Vietnam, do they even have rules of the road?
To answer the question above, no, frankly they don’t have any appreciable road traffic rules at all. The traffic is heavy and it comes at you from every direction. Actually I lie, there is one rule. You ALWAYS give-way to the largest vehicle. Even if you are already on a roundabout doing your lawful thing just like the highway code taught you, if you see a car or worse a truck approaching the roundabout, you give-way. Because he is for sure going to pull on to the roundabout straight in front of you.
When i first got to Vietnam I was a pedestrian in the major cities of Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi. The split between numbers of cars and bikes is about the same as most other places, but in reverse. The bikes out number the cars several times over. Punitive import duties mean that most people cannot afford more than two wheels. But the bikes are are more often than not in terrible condition. Little in the way of brakes and usually no lights. To make it worse locals are more than happy to load it incredibly high with goods and think nothing of having four or more people on a scooter.
In the UK, we drive on the left. In most countries, they drive on the right. In Vietnam “road is road” they drive everywhere, including the pavements, in every direction. As a pedestrian I was convinced that I was going to die by being hit by a scooter. Indeed the World Health Organisation stats show that I am eight times more likely to die on the road in Vietnam than in the UK. But after asking around I was reliably informed that being hit by a scooter was unlikely to kill me, just mess me up. Well that’s a relief eh. There is no MOT or road safety test so the roads are full of total junkers. You do actually have to have insurance, it cost about $4 a year and does nothing at all. The standard method of turning left (you’re meant to drive on the right) is to cut the left hand corner by going on to the opposite side of the road, going round the corner and then cutting back across the traffic to your own side. I’m one of the most law abiding riders here and even i will happily ride upto 50 (ok 100) metres on the wrong side of the road rather than go to the next junction and turn round. But unlike anyone else, I will actually use my mirrors and look behind me. No one else does this. they just pull straight out in front of you. They only concern themselves with what is in front. Everything behind is expected to look after itself. They also stop. For no reason at all. Right in the middle of the road and traffic and ofcourse half of them have no brake lights. I used to think that the Vietnamese, being pretty much born on scooters were really good riders. But it turns out, they really aren’t. They are good at being bad riders. Ask any of them to show you their legs and over half of them have scars from bike accidents. Oh, and some are drunk as well. Or at least a significant percentage of them are.
In my pedestrian days in the big cities, I’ll admit it, I was scared of going on bikes. Grab offer a fantastic taxi service. Down in Saigon they offer cars, Tuk Tuks and bikes. I would usually go with the Tuk Tuks. Cost me a dollar extra or so but I was thinking better that then going home with a half a leg missing. By the time I got up to Hanoi I was braver. OK, I was drunker. Same, same. And I was using the Grab bikes to get around. Cheaper, but more importantly quicker with the traffic. I learned to stay on the back even though i could barely stand up long enough to get on it and then just sloach on the driver. Trickiest bit was getting off without falling off. By the time I got down to Da Nang i was totally comfortable hanging off the back, road beer in hand.
So it was time to hire a bike and actually do some driving myself. Bear in mind I have a full motorcycle license. I’ve actually had training and experience. So I hired a Honda Airblade, it’s like the donkey of South East Asia. A real workhorse 125cc bike. I was bricking it. I wouldn’t go out at busy times. I avoided difficult areas and major roundabouts. I was super cautious. After a couple of weeks i got used to it and i started looking to buy a bike of my own.
Now if you’ve got a Jaguar car and a classic 650cc BSA sitting at home you want to get yourself something a bit better than the average junker here. Total junk is a falling appart Chinese knock off. Half decent is anything made in Japan. Classy is a Vespa or a European brand. My thought process was that if I’m going to ride a scooter then I’m going to do it UK Mod style. So after much searching I found what I was looking for a Vespa GTS. It’s the sportier one and most importantly it has the largest frame so I don’t look like some sort of performing bear on a clown bike. Got me a nice shiny black one, bog standard. First thing i did was fit chrome racks front and back and body bars round the sides. I didn’t splash out on original Vespa ones, just some cheap chinese knockoffs that looked the part. Well at least in the beginning anway. A year later and most of the cheap parts i put on are rusty, but the original Vespa parts are holding up well. Then I’m thinking what does a Mod scooter need? Lights! Rather than old school big spotlights I went with new school LED lights, seven of them. Daylight driving and they have red devil eyes in the centre and blue halo rings around the outside. If needed they are super bright white lights and if I really want to do heads in, I can make them go into seizure inducing strobe mode. Swapped the mirrors out for ones with built-in indicator lights and added a couple more. and a couple more again. And then I found a guy that did vinyl wrapping and i had the whole bike covered in matt black carbon fibre effect vinyl. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but i like it.
And it has a massive added bonus. When i come tooling down on a roundabout with seven blue and red light on the front it seems to confuse people. Not sure if I’m some sort of official or not they give-way and let me go, even the cars. Obviously I don’t mess with the truckers. The only thing they are stopping for is another hit of meth. The locals seem to think its funky too. They don’t really do stand out stuff much, preferring to blend in with the same same culture.
Now I’m really settling in. My UK International Driver’s Permit makes it legal for me for me to ride and drive anything here. So I start looking for something with a bit more grunt to it. the kind of thing that I would ride at home. And did I find it? Oh yeah baby. I found this awesome Triumph Bobber, 800cc of grunt and pure Brit Iron class. And the price was really good too, 90 million Dong, about $4000. Vietnam is not a sophisticated computerised society yet. The cops on the streets have no way to check up on anything, so it all comes down to possession of the Blue Card registration certificate. I went to see it and I checked the engine and frame numbers against the card and it looked good. I immediately threw down a deposit to hold it. But being the western Brit that I am I had to look a gift horse in the mouth. So I paid a dealer to check out the Blue Card for me. He probably bribed a cop to check it on their computer because what i got back was a photo of a computer screen clearly showing that the Blue Card was for a Royal Enfield 500. So I went back to the guy and explained that I was sure he didn’t know but actually the Blue Card is bent. He looked at me like “well what did you expect” and gave me my deposit back.
It turns out that pretty much everything over about 250cc and a few years old is actually stolen and being driven on forged papers. All I could think is that if I’m tooling around town on something classy, and noisy, that it won’t be long before the cops start hearing my exhaust as a dinner bell and i’m going to being paying heavy coffee money forever. And just about when i was starting to bend my head around well maybe I’ll get away with it because the cops aren’t that lively, the whole visa situation went up in the air and it just seemed like it was going to be yet another thing i would have to sell cheap to leave in a hurry. Needless to say I’m still putt putting around on the Vespa. It’s a great little twist and go town bike, but not enough fun.
I’m dedicating this post to the memory of my good friend Phuc “Ryan” Pham.
Like too many other Vietnamese he was taken from us far too young and died at 33 years old on his scooter. RIP my friend.