At first I didn’t want to take to the road in Vietnam.
I had travelled extensively by bike around South East Asia, but always as pillion. Then I got a bicycle for my birthday, I nearly cried at the prospect of having to launch myself into the stream of mayhem I saw passing on the roads every day.
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It turned out to be alright, in fact I felt a lot safer than when trying to cross the roads as a pedestrian. Eventually I bought an electric bicycle from a friend, this was excellent and meant I didn’t need to exert myself so much in the blistering heat.
Then the proud day came when I rented my own Honda moped and set off into the dusty sunset with the four million other motorbikes of HCMC.
Here are some pieces of practical advice to put you in the right frame of mind if you’re crazy enough to take to the road.
Imagine you’re a fish
Someone once told me the motorbike traffic in HCMC reminded them of a shoal of fish. Each meandering along and filling the available gaps left by another.
It turns out to be strangely true and it may help you while driving along to envisage this. One must weave in and out gracefully, grouping together as tightly as possible at traffic lights, before getting ready as one synchronized mass to move again when the light turns green.
The trouble occurs when you realize you have to turn, but have five rows of non-indicating drivers between you and the way you need to go. Normally if you start indicating and carefully begin to move in, while constantly checking behind you, other drivers will swerve around you.
Making eye contact really helps and this goes for those pedestrian souls too. Remember like a shoal of fish to pay attention to who is in front of you and everyone else will do the same.
Hesitating is a dangerous business when you have dozens of eyes taking your next move as a cue to theirs.
Being alert and confident are all important when you are confronted by so many other road users. The flow of motorbikes will keep moving, while others from the opposite direction inch forwards and then in an unwritten rule of timing gain the right of way.
Almost like grains of rice tipping the balance, the bikes will keep going, ever confident, until the last second when the influx of other vehicles will begin.
Of course you’re not likely to get run over if you are in front of them, but if you start going forwards then suddenly chicken out, this will confuse everyone and make things more dangerous.
Wear a helmet
On almost every street corner in Vietnam you will see helmets for sale. Some amount to little more than hard baseball caps while others have the interior of a bicycle helmet with an exterior shell and added ribbons and bibbons.
I wouldn’t trust any of them to completely protect your skull if you crash, but they will help some way towards that purpose, plus in the cities it’s against the law to be without one.
Prices start from about $2, so this shouldn’t break the bank. Having your own is handy as many motorbike taxis lend out helmets with either no chin strap or one that dangles down to your neck.
If you are here for any time you will find that helmets are lost, stolen, borrowed and found again here there and everywhere.
Rent a decent bike
When finding a bike to rent make sure you take it for a test drive to ascertain its road worthiness.
One bike I rented would stall whenever I slowed down if it was raining, of course I didn’t discover this until quite some time had elapsed. It made slowing down at lights more hazardous than one would like (to put it mildly.)
Check that the lights work and that you can change gear easily. In HCMC the best hunting ground for bikes is around Pham Ngu Lao, where you can either ask at the couple of bike rental places or in the bars, where plenty of people will know someone with one available.
If you are up for some cross country adventures big old beasts of bikes such as Minsks can be found too.
Travel insurance often doesn’t cover riding motorbikes, but for a small premium it can be added on and if you’re planning on driving in Asia for any length of time it is well worth getting.
This especially applies to out of the way places, miles from any hospitals. If you are seriously injured, the average cost of emergency rescue is about $10,000.
To be able to rent, own or drive a car in Vietnam you must go through the rigmarole of obtaining a full Vietnamese driving license.
For bikes it is somewhat different. Technically you are supposed to hold a Vietnamese bike license, but you can rent bikes from anywhere for any length of time without one.
The police can however stop you and demand to see your license upon which you will either have to blag your way out of it or cough up some money (usually about $30.) This is not especially common though, plus they need a reason to stop you, so just drive sensibly and look like you know what you’re doing.
Rules of the road are not as strictly enforced as they are in many places and a right turn can happen anywhere regardless of red lights.
One way streets are not always one way and pavements are sometimes used as an extension of the road or as a shortcut to bypass traffic jams.
Before taking to the road try and familiarise yourself with how the traffic works by observing and riding motorbike taxis.
Good luck and be careful!