Over 5 million motorbikes are in Ho Chi Minh City. Nuovos, Attilas, Waves, even Vespas. Saigon’s streets are its veins, its life force a roaring stampede of engines. This is motorbike city. Join in, or get swept away.
When you first arrive in Saigon and look at the sprawling streets that run in and out of its many districts, it’s likely you’ll feel a sense of awe. Amazement at the sheer volume of motorbikes zipping past trucks, down alleys, on sidewalks; fear for the thought that this is normality. You, as a budding Saigon biker, will have to adapt to this. Your challenge is to learn to drive on some of the planet’s busiest and most hectic roads. If you’re going to live here, bite the bullet – you can’t hug onto Xe oms forever.
Because the roads are so busy, driving is in itself a necessity. Ho Chi Minh City’s sidewalks are often narrow, routinely obstructed by street-food stalls, construction work and folks spilling out of their homes and businesses for a chat or some air. It’s not a pedestrian-friendly city. Unless you’re in the prim promenades surrounding District 1’s shopping malls and five star hotels, it’s best to exchange your legs for a set of wheels.
Motorbikes are also a necessity in a truer sense for many locals. Rather than learning to drive a car, many young Vietnamese look forward to the day when they can get a bike of their own. A motorbike means freedom to hang out with friends, spending time with your girl/boyfriend on a romantic drive, the chance to explore the city. A motorbike means responsibility, driving to work, going to the market to buy ingredients for dinner, taking old and young family members to school, the hospital, the cinema. A motorbike can make you a living, with many enterprising locals often setting up mini-businesses from the backs of their bikes – delivery, selling fish, snacks, balloons even puppies. Having a motorbike gives you mobility in life, in more ways than one.
So, as an expat in this land of engines, where do you start?
The first step is getting a bike of your own. Many places will rent motorbikes to foreigners on a monthly, weekly or even daily basis. Those who settle down here for a bit tend to opt for the former, using their rented bikes as a staple of everyday living. Chi’s Cafe on 40 Bùi Viện is a popular, reliable choice that rents scooters for around $40-50 per month in exchange for a form of identification. Many places will happily change or fix your bike if you’re experiencing problems, but be warned – some places have been known to hang onto passports, rent dud bikes then charge extortionate amounts to cover ‘fixing costs’. Best hold onto your passport in any case, or at the most give them a photocopy.
Those who plan on staying longer-term may fancy buying their own set of wheels. The network of expats in Ho Chi Minh City is well-connected, and often people leave wanting to sell off their motorbikes through Facebook and other sites. You could expect to pay anything from $200-$1000 for a bike depending on its make, but leave feeling happy that what you’re driving is well and truly your own. Just make sure it doesn’t get stolen!
By law, to drive on Ho Chi Minh City’s roads you need to have a driving license. The test involves a written examination followed by the infamous ‘figure of eight’ practical section where, as made famous by Top Gear, you literally maneuver your vehicle around a figure of eight. That’s it. Unless you’re a complete baboon you’ll soon be off on your merry way. Thing is however, many expats don’t undertake the driving test and just use thier bikes straight after getting them. This is all well and good until you get in an accident and find out your insurance doesn’t cover drivers without a license. Ouch.
Admittedly you get used to driving along these streets and feel very confident at the helm. But this is Vietnam, a place where magic people can pop up suddenly from in between traffic, where it’s socially acceptable to drive on the wrong side of the road. According to the city’s Traffic Safety Board there were 4321 road accidents in 2014, with 723 deaths and 4028 injuries. That’s more than double the accidents in the entirety of the UK last year. Be vigilant.
Usually this is a wonderful place to live. For an expat things are easy. A good salary, fulfilling lifestyle, network of friends at hand. Yet never in my life have I felt as much stress or anger or spouted as much profanity as on certain occasions when driving in this city.
You’ll be on your way to work, or to a friend’s house. You’re driving at a reasonable speed (40kmph is the limit), checking your mirrors, indicating when needed. All of a sudden a guy comes blazing out of a side street almost T-boning you into a mangled mess; someone will speedily overtake you, and then slow down RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU; Groups of women, or ‘social roadblocks’, will take up entire widths of the street at a snail’s pace; You’ll begin to take a turn, only to have someone whizz past helter skelter, looking back and cursing you for almost getting in HIS way. It makes you question whether or not Siagon’s drivers have a distinct lack of courtesy or peripheral vision.
But surely there are preventive measures put in place to help control things, right?
Let’s take a look at Saigon’s traffic laws. Since 2007 helmets have become mandatory. Sensible stuff. Even if you take a tumble, your noggin should be protected by a sturdy, well designed helmet, keeping that soft, squishy head of yours from splattering all over the pavement. But not everyone can afford an Andes. You’ll see many drivers don sub-par headgear on the roads, wearing what are essentially fragile plastic bowls. As long as there’s a ‘helmet’ on your head, you’re following the law – so what if it’s as delicate as a sheet of glass? You have the ‘coconuts’, which look the part but are worryingly hollow; ‘rugby helmets’ which are SCRUM CAPS; ‘turkey gobblers’, where an ill-fitted helmet’s chin strap is so loose that it wafts in the breeze. If you’re going to drive, invest in a decent helmet. One that covers your head, is well-fitted, thick and sturdy. Because red lights are somewhat optional in this city, you’ll need all the insurance you can get!
Enforcing these laws are Saigon’s beloved traffic police force. Oh, the gentle men in beige. These guys can be spotted chilling at roadsides and intersections, usually in pairs, in full uniform next to their police-bikes. Drive within their field of vision without a helmet, without your lights on at night, or for several mysterious reasons unkown to mankind, and they’ll wave their batons in your face, inviting you over for a friendly chat. You’ll be asked to pay a fine, which is usually whatever you have in your wallet. If you can’t provide identification for the bike then they may take it away to the station. A widespread trick among expats here is to pretend you don’t understand English. Babble on in French or Russian or Elvish and usually they get fed up and wave you off on your merry way.
Despite its annoyances, driving in Saigon can also be a wonderfully enjoyable experience. There’s a reason we do it, after all.
There is a distinct freedom you feel at the helm of a motorbike. It makes driving a car feel like steering an obese metal tortoise. Scooters are nimble, zippy little machines. You feel a strong sense of control, like the bike is an extension of yourself. Need to squeeze through a corner to make a turn? No problem, bike can handle it. Need to drift in between geriatrics in your way? Bike can handle it. Need to take shortcuts through narrow alleys? Bike can handle it. On a motorbike you are in the majority, part of a massive school of fish that is at once dominating and malleable. After a few weeks driving, you start to get a feel for the pace of Saigon’s roads. You pick up habits, some bad some good, that initiate you into this city’s hypnotic motorbike scene. There is a tempo, a strange sense of organisation to this chaos. Suddenly the congestion, the wrong lane drivers and everything else flying at you seems simply a way of life.
There’s nothing quite like taking your bike for a spin in Vietnam.