Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

The Motorbike Diaries – Vol. 8

15 Comments 28 April 2009

The real deal...

The real deal...

Start from the Beginning – Motorbike Diaries Vol. 1

If you want to know how to get your own Vietnam Motorbike License without bribing an official – check out Vietnam Motorbike License website!

My motorbike license recently arrived proving that bribing officials here actually works. See, you learn something new every day in Vietnam. Of course the whole license is in Vietnamese and I can’t read a thing but my name. For all I know the rest could say “Sucker! This rich foreigner thinks this is a real license. Take her bike and demand more money.”

Note to self…have someone translate license.

The license arrived just in time because the gossip traveling through the expat community in HCMC is the police are ‘cracking down’ on foreign drivers. I find that slightly disturbing since I think that we, foreign drivers, are probably some of the safest drivers in the city compared to the locals. Most of the time I find I’m the only one waiting at a red light, while everyone zips by me with their horns blaring totally ignoring the stop light. I still have a hard time blatantly ignoring stop lights; too many years of conditioning I guess.

See, I actually do take it out of my living room!

See, I actually do take it out of my living room!

The good news is that I’m getting into the groove with the motorbike. I’ve improved in many ways. I’ve listed my top accomplishments in the last few weeks. Sure, they might seem trivial, but trust me, these aren’t trivial things to me; these are major accomplishments!

1. I can get it in and out of my apartment myself now without one of my neighbors having to help me.
2. I am no longer the slowest person on the road, I’ve learned that speeding up is actually a good thing. Aggressive driving here is key. In fact, I’m fascinated by the fact that the Vietnamese are never really in a hurry. My old driving instincts have resurfaced and I find that I get annoyed with slow drivers just looking around.
3. I have conquered the rain…ok – I’m embellishing a bit, it wasn’t a huge storm, but it did require me to pull over to the side, get out my purple rain poncho from under my seat and become one of the masses driving a motorbike in a rain poncho.
4. I’ve learned how to drive up a curb under control. Basically this means that I’ve learned how to park on the sidewalk which is a necessity here. This requires going up on the curb which sounds easy, but when you still aren’t very sure of your throttle control, it’s a bit stressful! I’m always worried that I’m going to ‘gun it’ too much and go straight through the glass window in front of me!
5. I’ve become one with my horn! Yup, that’s right, if you are going to drive any type of vehicle in Asia, you have to learn how to use your horn. The horn is your way to communicate – mine normally says “um…hello, I’m trying to merge through the traffic circle”, or “howdy, just want to let you know that I’m on your left in your blindspot so please don’t run over me”, or “don’t even think about pulling out in front of me.”, or finally “HEY! Get out of my f’ing way!”.
6. I’ve learned how to do the Vietnamese right turn…it’s actually quite easy. You don’t signal, you don’t slow down, you don’t look; instead, you simply act as if you are the only person on the road and you just turn without any checking or hesitation. This is also how you generally turn onto the road from a driveway or sidewalk too.
7. I’ve learned (maybe attempted is a better word!) how to drive at rush hour at night and quite frankly, it’s terrifying! Especially when you have to go through traffic circles and dodge buses. You end up walking on your bike for most of the time while sucking up noxious fumes = no fun.

Things I’m still trying to master:

1. Driving a passenger on my bike. I actually practiced this last weekend. I had a friend that was crazy enough to let me try this. Her thought was that I would be safer to ride with than the locals…I’m not too sure about that, but I was honored that she thought so! We went to a secluded district and practiced. It was quite different as the balance on the bike was drastically different to get used to and I found that it took longer to stop the bike (my college physics still do come in handy once in a while)! Toting around passengers will definitely need some more practice before I’m ready to do it in the heart of the city!
2. Left turns still are still a challenge to me. Granted, I’m improving, but I still have a ways to go. Left turns are easy if you have a posse of motorbikes to turn left with. Then I nicely tuck into the posse as if I belong there and go with them letting them pull out first and stop the traffic. Yes, I’m using them…but you would too in this situation. When you don’t have a posse, then it gets infinitely harder. That requires me to go out alone and try to inch across oncoming traffic. There are not ‘turn signals’ (nor are there turn lanes) here that keep the traffic stopped while a group of people turn left. Nope, you are on your own…you turn left like you cross the street, slowly, slowly. Inch out, and watch the oncoming traffic, inch out some more, inch out some more so that now you are in the middle and the traffic is now going around both sides of you as if you were Moses trying to part the Red Sea and it’s closing in behind you. Keep inching, and finally someone will give you a break and go around the back of you and you can zip across.
3. Trying to read street signs and drive is next to impossible for me. That means that my motorbike riding is still somewhat limited to the places I know how to get to. Trying to find a new place is stressful beyond belief. I still don’t know what half of the signs say and there’s not a ‘shoulder’ to pull over on and get your map out. Oh, if I only had motorbike GPS…that would be awesome!

I have to admit, everyday I’m out on the motorbike I wish that I could take all of my blog readers with me to experience it with me. I fantasize about ways that I could duck tape my camera on the front and take video somehow without people trying to steal it! Trust me, if I figure out how to do that, you’ll be the first to know! Until then, you just have to take my word for it!

If you want to learn how to get your own Vietnamese motorbike license – then check out this great site – Vietnam Motorbike License!

Like what you read?  Then keep reading!

The Motorbike Diaries – vol. 9

Your Comments

15 Comments so far

  1. Lynn says:

    Sherry I am SO Proud of you! I cannot imagine driving a motorbike in Vietnam – crossing the street was terrifying in itself!

    I was at a nail salon last week. I always tell the manicurist (invariably Vietnamese) that I’ve been to Vietnam. After they get over their disapointment that I’ve “only” been to Hanoi and not Saigon they are happy to meet a Westerner that knows a little about their country. I told her about you and that you were learning to ride a motorbike. She was VERY impressed. She was like me; it was enough just to cross the street!


  2. Dad says:

    This sounds a little different than going around on our Koerner Rd. driveway like you use to do when you were first learning the bike, maybe about 4 or 5 years old. All of that practice must have got you ready for this motorbikeing. Good luck and keep it upright!!


  3. Colin says:

    the main reason I even moved here is the motorbike driving, I just find it so invigorating, it makes every day seem fresh and makes me feel alive, I just bought my first bike, the Honda Click 2008, it was expensive, but omg, it is so amazing, I just love riding, but I am 26 year old boy, so I tend to drive way too fast and reckless :~)

    my advice is always just take it like a school of fish, never make any abrupt moves and you’ll always be fine, and just trust that you can always make the turn, people don’t want to hit you, they’ll stop, I have had to make tough left hand turns with cement trucks coming from one side and cars from the other, but as long as you flow, just trust, it will always work out, seriously, the traffic just flows so great here, everyone just has no road rage, and like you said, just pay attention to your front and you’re fine

  4. Carlye says:

    I’m so proud of you, Sherry! Next stop – driving the wrong way on your street to avoid having to go around the block!

  5. Mike says:

    How long did it take to get a license? I’m in Saigon for the summer but not sure it’s worth the hassle. I’m bummed. Never before when I was here was the topic of a license even discussed.

  6. admin says:

    It took about 4 to 5 weeks – and it was all ‘under the table’. If you don’t get a license – just be prepared that they may take your motorbike and impound it for a month – or you may be ‘forced’ to pay a bribe…it’s all a gamble!

  7. Brian Bowling says:

    Yes thats true. Its all about bribes here. I learned that on my first trip here. Anything to do with the government or police is all about giving them some money. You try to do that back home in america and they will arrest you on the spot. Different world here with different rules. You are a brave person Sherry. Out there driving in that madness. I think I will probably cause an accident because I like to stop at red lights, and signal before I turn, and stop and check before I just pull out onto the street. But not here boy. That can get you killed. Hang in there.

  8. Lynn says:

    Hi, I am new to VN & am very keen to get a proper licence & be on the road ASAP. I’m kind of clueless where to start …suggestion?

  9. ian says:

    hi,I like your blog, it says everything i want to say about riding a scooter in hcmc, but more eloquently than I can put it.
    It’s crazy (compared to what we know) but it works, somehow it just works well. The only negative thing I think is the stench of 2 stroke fuel and the headache it gives you if yo spend too long in the traffic!
    I have gone through the whole getting a licence thing alone, with only google translate pre written questions to get me by, taken 3 days and many taxis and photocopying and visits to “departments” but I finally have a test booked and will get my licence shortly after that assuming i pass!
    I heard plenty stories about bribes and impounded bikes, I do use my scooter low key, but waiting till I am ligit to use everywhere, then I will enjoy being pulled over and producoing all the right docs which they wont expect!
    good luck, if ur still in hcmc, feel free to give me a shout, I just arrived, planning 2 yrs here, just about to start vietnamese lessons, need few more people, its Ian – ianrburl@gmail.com

  10. Chinh says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I am vacationing here in Bien Hoa and today was my second time riding a bike. My wrists still hurt I guess from holding the handlebars the wrong way. I think I will keep to small streets this time around. Still too scared to go out onto the major roads. I agree about the curb thing… it’s very easy to throttle too much and end up in somebody’s shop.

  11. Leo says:

    Hi if your new to Vietnam and need some advice or help with anything please email me, I know what its like to be new in a foriegn country with laws that are so unpredictable!
    I live in Ho Chi Minh city. :)
    you can email me at allvintagecollections@gmail.com


    • admin says:

      Thanks Leo! I could have used you a year ago!!! I actually lived there from 2008 to end 2009. I can imagine how much it has changed in a year since I left! I actually miss my motorbike quite a bit….and of course the food!

  12. Anh Wu says:

    Some updates:

    1. Vietnam now issues plastic driving license that is available in Vietnamese and English. The one at the top of this article was the old paper license.

    2. The government is working on a new law that stop businesses from hiring bikes to foreigners who don’t have Vietnamese motorbike driving license. The point is how to facilitate the process of coverting foreigner licenses into temporary Vietnamese licenses is still going on. Currently, it’s almost impossible to get a Vietnamese driving license with a tourist visa. I guess there will be no action until next year. Until then.

    • Sherry says:

      Thanks for the updates – it was 5 years ago that I was there – so I’m sure things have changed. However my license wasn’t paper – it was at least laminated in plastic. I still have it as a souvenir! It will be interesting to see how things transpire as renting a motorbike in VN is one of the great tourist things to do.

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Sherry traveling the world

I'm Sherry, a corporate cube dweller turned nomadic traveler. I travel to off-the-beaten-path destinations to bring you unique travel experiences and photography. But it's not just about travel, it's also about life experiences of a middle age wanderer.
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