Uneasy Rider

WARNING – the last image in this post is a picture of a Vietnamese safe driving poster. It is graphic images of traffic accidents meant to deter dangerous driving and riding. Don’t scroll to the very end if you want to avoid it.

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I’ve noticed that people tend to behave differently when they leave their countries of origin to holiday or work overseas. Someone who would never consider riding a motorcycle back home because it is too dangerous, suddenly find themselves renting a bike when they travel to Viet Nam. I’ve seen some horrifyingly stupid behaviour from foreigners on the roads and I’d wish they’d ask themselves some of these questions before they hit the streets.

Do you know how to ride a motorbike?

If you don’t, then Sai Gon really isn’t the place to learn, not many places in Viet Nam are.

Do you have a valid license?

Pfffft, of course you don’t! But you probably should…

Non-Vietnamese citizens are only permitted to drive in Vietnam if they hold a temporary Vietnamese driver’s licence. To convert a foreign driving licence into a temporary Vietnamese driver’s licence, the applicant must hold a valid Vietnamese residence permit of at least three month’s validity. Only full, condition-less license will be converted, not learners or provisional licenses. You’ll have to hand over translations of your licensing documents and certified copies of the originals. If you don’t have these, you’ll have to take a driving test (riding in figure eights around some traffic cones) and sitting a written exam… in Vietnamese.

Viet Nam started the process to recognise International Driving Permits in January 2015, but legislative changes take a long time to enact so you’ll have to research this for yourself. Also, there are far fewer licensing requirements if you ride an electric bike or motorcycle with a 50cc or less engine. These small bikes will feel like you’re riding a hairdryer, but it isn’t like you’re going anywhere fast in Viet Nam anyway.

Police can confiscate your motorcycle if they find you without a license, though this is rare. It is more likely you will be fined. There is a fixed fine amount that you pay at the police station, but if you pay the fine directly to the person that pulled you over, the amount is usually lower… read into that what you like.

Given all this, many foreigners ride without a license, which isn’t an endorsement. It seems that riding unlicensed isn’t uncommon for the local population too. Vietnamese Government records show that there are currently 3.5 million valid driver’s licenses; that means only 3.8 percent of the population holds a driver’s license of any kind. Consider that when deciding to get on the road yourself.

Does your travel insurance still cover you if you ride unlicensed?

All travel insurances have conditions that void your cover if you break them. Conditions often include riding a motorcycle without a license or even riding a motorcycle at all. Always check your insurance’s terms and conditions.

Do you have access to a good helmet?

I brought my helmet over from Australia and it is simultaneously the joy and bane of my life. On one hand it is built to Australian safety standards, so I’m reasonably certain that it will do its best to protect my squishy brain and my beautiful, beautiful face should I be involved in a serious accident. On the other hand it is enormous compared to Vietnamese helmets and it won’t fit inside my bike’s internal storage (it won’t fit inside any bike’s storage, I’ve checked.) This means that I have to carry this huge helmet around with me, leaving it with my bike isn’t an option because the parking attendants move motorbikes and the helmets fall to the ground routinely. It would also get stolen – actually it would probably be stolen before anyone had a chance to drop it. Any helmet that you are given when you hire a motorcycle isn’t going to offer much protection – you may as well wear a plastic ice cream container on your head. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen people do that.

An example of the quality of some helmets here.
An example of the quality of some helmets here… stop laughing.

Do you understand Vietnamese traffic?

No, you don’t.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve been riding motorcycles in your home country for the last twenty years; Vietnamese traffic is a different animal entirely. Past riding experience is really essential to being safe on the roads, but the traffic here is next level crazy and you will not have time to learn what is happening on the first day of your two week holiday. There is a pecking order based on size, buses and trucks always have right of way. Flashing headlights and hand signals don’t mean what you think they do. Traffic lights, one-way streets, pedestrian crossings; mere suggestions. In spite of all this, there is a recognisable rhythm and patterns. You only able to read through the chaos after many hours riding pillion or when you are no longer transfixed by the disorder of a busy intersection.

If looking at this makes you feel suicidal or homicidal, maybe Sai Gon traffic is not for you.
If looking at this makes you feel suicidal or homicidal, maybe Sai Gon traffic is not for you.

Do you know there will be unexpected road hazards?

I’m not just talking about other riders on the road, I’m referring to any number of strange dangers on the road. Chickens and dogs often wander around the streets. I once had a wobble when my bike’s tyres hit some ice on the road, in Summer, in Sai Gon, at noon. A drink seller had tipped ice out of a container onto the road – I wasn’t expecting that.

My colleague had an accident when a street vendor’s mobile food stall dropped some tofu on the road; given that tofu doesn’t have a great deal of traction, her wheels spun out and she went sliding. Would you expect street tofu? DEFINITELY NOT, NO ONE EXPECTS STREET TOFU!

Do you know what to do when you have an accident?

You’ll notice I didn’t say ‘if you have an accident,’ this is because if you ride on Vietnamese roads for long enough, it is guaranteed that you will hit someone or something or they will hit you. There have been countless times that I’ve been cut off, bumped from behind or come inches from colliding with someone. There have been three separate occasions that I’ve had to swerve around a bike carrying a family of four that has come to a dead stop in the middle of the road because one of the kids has lost a shoe…

Of course there are degrees of accident seriousness; from a slight knock, to a three inch obituary in your local paper – hopefully they don’t use that high school picture of you when you were going through that ‘awkward phase.’

If the accident only caused damage to property, then money is probably going to change hands and as a wealthy foreigner you’re almost certainly going to do the paying. If you’re involved in an accident that injures or kills someone, then your life is going to get very challenging in many different ways.

Do you still want to ride a motorcycle?

Yeah, probably.

I understand that after all this many people will still want to take to the roads themselves; just be informed of the risks and make an informed decision. Riding a motorcycle here is dangerous and foreigners do make up a portion of Viet Nam’s five figure road mortality rate.

At least take some advice;

  • Be careful, don’t go fast, don’t drink and ride (there are enough people doing that already).
  • Wear the best helmet you can find.
  • Ride the best bike for you. Make sure the breaks and lights work. If you don’t know how to change gears, then get an automatic. Generally a smaller bike and engine is the better for inexperienced people, under 50cc is preferable.
  • Avoid riding on highways if you can help it. The trucks don’t really care if you’re mowed down as long as they don’t have to stop.
  • Wear more than just shorts and a sleeveless shirt – something like jeans will only protect you if you come off in an accident for a couple of centimetres before the road shreds them, and then your skin gets cheesegrated. Jeans will stop you from getting burned on someone else’s exhaust pipe, though. The burn takes a long time to heal, it will scar you and it is a terrible tourist cliché.
You'll have a souvenir like this forever.
You’ll have a souvenir like this forever.

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Vietnamese road safety warnings do not pull their punches.
Vietnamese road safety warnings do not pull their punches.
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