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For a pure sense of freedom, it’s hard to beat driving a motorbike in Vietnam—the white-knuckled thrill of hurtling through stunning landscapes, the humility of floating along with millions of others, or those beautiful moments when it’s just you, your machine, and an open road. But it can quickly turn to horror, so here are 11 tips to keep you safe as you roll through Vietnam.
One of the more terrifying experiences you’ll have in Vietnam is when a bus sneaks up behind you and launches a deafening foghorn attack. If you see one of these green beasts in your mirror, move. If there’s a bus merging anywhere near you, give it all the space it needs. They’re killers.
Some motorbikes won’t let you start them if the kickstand is down, but not all have this feature. It’s a sobering moment when you’re turning left in front of a truck and your kickstand digs into the pavement. It throws off your balance, and if you don’t react in time, you might just become an unfortunate statistic.
The front brake is not your friend. When your front tire locks up, down you go—and it happens in a blink. One second you’re watching some moron make a slow turn in front of you, the next you’re on the ground with road rash. When your back wheel skids, you still have some control over your motorbike. Different motorbikes have different setups, so figure out how to only use your back brake and make it a habit.
The best advice for driving in Vietnam is to go along with what everyone else around you is doing. Don’t be the first person through an intersection, and don’t be the only motorbike on a highway with transport trucks. Just don’t be the only person doing anything, really. You’ll often see people doing crazy things on their own, but trust me, the prevailing flow corrects them all in due time. Be a molecule in the stream.
Should you be unlucky enough to get pulled over by the police, you’ll probably need to pay a bribe. You can try to play dumb and speak nonsense until they get pissed and tell you to leave, but they’re used to the heat and you aren’t. Just slip them a bit of coffee money. They’ll start by asking for some ridiculous amount, but show them a 200,000₫ note—which is about $10—and you’ll usually be on your way.
Without insurance, you could find yourself stuck in a miserable situation, cared for by overworked hospital staff, and jammed into hot rooms with a half-dozen shrieking and crying extended families. Travel/Health insurance plans will get you into the international hospitals, and if you have life-threatening injuries, you’ll want the best doctors taking care of you. Also, you technically need a driver’s license or your insurance policy won’t cover you if you get injured while driving.
Western road rage will get you in a lot of trouble here. Vietnamese drivers make so many ridiculous decisions that you’ll be amazed more of them don’t die every day in preventable accidents, but let the hate wash over you. Don’t let it build up. When you’re angry, you make bad decisions. Bad decisions lead to the hospital—or worse. And don’t start a fight. You’ll lose as ten wiry men stomp you with muddy flip-flops. And nobody saw a thing.
This one should be obvious, but almost everyone who spends time driving in Vietnam is guilty of it. Drunk driving is an epidemic here. No matter how cautious you are, that bleary-eyed guy who’s been power drinking for five hours isn’t paying any attention to the colors on the traffic lights. You won’t even see him coming. Also, to reduce congestion, large trucks are only allowed in the cities at night. Taxis and apps like Uber or Grab are cheap, so use them.
People in Vietnam entrust their lives to $3 brain buckets, which are nothing more than a thin layer of plastic with a chin-strap. A good helmet here costs less than $50. It’s worth it.
Joker Helmet Shop, Giang Văn Minh, Đội Cấn, Hà Nội, Vietnam, +84 94 760 90 85
Turning left in a city is nerve-racking. Seasoned drivers know the trick is to force the traffic coming at you to stop, but if you’re new to Vietnam, you probably won’t have the courage to do this. Instead, wait for others to join you and move together as a group. Even the biggest jerks on the road won’t drive through a crowd.
Many Vietnamese only follow traffic laws if there are police within sight. Otherwise, they do as they please, even if that means flying through red lights and forcing everyone to swerve around them. Never let your guard down. Assume everyone is trying to kill you.