Getting around in Vietnamese cities, whether that be getting around by bicycle, motorbike, car or on foot, takes a bit if practice. We haven’t used the buses, so I can’t comment on those, but for the rest, we’re starting to get the hang of it. And when you’ve got the hang of it, it’s (almost!) easy.
The unspoken rules vs road rules
I know Vietnam has some basic rules of the road, like anywhere, e.g.:
- Drive on the right
- You have to be 18 to get a license to drive a motorbike
- You need to wear a crash helmet
- Stop at a red light
Sound familiar? Except, these rules are not really enforced all the time, like when you can’t see a policeman. So the real, unspoken rules that govern Vietnam are something more like this:
- Look out for a policeman, if you don’t see a policeman, the unspoken rules rather than official rules apply
- Drive mostly on the right, definitely if you’re a car. But if you’re on a bicycle or motorbike, you need to drive slowly, preferably with your lights on if it is dark (but not a hard and fast rule), when driving on the wrong side of the road.
- If you’re under 18 and driving a motorbike, try not to do anything that will draw the attention of an official, so you can get away with it.
- Wear a crash helmet if you have one to hand. Otherwise go without, especially in town where you won’t be driving too fast. Not advisable on bigger roads.
Interesting fact while we’re on the subject of vehicles: some ladies’ helmets: They are designed in such a way that there is a cut-out to fit a ponytail!
- As there are no stop streets at most junctions, slow down when you get to the junction, make eye contact, and navigate past anyone else entering the junctions too. Except if the other person driving towards the junction is a young male, under 25, with or without a helmet. Assume he won’t stop, so you will need to!
- If you’re on a bicycle, you’re the lowest on the pecking order. Motorbikes are bigger than you, so mostly give way to them.
- Stop when the traffic lights turn red, unless you’re in a hurry and there aren’t too many vehicles crossing in front of you, or if you’re turning right. Then ease forward slowly until the coast is clear, or others give way. If you’re patient, someone will give you a gap.
- Don’t get angry, ever. Road rage does not exit. That will make you lose face. Losing face is the worst thing that can happen to you in a Chinese based, Asian country. You will bring shame on your family and more.
- Trucks and buses are bigger than motorbikes and bicycles, therefore they have right of way and can drive you off the road and into a ditch, if they want to. Trucks are testosterone filled. If you want a job where you can feel important and powerful, and you want to exercise that power, become a truck driver.
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- One ways are for sissies. You can drive the other way, just not at full speed.
- Motorbike ninjas: ladies cover from head to toe, sometimes in multiple layers, when out on their bicycles or motorbikes: hat, helmet, face mask, scarf, long sleeveed-hoodie (sometimes 2 hoodies), gloves, wrap around skirt-like outer garment, socks, shoes. Even in 40C+ heat! I thought this was a pollution protection, but they have explained to me that it is in fact sun protection! Sun cream is too expensive … and unreliable.
- People carry anything and everything on their motorbikes. So give a man carrying poles or a sheet of glass, or a person who has converted their bicycle into a mobile flower or feather duster shop enough space to get by!
- Don’t get distracted by tourists wearing garish fruit-based clothing!
- And remember, Asian tourists love their selfie-sticks. This means they are often not looking where they are going, as they are watching the road through their phone, up in the sky – at the other end of a selfie stick!
- Many hotels and homestays make bicycles available to their guests. Carefully check the quality of the bike before you leave. It is not uncommon to find your bike has no brakes, wheels are not adequately pumped or that the chain is faulty. If you’re driving at night, check that you light works! Take it for a quick test ride around the block to test it
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- If on a bicycle, you need to learn the game of ‘chicken‘. There are more motorbikes than bicycles on the road, and they fill the road. If you can’t find a gap to cross the intersection, proceed slowly with your hand close to the break, in case an emergency stop is required. Assume that the motorbikes will stop. If he drives into you, he will harm you as he has the bigger vehicle. He won’t want to do that, so he will give way … mostly!
- Hooting, honking or sounding the horn (whatever you know it as), is used to warn other vehicles that you’re coming up behind them, or to check that you’ve seen them. Generally it is a quick hoot or hoot–hoot. Mostly it seems to work quite well. Only exception is buses and very big trucks have horns/hooters so loud, you almost fall off at the sound right behind you! And our Vietnamese host says it isn’t uncommon for old people to die from heart attacks caused by these very loud hoots, when they’re out on their bicycles.
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- Only take a taxi when you know that your destination can be reached via a bigger or major road, or if it is a long way away. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck in traffic and you’ll be thinking that it would have been faster to walk!
- Uber operates in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. They’re cheap, comfortable, have air-conditioning, but drivers will often accept a journey, then cancel on you, due to traffic jams. Factor that in when booking taxis.
- If navigating in and out of Old Towns, bear in mind that tour buses ferry tourists in and out early in the morning, and late afternoon or early evening. These roads were not made for buses, and traffic becomes almost gridlocked. Consider this too, if you are ordering a taxi – you may want to get out of the Old Town first, and get a taxi from there.
- Some roads are one way for cars, but not for motorbikes.
- Remember, if the ladies carrying the traditional over-the-shoulder basket carriers turn sideways, she can wipe out a bicycle with her dangling basket!
- Rule of thumb: vehicles can always come from anywhere! Be vigilant.
Surviving the roads as a pedestrian
- Pedestrians should be the lowest on the road pecking order, but I think they rank just below trucks. You’re not invincible, but vehicles will try to avoid you, even some trucks, but don’t push it.
- Pavements are not made to walk on, but to park bicycles, motorbikes, sit out on, display shop wares on etc., so this means you need to walk in the road.
- Sharing the road with vehicles can be tricky, as well as crossing the road. You cannot do what you do in the West: look both ways and cross when the coast is clear, because unless you’re crossing the road between 2.00 am and 3.00 am, the coast will never be clear!
- Most motorbikes are are double-seated. This means they can carry a passenger or two … or three or four! (Record so far is 5 people: mum, dad & 3 kids). This makes them slower on the road, consider that.
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- So when you first arrive, what you need to do is to find a local who is also planning to cross the road. Walk alongside them. Once you’ve done this a few times, you’ll realise that there is a knack.
- Foreigners can hire a motorbike for as little as 100.000 VND per day (£3.40 / $4.40 / R57). Do ensure that you take the necessary precautions, and ensure you have an International Driving Permit or local licence, insurance and medical insurance in case of accident. Gov.uk website outlines all the requirements. The real rules of the road apply to foreigners, not the unspoken ones!
- The secret is to weave through the traffic. They will swerve out of your way, as long as they have room to do so. If you can see that they have room to manoeuvre around you, you can keep walking. If not, you have to wait until it eases up a bit. So it is all about spacial awareness.
- If you’re crossing at a traffic light, wait until it turns green, then just keep walking. Don’t look at the traffic, if you do and you make eye contact, they’re going to assume that you’re consenting to stop and wait for them.
Maps for getting around
Google Maps are generally pretty good in Vietnam … but not always! Luckily though, most streets are quite clearly marked. The same goes for shops and businesses. They often display both their number and street name, making it easier when you get lost.
In some cities though, the numbers on either side of the road don’t follow on from each other. In other words, on one side of the road, you may have numbers 43, 44, 45, and directly opposite that is 87, 88, 89! Google doesn’t seem to have worked this out yet, so may take you to completely the wrong end of town!
Also, don’t go by how long Google says it will take to get somewhere. It generally takes quite a lot longer than the GPS says.
Traffic and getting around in the rain
When it rains, it really does pour in Vietnam. This is what to consider in the rain:
- Motorbike riders wear rain ponchos which cover almost their whole bike. Often it covers their light. Some ponchos have a see-through plastic window for the light, but some don’t, which means they aren’t that visible in the dark or especially at dusk.
- Big puddles form in the road, and your feet will get wet. Wear suitable footwear, as we’ve established that you will be walking in the road.
- In more rural areas, there is localised flooding after heavy rain. Prepare to be knee high in water in places.
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- The Vietnamese are short people. Fellow pedestrians will be sporting umbrellas. (In fact, they have them for the sun too!) Beware! The little metal pointy bits at the edge of the umbrella could be at your eye level!
- More traffic jams in the rain, as more people take taxis! Bear this in mind when planning trips.
- Uber pricing goes up. But good news, it is still cheap.
Every day delivers surprises in Vietnam. My recommendation is: Don’t fight it, embrace it!