Motorbikes in Vietnam

Vietnam : There are motorbikes, and there are… MOTORBIKES.

This week, Joanne muses about the traffic in Hanoi

When I told my friends that I was going to be volunteering in Vietnam for three months, they dispensed plenty of warnings about the traffic here. The streets of Hanoi are indeed pretty intense and do take some getting used to.  I hope this blog post gives you a good head start.


The motorbike culture

Let’s begin with a personal anecdote. I’ll tell you about the first time I got on a motorbike.  It was my second day with Coins for Change, and Little Hong asked if I wanted to come along to pick her baby daughter Nhim up from day care.  So I got onto the back of her motorbike and we zoomed off.  We didn’t even go onto the main roads, just the alleys in the village.  I knew I was just being a wimp but I was clutching onto Little Hong’s shoulders like a lifeline—and the next thing I knew, we had arrived at the day care centre and she had thrust her baby into my arms.

“Take Nhim!”

Oh God, I thought, you clearly have more confidence in me than I do in myself.  I’m going to drop her!  Don’t put your baby’s life into my hands!  Now I have no hands to hold onto you.  We’re moving, we’re moving.  Oh God. 


This illustrates the motorbike culture in Vietnam. Unlike where most of us volunteers come from where riding a motorbike ups your cool factor and makes other people want to be friends with you, here in Vietnam the motorbike is a way of life.  The motorbike by far the most common form of transport.  In Vietnam, everybody, their grandparents and their house cats ride motorbikes.  It didn’t even occur to Little Hong I would have an issue holding Nhim because in Vietnam, knowing how to ride a motorbike was almost like yet another stage of human progression. You roll around as a baby, you crawl, you walk, you run… then you ride motorbikes. There are entire streets dedicated to selling motorbike apparel—helmets of all colours, some with mousehole-shaped gaps to accommodate ponytails; jackets made with elongated flappy sleeves that keep the sun off the hands of a person grabbing handlebars; special blankets that are to be wrapped around the waist to keep the sun off exposed legs. There are special raincoats, extra long so the raincoat can be thrown over the motorist and the motorbike, and they all have clear plastic windows in the front so the headlights are not obscured.

Even travellers in Vietnam are likely to be motorcyclists.  Either Vietnam attracts motorcyclists as it really is the easiest way to explore, or travellers magically gain motorbiking talents.  Once, two volunteers and I took the few days we had off to go on a trip to Da Nang.  We managed to get motorbike taxis to take us to the Lady Buddha, a top attraction in the area but unfortunately none of us had the foresight (or common sense) to think about negotiating a pick up that would take us back to the centre of Da Nang.  When we approached other travellers to ask for advice, a good number of them started giving us directions—on the assumption that we all had motorbikes of our own and had just needed to be pointed in the right way.

 All the honking

 motorbikes 1

(CAPTION:)Too much noise!

Another thing you will have to get used to would be the incessant honking absolutely everywhere, from small alleys to main roads.  In my first few days here, I couldn’t understand why motorists were being so horrible to me and to one another.  When I was walking on one side of the pavement having left room for at least two motorcycles, motorists would not pass by without blasting their horns. Even when there had been absolutely no reason to be venting anger, they sounded their horns anyway. It was as if I was doing something incredibly rude without realising.

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Where most of us volunteers are from, having a horn sounded at you would be the equivalent of an angry “WHAT THE ****  ARE YOU DOING?!?” Here, the roads are characterised by indiscriminate honking, almost as it was an itch that had to be scratched. Perhaps the locals have become desensitised to the level of noise; they certainly seem to favour honking over using their signals.

Over time I realised that here in Hanoi, beeping a horn could translate into lots of things.  Here is a short compilation:

 “Hello, hello, it’s me!”

 “I’m coming through, make way for me because I’m more important than you.”

 “Come into my taxi!”

“This bloody Hanoi traffic.”

“I just like to join in the noise pollution.”

And of course, the universal “WHAT THE **** ARE YOU DOING??!”

I’ve learnt to let the honking roll off me like water off a duck’s back.   Don’t take it personally.  Let it go and proceed on your merry way.  It’s better for your soul.

 Crossing the road

Among my friends in London I had a reputation for, at least when I was on my own, my insistence on waiting for the lights to turn green before crossing the road.  When I was with company, this insistence held very little ground.  My arm would be grabbed with a laugh and I would find myself unceremoniously hauled across the other side.  Thinking back, just as well that they did that to me.  At least I got some practice in before the real deal.

I learnt very quickly that a green light at a pedestrian crossing in Hanoi does not mean that it is safe to cross as many motorists simply ignore the lights. Zebra crossings mean even less—they are everywhere, but they are nothing more than road embellishments, white stripes to make the journey home more interesting. It would actually be less confusing if they ignored the lights consistently, but they don’t.  There have been occasions where motorists collectively stop at lights but when I go back to the crossing on a different day or at a different time in the day, they go back to completely ignoring it and it would be like what I saw on the other day was but fragment of my imagination. It has been seven weeks and I have yet to work out a pattern for when motorists decide to pay heed to the changing lights and when they decide not to.  Perhaps there isn’t one. Perhaps there is a secret agreement circulating amongst the motorists of Hanoi that we will never see.

Crossing a road really isn’t too dissimilar to dancing.  Most of it involves understanding rhythm and timing, and then acting on this understanding with confidence.  If you rush or hesitate while in the middle of the dance, you upset the rhythm. Easier said than done though, while over the last seven weeks I have come leaps and bounds from my days in London, I am still often left standing on one side of the road for a good couple of minutes. I’ve seen locals hold up their hands and proceed to cross the road with the expectation that motorists will let them pass, but I do not advise that you attempt this.  Motorbikes do sometimes weave around you, but cars are vicious and you are very likely to be run over.  Yes, you have to get across, but always remember that getting across means nothing unless you get across in one piece. There is no shame in standing and waiting until you feel ready!

 Motorbikes 2

 (CAPTION)The locals are laughing at this amateur showmanship, but Gaelle and Adry stand strong in the face of adversity.  Attraversiamo!

By Joanne Ng

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