If you drive in Vietnam, it’s only a matter of time before you get familiar with the chilling thump/clank/scrape of a motorbike going down

The longer you’re on the road, the higher the chances that your turn is right around the corner.  The good news is that things generally move pretty slow here (30km in the cities, 60km on the highway) so the wrecks are rarely serious, but road rash and a few broken toes can certainly screw up your whole afternoon. 

You have to be much more careful around cars, though.  The philosophy of a car driver is very much different (and much more dangerous) than a motorbike driver.  See, cars are subject to a minimum 100% import tax, meaning a 2002 Toyota 4-door is considered a symbol of wealth and status in Vietnam. This gives the car driver this sense of superiority over the proletarian masses around them on motorcycles, as they feel like their four-wheeled throne gives them a greater sense of urgency over other drivers.  Also, these cities are very old and were never designed with large vehicles in mind, so travel by car is frustratingly slow and tedious.  Car drivers are constantly annoyed, always running late, and driving around with a chip on their shoulder. Right away is not given, as it is in the west. Here, it is seized. Usually by the larger thing.


Any given afternoon in Saigon (Credit – Ngô Trung)

When jumping on that metaphorical horse, it’s a good idea to come prepared for a lot of the hazards you’ll encounter in traffic here. It’s also a good idea to know some common scenarios to watch out for:

1. The Classic T-Bone

You might notice something odd about the roads here. They have no stop signs.  At a T-intersection, cars and motorbikes come from the left without changing speed or yielding in any way. Often, they don’t even look over their shoulder to see what they are merging into.  It is assumed that the drivers behind them will react accordingly, so pretty much every turn is basically as stressful as that docking scene from Interstellar.

Precisely 88 kilometres per hour is the necessary speed to merge

How to protect yourself:

Stay to the right position of your lane around intersections. Never ride on the left, against the gutter. This way, if something comes out of nowhere, you’ve got an extra second to react, and can always fall to the centre and lane-split to avoid glancing off the side of a taxi like the Titanic against an ice berg.

2. The Sudden, Impulsive U-Turn

There are no central, shared turning lanes—or suicide lanes—in Vietnam because the roads aren’t wide enough for them. Many of the highways and larger roads have low walls or medians designed to keep people from spontaneously turning left across traffic.  Unfortunately, this creates choke points anywhere these walls don’t exist.  Without warning, a car heading in the opposite direction will whip around a wall with the intention of making a U-turn.  However, the narrow roads almost never allow this to be done gracefully, and we’re left with a car making an awkward 10-point turn in the middle of a once flowing road.  This brings things to an abrupt stop, and you have to be very conscious of who is behind you here.

This totally happens, too. Intersections just “break.” It takes the traffic cops hours to sort the tangled mess out.

How to protect yourself:

Since this generally happens on 4-lane roads, it’s best to try to hang out between the lanes on the white line.  While motorbikes are all over the road, the cars usually (edit: occasionally) stick to their lanes.  By staying on the line, you can avoid a direct hit if the taxi behind you is cruising Tinder on his phone when a bus gets its self stuck doing a U-turn and blocks traffic both ways.

3. Crap in the Road

This is situation is depressingly common.  An accident happens, the bikes are towed away and the people carted off to the hospital.  Bike parts and oil are left in the road, as it’s no ones priority to clean the debris up.  This puddle of oil lurks like a banana in Mario Kart, waiting to crack skulls.

A much less obvious form of this exists in piles of trash, especially near restaurants.  Everything from glass to cans to food waste to cooking oil is all thrown in heaps in front of houses and shops.  The cooking oil seeps out onto the road. Unlike oil, it’s almost invisible. Chaos ensues.

And now your wrist is broken and your favourite “Sai Gon” tank top smells like fry grease and spring rolls.

How to protect yourself:

Once more, centreline as much as possible. This tends to be the highest point in the road, and the oil usually falls off to the sides near the gutters. This is also where people pile their trash, so getting in the habit of avoiding the shoulder will not only help you avoid oil, but also annoying bits that puncture tires. Moral of the story: Centreline is Boardwalk. Shoulder is Baltic.

4. Death by Guillotine

This one is straightforward.  Dude opens a car door, and you smash into it in a fantastic tour-de-force of utter destruction. 

How to protect yourself:

Stay away from stopped cars like the plague, land mines, or anything the Black Eyed Peas have recorded in the last decade.

5. The Vice Grip

Often a problem when lane-splitting, you’ll be trying to get between two large, stationary vehicles when they start moving. The thing to your right can’t move any further right because of dozens of motorbikes or some arrogantly parked car, and the thing to your left is being pushed right due to someone creeping on his or her lane. They will crush your handlebars.  You see this happen tragically often.

How to protect yourself:

If this happens, slam the brakes or hit the gas. Use your judgement and get behind or in front of one of the vehicles. If you’re stuck between the two, the first one that starts moving will drag your handlebar forward and push your bike under the other vehicle. Not a good way to be, mate.

6. The Extremely, Extremely Early Left Turn

Almost always an issue with other motorbikes, someone turning left will start their turn comically early, placing them in the middle of your lane and into oncoming traffic for a quarter of a kilometre. So you’re heading directly at this other bike, and it’s like that scene in the new(ish) Star Wars where the pilot guy is talking to Kylo Ren and it’s all like “So who goes first. Do you talk first? Do I talk first?” except no one knows if they should go right or left.  To add to this, this person is probably honking and shouting, as if you’ve done something wrong, because Vietnam.

đụ má is Vietnamese for “Have a nice day, Sir”

How to protect yourself:

Just slam on your brakes and shake your head like a disappointed mother who just found out her son wants to pursue a career in the arts.

7. The Mopeds of Atlantis

For half the year, Saigon basically sinks into the ocean. April to September will give you an entirely new understanding of rain.  The storms are short but very intense and deliver an astounding amount of rain in a very short time. Occasionally, this coincides with some pretty abnormal tidal activity from the Saigon River and certain parts of the city are under 8 inches of water.  For instance, District 4 and large parts of Ben Thanh are spontaneously underwater quite often during summer. 

How to protect yourself:

This isn’t so much dangerous to you, as it’s dangerous to your bike. You really can’t have water flowing up into your exhaust, so oddly, the conventional wisdom is to just floor your bike.  Go into the deep water slowly, then unleash everything the bike has.  The idea here is that the back-pressure from the exhaust will keep water from flowing up into the engine.  If you’re on a semi-auto or manual bike, use the lowest gear and keep the RPM’s as high as possible.  Keep the bike moving at all times.  The bike will survive, and you’ll splash water everywhere and steam will come off the engine, which I imagine probably looks badass to spectators, who are already wet from the rain, anyway.

8. This Specific Intersection

Affectionately known as “The Crossfire,” this absolute free-for-all of a junction is pure, unadulterated chaos. If you see some guy with a cast and crutches, 80% chance it happened here.

This intersection is also covered in oil, thanks to the hourly crashes that occur here

So, what if I’m in an accident?

If you do get into a crash, understand that the foreigner is almost always at fault.  You don’t have a license, insurance, or speak the language, so you’ll be expected to pay even if you are hit. Cash, on the spot.  A good rule to remember is that if the cops show up, everyone loses except the cops.  The locals all know this and will prefer almost every time to settle the dispute right there, as very few of them have licenses or insurance either.

Usually, a few hundred thousand dong ($15) is enough to cover most minor motorbike repairs and a few stitches.  If someone’s arm is dangling from their shoulder, you may need to run to the ATM and withdraw a million.  If anyone at any point demands over 2 million dong, they are trying to screw you over.

People generally don’t get as angry at accidents as they would in the West, because the happen so often here. Small collisions are usually ignored with a smile and a nod of non-aggression. If both the bikes still work and nothing is broken, it’s usually just easier to go on with your day.  However, if you’ve just bashed in the side of a newer Seven-Series with red license plates (a Party Official,) you’ve basically just torpedoed the Lusitania. Fight/flight accordingly. (JK, btw. Never fight here.)

Hope this helps!  Stay safe out there. Now, on your bike! (literally.)