Vietnam – I step out of bed, stumbled over my riding jacket and a stack of dongs as I made my way in a stupor towards the dim lights of the bathroom. I was awakened not by the alarm of my mobile but by horns. Ho Chi Minh City is filled with noisy little motorcycles and everyone hits the horn in compromising situations, as well as all other situations just for good measure. At 6 am, you’ll hear the first ones go off.
Good morning Vietnam!
Motorcycling in Vietnam is what taking the bus or MRT (Mass Rapid Transit – rapid transit system that forms the backbone of the railway system) is to Singapore.
The little “Honda”, that’s what a motorcycle is known as in Vietnam, is part of the Vietnamese way of life. Public transport being almost non existent, the wage earner rides his or her motorcycle or pays for a ride on one to and from work everyday.
Just 5 to 10 years ago, bicycles dominated the streets, but with the onset of foreign investments, economic growth and tourism, better spending power made owning a motorcycle become more of a possibility than just a dream for the everyday Vietnamese.
Now almost every family has a bike or two at home and businesses that cater for this humble mode of transport can be found at every street corner.
Riding through old Saigon, a biker can’t help but notice the number of bike shops, bike repair workshops, bike wash, bike accessory shops and tire repair shops that dot the streets and occasionally, sidewalks of the city’s beautiful wide tree-lined boulevards.
With my morning ablutions done, I went towards the hotel room window and remembered where I was. The hangover from the shock of riding into Saigon was simply terrible. Looking out at the city’s misty silhouette as dawn broke, I couldn’t remember much of anything else, least of all how I got here, but I’m sure I’ll sober up as the day wore on.
My rumbling tummy reminded me of the essentials and I dressed and made my way downstairs, braving myself for the ultimate encounter. Exploring the streets of Vietnam.
To ride a 100cc motorcycle in Vietnam, one will need to obtain a licence, which is a very easy procedure, while riding a 50cc motorcycle needs no licence at all. I guess that explains the blatant disregard, or ignorance, to basic traffic rules.
The Highway Code here is simple. Motorcycles keep to the right, cars and trucks to the left and everyone has the right of way. Bigger vehicles that hit smaller ones are in the wrong and there’s absolutely no excuse if you hit a pedestrian.
The above and all other rules of the road applies especially if there’s a traffic policeman in the vicinity. And of course, in Vietnam, drivers sit on the left side of their vehicles.
The sweet smell of freshly baked buns in the lingering freshness of morning air drew me towards a side street. Being safe than sorry, a biker went by horn blaring, informing me of his presence and intentions. More bikes continuously went by following suit and immediately I faced my first challenge. How the hell do I get across?
I remembered someone telling me it’s like a walk of faith. Just take the first step, followed by another, then another. Walk slowly and at a regular pace. The traffic will make their way around you. It sounded like suicide but I was too hungry to think rationally. Given the first opportunity by a slight gap in traffic, I looked ahead and walked onto the street as calmly as my tummy would allow and to my surprise, I made it across safely.
Hundreds of bikes blared their horns at me but somehow made their way around. I later learned that unlike Singapore, there’s nothing personal when you hit the horn here. It’s just communication. And they do avoid pedestrians!
As I gobbled down my first bun and reached for my cup of hot teh-o, I saw this 90 cc motorcycle with a refrigerator strapped to its rear seat with nylon rope, its rider negotiating and overtaking slower vehicles as traffic grew heavier towards rush hour.
Incredible as it may seem, this was not the largest thing I saw transported by motorcycle here. A king size mattress on a 100cc Honda Dream. Go figure.
Having had breakfast and my cuppa, I sobered up a lot more and decided against the thought I had over breakfast of riding around town on my own bike. Skills, or insanity, that allow me to stay alive as I negotiate sometimes even heavy traffic at break-neck speeds of no less then 150 km/h on highways over long distances mean nothing here.
My ZX7 will not be able to do more than second gear as the average speed on Saigon roads is about 30 km/h. At that speed, a big bike, especially a sporty, would be hard to handle and the engine, not to mention the rider, would be totally stressed out.
So instead I made my way to the nearest intersection and pulled out a map to get my bearings. In an instant, I was surrounded by motorcycle taxis offering me a ride to where ever I wanted to go! A map in hand and a lost look spells tourist in capital letters.
It’s hard to think when there’s half a dozen bikers yelling at you offering you great deals, so I quickly glanced at my map and saw a circled road name. I read in the Lonely Planet that bikes could be rented for just US$5 on this street.
In my best Vietnamese accent, I blurted “di Pham Ngo Lau, bao nhieu??”. The bike taxi riders looked at each other and shrugged. Then one of them said “Hey mister. Do you speaka English?” Thank goodness for little miracles. I got on his bike, blurted Pham Ngo Lau again in different tonal versions until he laughed and understood.
He asked for 15,000 dongs and heeding what I’ve read, slashed the price by 30% to 10,000 dongs. With a nod, he smiled and sped off, almost throwing me off the back of the bike. Somehow I felt he still got the better deal…
But the feeling of being taken for a ride was short lived. The biker sense in me was going wild as the bike made its way through the busy streets of Saigon. I was really being taken for the ride of my life! Motorcycles, bicycles, cars, taxis, trucks and pedestrians came at us from all directions. They were everywhere! All of them horn blaring.
Coming into a junction, no one slows down and at every turn, it’s a game of chicken. The guy with knockers of steel will be the one to get through first. Once too often there’ll be a bike swerving into our lane and all we could do was horn. The bike would then swerve back into its lane just inches before a collision. The bike taxi rider just went on his way smiling and asking me touristy questions. He and everyone else were riding in this mayhem as if it’s a walk in the park.
Honda cubs reign supreme in Vietnam. You hardly see anything bigger than a 125 and a Harley-Davidson is a set of stickers you slap onto the tank of your Dalim so that the babes would look twice. As for riding gear protection, a ball cap, an old T-shirt, pants and your most comfortable pair of sandals will surfice.
A law was passed not too long ago that made donning a helmet compulsory when riding. The local bike shops made a brisk business for a while. But without enforcement, soon that became a thing of the past.
Twenty minutes later we turned into a street filled with tourists and I got off. Breathless, I thumbed through my dongs and gave the biker a note with one too many zeros on it. He gave it back to me and asked for what we had agreed upon. Recovering, I walked slowly up Pham Ngo Lau and realized that the ride costs me just S$1.20 since S$1 gets you 8,500 dongs. But Sing dollars is worthless here. You have to get it changed to US dollars before coming to Vietnam.
Along this street you’ll see travel agents, restaurants with English menus, burger and hot dog cafes, souvenir shops, cheap hotels and most importantly, bike rental shops. I walked into one with the biggest “bike for rent” sign and asked details for the rental.
I was told that I will not need a license and that apart from the US$5 per day, I will have to leave my passport with them. The bikes here are not insured and there’s nothing stopping me from paying just US$5 and riding the bike off and selling it. So that explains the need to retain my passport. But what if I get involved in an accident or stopped by police?
The longhaired petite lady owner was in a traditional ao-dai and when she smiled and said that the police never stop foreigners and I just had to ride carefully to avoid an accident, I took her word and gave her 5 bucks and my passport. I got a slip in return and she said to produce it should anything happen. Ah…..Vietnam…
I was charmed and when I realized what I just did, I was already on a 90 cc Honda cub making my way along a major boulevard and heading into a circle. Just a hundred meters away from the shop and already I had doubts. Holding back panic, I slowed down and observed traffic in the circle. Everyone was going in a counter clockwise direction after making their way into the center of the chaos.
There was about three hundred bikes all mingled and moving together. Then somehow, all the bikes merged, passed criss-crossing each other and emerged at their appropriate exit to speed off again towards their destination. And of course, everyone had a thumb on the horn button. Incredible.
OK, this can’t be too difficult. It’s like Woodlands Checkpoint at peak hour. So in I went and did what the Romans do. Throttle and brake control was the trick and be always conscious of the bike next to and in front of you. Mirrors are useless as you just don’t have the time to use them. Just ignore the horns. A smile and some hand gestures showing your intended direction will go a long way.
I came out of the circle 5 minutes later and much wiser. Its like water from several rivers meeting at a delta and splitting up again to flow down stream. They merge, separate and go on their way. Nothing is damaged and no one gets hurt. I wondered if this is what it says in their Highway Code.
Negotiating a junction is very much the same. Except that at times you’ll have to stop when everyone stops and move on when they do. There are no traffic lights at most junctions and traffic control here is based on courtesy. You let the traverse lane go until there’s a gap for you to move on across. The crowd behind you will follow.
Once I got to know Saigon’s unique road ethics, I began to enjoy the ride. Riding on wide roads, passing historically rich and commercially untouched cityscape, was like going back in time. The city’s colonial past was contrasted against the charming smiles of the Vietnamese people. The experience was exhilarating. I’ve never thought I could ever feel the way I did riding in a city.
By early evening I’ve rode around District 1, the heart of the city, traveled north towards the airport on Tran Quoc Thao Road, got lost, had beef noodle lunch at God knows where, and met some very friendly Vietnamese women as they giggled and waved shyly when I smiled. For rest, I’d daydream over a cup of ice coffee at a sidewalk café, taking in the simplicity of life here.
Eventually, with reluctance, I had to find my way back into town as it was getting dark. After some start and stop riding and referring to my map, I managed to get on Cach Mang Thang Tam Road. Heading south, I was soon back on familiar streets.
The owner of the bike rental shop smiled warmly when I arrived. She was in yet another dress, one she puts on for dinner I presumed, but this time making her even more feminine, her features more defined.
Vietnamese women are indeed beautiful. Rustic charm brought about by a rich culture and humble upbringing has a way of bringing out the fairest from the fairer sex. My knees buckled when she asked how was my ride.
Blurry eyed and exhausted, I crashed onto my bed when I got back to my hotel room. Dongs and riding gear still littered the floor. So much for room service. I was still in a state of awe when something I saw on the floor set my heart beating once again. It was the map of Vietnam.
I could see the coastal road heading northwards towards Hanoi through towns with such beautiful names like Nha Trang, Hue and Hai Phong.
I could hardly wait.
I wanted more.
But that is another story.
Ho Chi Minh City Summer 2002
Motorcycle Minds End Note
In 2005 Vietnam had around 16 million registered motorcycles, approximately one motorcycle per five persons.
There was a marked reluctance amongst the public to wear helmets – known colloquially as ‘rice cookers’ – in the hot and humid summer climate of Vietnam.
In 2007 the government made the wearing of helmets mandatory on all roads, hospitals report much lower levels of admission from traffic crashes and lower levels of head trauma.