A lesson in Vietnamese road culture

For the Westerner, traffic invites mistakes and adventures alike.

A sampling of Vietnamese traffic near a night market in Hanoi's Old Quarter.
  • A sampling of Vietnamese traffic near a night market in Hanoi's Old Quarter.

How I ended up in Hai Phong, Vietnam, with 10 other teachers is somewhat of a mystery. Being the only tays (meaning “Westerner” in Vietnamese), we were pseudo-celebrities in this small town. It was not uncommon to be stopped for photos, and you’d never have a seat to yourself on the bus. In our free time, we enjoyed roaming the crowded streets to find food, ca phe sua da (iced coffee with condensed milk) and the best watering holes.

Everyone struggles for their space on the street – bus, motorbikes and pedestrians alike.

Everyone struggles for their space on the street – bus, motorbikes and pedestrians alike.

I’ve always had a deep-seeded dislike of motorbikes. They're an unnecessary danger, and you’re exposed to the elements. Well, surprise, surprise – they're pretty much the only form of personal transportation here and throughout Vietnam.

The majority of the infrastructure isn't built for cars, plus there's a 300% tax (!) on car purchases. Unless you're ridiculously rich, a mafia member, a taxi or an embassy, there’s no chance for a car. Not even a rental. So on my second night in this strange land, I took the plunge and almost died.

Took the Minsk to explore Doi Thien Van, a pagoda on top of a mountain in Hai Phong.

Took the Minsk to explore Doi Thien Van, a pagoda on top of a mountain in Hai Phong.

"Early to bed and early to rise" fits Hai Phong to the T. Our small group of foreign teachers was pretty much the only life out on the streets past 10 p.m., so I figured it was the best time to give it a go. This crazy English lad, Tom, wanted me to get him a bánh mì pâté sandwich just down the block from where we were enjoying some late night vodka and muc (squid jerky). I got on the bike and he sat behind me.

I’ve driven a manual car for years; the concept is second nature to me. What was difficult was learning to use each limb to operate this contraption! Right hand, acceleration; left hand, clutch; left foot, gears; right foot, brake. I made it maybe 75 meters before I ended up on a sidewalk. This, in succession, made me scream, unintentionally rev the acceleration then zoom straight towards the wall of an unexpecting building. In an instant Tom reached forward from behind me, grabbed the handlebars and steered us away from the wall and off the sidewalk, dodging trees and safely onto the empty street.

Over the course of a year, I saw my fair share of wacky, disastrous road antics. I became a pretty darn good driver, even daring at times. I had some fun off-roading in mud, sand, rain and floods, and even tried to pull a James Bond move. How could I forget that?

A boulevard nicknamed "the water bridge" that separates Hanoi's West Lake and Truc Bach Lake. In the evenings and weekends, the sidewalks are flooded with vendors selling food, balloons and even small animals.

A boulevard nicknamed "the water bridge" that separates Hanoi's West Lake and Truc Bach Lake. In the evenings and weekends, the sidewalks are flooded with vendors selling food, balloons and even small animals.

While venturing the streets of Hanoi – the capital of Vietnam – I drove through a winding alley and noticed all the Viets were looking at me strangely, like I wasn’t supposed to be there. Turns out, it was not a through street. It ended with a steep staircase of about 20 stairs.

I didn’t want to look like a weirdo going back like a lost little tay, and I was feeling adventurous. This particular staircase had a very slim ramp up the middle for the skilled Viets to maneuver their wheeled contraptions up to the main street. My inner James Bond convinced me. I backed up a bit, gained some speed and with all my concentration zoomed up this impossible ramp. I actually did pretty darn good! About three-quarters the way up, I realized I was making it… so I eased off the throttle a bit. Lost momentum. Began sliding backwards. Put my feet down, then fell over, still three-quarters the way up.

What a scene for this little community to watch. I didn’t have the strength to push the bike up the rest of the way, nor could I get it down without losing control and just letting it fall. I stood there for a minute, laughing at myself and wondering how I’d get out of this conundrum. Eventually I got a passing Viet man to help me push it up the rest of the way. I tried to have a mini conversation in my basic Vietnamese, thanked him profusely and then had him help me kickstart the darn thing because magically I couldn’t get it to start.

These are the things that keep life interesting. I mean, why would there be a ramp there if I wasn’t supposed to try it?

Main thoroughfare from the top of the Hanoi Sofitel.

Main thoroughfare from the top of the Hanoi Sofitel.

There aren’t any particular road rules to follow in Vietnam. It doesn’t matter which side of the road you drive on, or your speed; blinker use is sporadic at best, red lights are optional, intersections are a free-for-all and if you don’t use your horn you’re not driving correctly! Poorly built roads are mixed with buses, trucks, a few cars, bicycles and motorbikes loaded with families and huge objects including animals and furniture. And everyone has the right of way.

Technically you have to wear a helmet, but it’s currently not on the top of the police list of things to enforce. (I don’t think it would matter much anyway in terms of head protection, considering a high percentage of the helmets are as thin and brittle as egg shells.)

Navigating the streets of Vietnam by motorbike is exhilarating. It’s a bit ironic; because the roads are so unpredictable and people do whatever they want, they're better, more aware drivers. Being back on the roads of San Diego is such an adjustment. They're so orderly and tame. I can see how this makes drivers lazy and less aware, potentially making the roads more dangerous. Us Americans could learn a thing or two from the chaotic roads of Vietnam.

Sapa by motorbike

I would still make the argument that motorbikes are an unnecessary danger on car-dominated roads, but I can safely say my perspective has changed.

Motorbike footage from Sapa, Vietnam.

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