Vietnamese traffic is famously insane, but there’s a method in the madness and it’s easy to navigate through it on your own motorbike when you know the road code.
The most common reaction I get from people who do not ride in Vietnam, when they find out I do, is, “How can you drive in this crazy traffic?”
The traffic is not crazy. It looks like a free-for-all, but it’s not. There are fixed rules. They are just a different set of rules than the ones we are used to. Not that drivers don’t sometimes break the rules, but that happens back home, too. The big difference is that in Western countries, we favour stopping in many instances where the Vietnamese will keep going.
1) Larger vehicles have right of way. Whether they are approaching from behind, or they are in your lane passing another truck, a larger vehicle will take it for granted that you know how to fend for yourself. This means reading the road ahead, and before someone ‘runs you off the road,’ knowing how to slow down and, if necessary, safely pull off the road.
2) Do not stop just to ‘be polite.’ If a truck is backing into the street, and there’s enough time and clear space to just keep going around it, that’s what you do. Any clear space you can move forward into is fair game, and the drivers behind you will expect you do it. Stopping unnecessarily will cause accidents.
3) On a related note, ‘cutting someone off’ is not considered rude. Again, any free space you can safely make your way into is up for grabs, even if that means someone needs to squeeze the break a bit. This results in no cursing our complaining, unless, of course, you force someone to break dangerously.
4) Turn by merging. Back home, you wait until traffic is clear, and then you make your turn. Here, you begin to make your turn by signalling (of course) and then by heading INTO ONCOMING TRAFFIC. Giving them, of course, time and space to flow around you. Which brings us to another unwritten rule:
5) What you think of as ‘too close for comfort,’ strikes the Vietnamese as ‘plenty of room.’ Passing within a couple of inches of each other is no big deal.
I also have some rules of the road that make sense to me, but not all the Vietnamese I share the road with adopt them as I do:
1) If you can not see what is around a turn, or on the other side of a broken-down truck you are passing, assume that there is a waterbuffalo standing in the road, a freshly-fallen boulder, a huge pot hole, a herd of goats, children fixing a bicycle, or one of those brick walls the Coyote was always putting up to catch the Road Runner. Never drive into a space you cannot see so quickly that you cannot safely stop. This is particularly true of the opposing lane. Motobikers use it all the time, to pass, to take a wider, safer turn, but you must have visual confirmation that it is free of oncoming traffic before you turn into it.
2) Turns are to be respected. If you’re going to wipe out, it’s probably going to be on a turn. Slow and on the inside is the rule.
3) Use your rear view mirrors. A lot of Vietnamese people don’t have them. Make sure your bike does.
4) Don’t break for potholes. Potholes can almost always be driven over, and, in fact, the faster you’re going, the more your momentum carries you forward and the less of a bump you’ll feel. Drive around them, drive through them, but do not even think of braking.
5) This goes for other tricky surfaces – gravel, dirt, mud, fresh tar, and puddles of water or oil. Don’t accelerate, but don’t break. Keep the bike straight, and coast through. Deep sand is the one surface that bring you to an abrupt stop, but you won’t encounter this unless you drive off-road along the coast.
6) Bad surfaces are doubly dangerous when turning or braking, or that triple threat you never want to have to try out, breaking while turning on a bad surface. Always keep the bike straight on a bad surface, if possible. If you must turn, don’t break. If you must break, use the back break and prepare to fishtale. Use the front break very sparingly, and always in conjunction with the back break, if at all. The front break is mostly good for holding the bike steady when you’re stopped on a hill and your feet are on the ground. If you use the front break on gravel, even going slowly, the bike is likely to take a nap on the road.
In any case, it makes sense to work your way into traffic gradually. Start off by observing. Make the most of a motortaxi ride to get the feel of how things work. Try out a bicycle before taking on a motorbike.