Since moving to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, I have been forcing myself to adjust to the insane traffic by riding my trusty (and slightly rusty) motorbike every day. I now feel sufficiently qualified to write a mini guide to riding a motorbike on the crazy streets of this wonderfully unpredictable city!
When I first arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, it quickly became apparent that I would need to join the throngs of motorcyclists if I wanted to assimilate to the local way of life and enjoy the city to the fullest. As a complete newbie, I felt a significant degree of terror watching the city’s rush hour traffic. I just couldn’t comprehend how anyone, local or expat, could survive riding through it. Now that I am a daily rush-hour rider, I can safely say that there is a method to the madness of riding a motorbike in Vietnam.
— Firstly, understand that people treat the roads like a game of Tetris. Drivers like to fill any available slot, making the lanes tightly packed. I’m still not sure if this is due to impatience or just the will to keep traffic moving, but if you aren’t making full use of any spaces in front of you then another driver will almost always cut in, often at heart-stopping proximity.
— Watch out for the scorching-hot exhaust pipe on other people’s motorbikes (as well as your own). As traffic is so densely packed, it is easy for your leg to get burnt by a passing motorbike or when getting off your own bike the wrong way, as I experienced. These burns are affectionately called ‘Saigon kisses’; a lovely name for something that can leave a nasty scar!
— Approach a roundabout in Vietnam like you would the famous scramble pedestrian crossing in Shibuya, Tokyo. So long as you have the sense to break before bumping into anyone and you stay on course with your direction, you will make it through quite easily. I try to minimize the amount I weave about, staying in the direction of my exit and breaking whenever someone doesn’t give way.
— Embrace the ‘quid pro quo’. You may have to swerve out of the way of someone driving towards you down the street, and, yes, others will cut you up from out of nowhere, but there is no reason to get angry about this as you will probably commit a similarly heinous act five minutes later. Everyone accepts the roads the way they are here, and with that comes a shocking lack of road rage! Therefore, stay calm and enjoy the culture of ‘anything goes’!