the roads are 90% motorbikes, 10% human powered bikes) signal their intentions, for turns, the bikes behind seem to anticipate this.