Negotiating Vietnam’s Crazy Traffic

March 19, 2007 14 Comments »

Vietnam traffic and transportation
Traffic is Vietnam is exhausting…

View Vietnam Photography

These pictures speak for themselves…it’s all about the motorbike in Vietnam! Mix that in with some bicycles, a few pedestrians, and a very few cars – and you’ve got a lot to photograph! As you can see – the Vietnamese don’t need the trunk of a car – they can strap ANYTHING to a motorbike!

The first time I went to Rome I was in awe of all of the motor bikes zipping around – I thought it was great in a chaotic sort of way. When I arrived in Bali this year, I thought, Rome is for amateurs! I’ve never seen so many motorbikes in my life – and families of 4 riding on one motorbike. I really thought that I had seen it all. I landed in Vietnam, and I think I have now entered the motorbike capital of the world. I read in a magazine that there are around 100 motorbikes for every car in Hanoi…and I completely believe it.

Motorbikes are everywhere!

Not only are there hundreds at each stoplight – I was in amazement at how they drove amongst the few cars and pedestrians. They were everywhere, they went everywhere (even towards oncoming traffic), they would slide into the smallest places imaginable, and they regularly turned across traffic with no thought about what may be coming towards them. It reminded me of the game Frogger – but in real life. I could hear the familiar Frogger music as I watched a scooter with 3 people on it (one of them on their phone of course) jump to a free space in oncoming traffic – slowly inching their way through a left turn. I think my friend Yvonne described it best, “Red lights are only a suggestion here.”

When I was about 6 years old, I was allowed to cross the street in front of our house by myself. We lived out in the country outside of Peoria, IL. The road I lived on, Koerner Road, was in the country but it was well-traveled by big trucks. To top it off, it was curvy with a speed limit was 40 mph. My mother made me go through extensive training before crossing the street, we would practice looking both ways (with a third look just in case), and I always had to hold her hand. I eventually graduated with my street crossing degree and was allowed to do it on my own.

I can still remember the time they were blacktopping our road, and I went out to get the mail in bare feet (as I always did). I followed the rules and looked both ways and waited for the big steamroller to pass by slowly. I looked a third time (just in case) and started to cross the road. I got about 7 steps before I realized my feet were piping hot – I was walking on a freshly rolled blacktop! I ran to the other side in tears. My mom had to come pick me up and carry me back to the house. That was the scariest street crossing in my life – until I set foot in Hanoi. My puny bachelor’s degree in street crossing was worthless – I needed a PhD for Vietnam.

How to cross the street in Vietnam

You look one way and see motorbikes as far as the eye can see, the other way – same, same. There is no break in the traffic, there are no crosswalks or stop lights (that people pay attention to) – it really appears as if there are no rules at all. I found that I was terrified to cross the street – I would do anything I could to avoid it, but eventually, I had to tackle my fear. The best advice I received was to simply walk slowly and take deliberate steps. Whatever you do, don’t try to anticipate the traffic direction or movement, just look at your destination and watch each way with your peripheral vision – don’t get alarmed – just keep walking the same deliberate pace.

If done correctly – the motorbikes will avoid you. Just remember, don’t stop or step backward! They anticipate your steps, but they don’t expect you to move backward and retreat – once you’re ‘in,’ you have to keep going. It’s completely unnatural to me – but I did it – my pulse was racing by the time I got to the other side. This was the first step in getting braver and braver with the traffic in Vietnam. Eventually as I got more confidence, I rode on the back of a motorbike – which was my highlight of Hanoi!

A Sunday cyclo tour in Saigon, Vietnam

From what I can tell – there is only one rule when it comes to driving in Vietnam – when in doubt, use your horn. Use your horn to warn someone that you are going around them, use it to tell them to move, use it to tell them to stop, or use it to simply show them that you have a cooler-sounding horn! Horn use here makes NYC look like preschool. To throw more pandemonium into the mix – you would have the random kamikaze motor scooter. The guy who threw caution to the wind and would drive on the wrong side of the street – or the wrong way down a one-way street. I believe that these kamikaze men’s descendants moved to NYC and now deliver pizza on the Upper West Side.

Vietnam’s crazy traffic and transportation

Actually, you may think that having a motorbike and no car would limit you. How in the world would you transport things – let alone your family? This is no problem here…it’s easy to fit a family of four on a motorbike. I’ve seen some of the smallest babies here on motorbikes sitting on the front, hanging on to the handlebars. I even saw a baby seat attached to a motorbike! As for lack of trunk space – not a problem – they can transport ANYTHING on a motorbike. I had fun just taking pictures of all of the various items transported.

They would stack things about 5 ft. high on the back and take off. I saw a man load about 12 cases of soda on a bike, I saw tables, chickens, pigs, plastic bottles stacked 6 ft. high, TVs, panes of glass, heaps of lumber, sacks of rice, and the list can go on and on…nothing ceased to amaze me anymore. The local women would go by teetering on two wheels with massive loads of goods strapped to their little bikes. These women’s sense of balance would put Nadia Comaneci to shame.

The next problem – parking. Where do you park millions of motorbikes? The easy answer is ANYWHERE. There are sidewalks in Vietnam – but most of them are impossible to walk on due to all of the motorbikes parked along them. That leaves the pedestrians to walk out on the street most of the time – which adds to the traffic craziness. At night, all of the motorbikes are put into their garage…normally the middle of the front room in the house…I’m not joking.

Essential accessories

You need the standard accessories when you are on the move in Vietnam. It doesn’t matter if you are driving, motorbiking, bicycling, or walking – you must have a cell phone and a mask to cover your face. There’s a whole mask fashion statement that we are missing in the US. There are masks that are plain and look like a surgeon’s mask. Some of these masks come decorated, though…little puppies or kitties on them for the kids or flowers for the young girls.

Then there are also the masks that look like a cowboy bandit. They, too, come in different designs and colors. I’m actually surprised that Coach or Gucci aren’t designing high-end ones and selling them here! I did actually see a scooter with a Gucci seat here once…I’m sure that was real…ha! They basically wear masks for sun protection and pollution protection. I can’t get over the site of all of these people with masks on – it reminds me of playing cops and robbers as a kid on our bikes!

One afternoon in Hanoi during rush hour (about 5:30 PM) I went to a great vantage point – a bar above a big traffic circle by the lake. I went there to simply sit out on the balcony and watch the traffic – and enjoy a pint of course. I was mesmerized. It was everything I hoped for – pure chaos. I watched big buses plow through, I watched pedestrians try to cross the street (the poor tourists were terrible at it!), I watched young school kids on their bicycles intermix with the motorized vehicles, and it all somehow worked. I had to take a video of this as it was just beyond my ability to describe it in words.

Traffic in Hanoi during rush hour:

Motorbike crossing the street during rush hour:

Riding a cyclo in Hanoi:

Playing chicken in the countryside

When we drove out of Hanoi, I thought that we were leaving the crazy city behind – of course, this line of thought was incorrect. Driving in the countryside of Vietnam had a whole new set of challenges associated with it. There are only two-lane roads, there are bicycles mixed in with the infinite scooters and motorbikes and there are also big trucks carrying huge precariously teetering loads.

The first thing I realized is the lines on the road were just there for decoration because they absolutely meant nothing. Most of the time, the shoulder and the first half of the driving lane were occupied by scooters and bicycles on both sides. That pretty much left one lane to drive a vehicle in – straddling the center line. That leaves the question – what happens when you meet a car going the other way? Pray…and lay on the horn! Actually – it was like a game of chicken with horns. Who would give up first? Like most games of chicken when I was a kid – size and speed mattered. I really had to stop watching out of the front window and just tell myself that they do this all of the time and need to worry.

A coordinated effort!

As we sped by the throngs of school kids on bicycles, I noticed that many bikes had two people on them – this wasn’t very unusual in Asia – however, when I looked closely, I noticed that they were both pedaling, sharing the same set of standard size pedals – one with their heels on the front and the other with their toes on the back of the pedal section – what coordination! I imagined most of these pairs to be siblings, with the older child having responsibility for the younger one. I could just hear my brother yelling at me to help pedal else he would beat me up!

Since I’ve been traveling around Vietnam for the last two weeks, I have had the opportunity to try every form of transportation. I’ve ridden in cars, rode on the back of motorbikes, rode on the back of bicycles, and I’ve been in a cyclo. All of them are like stepping onto an amusement park ride – your heart starts to race, and you just hold on – I love it! I would be happy just riding on the back of a motorbike all day around town.

However – I don’t recommend riding around on the back of a bike for an extended period of time as it is not comfortable…even with my heavily padded ass! You can’t come to Vietnam and not experience the traffic – embrace it and hop on a motorbike (with an expert – i.e., local – driver, of course!). Somehow all of the strange driving ‘rules’ and situations work here in Vietnam, obviously – they have been doing this for years and years. What looks like chaos to me is completely normal to them. It makes me wonder what their reaction to NYC would be…tame – or chaotic? The one thing I know for sure is that I would rather walk over hot tar in my bare feet than cross the street in Vietnam!

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