Driving your own motorbike in Vietnam adds to the already high thrill in visiting this amazing land. It grants you a freedom that you can’t get with taxis or even riding on the back of a Grab motorbike (like Uber).
There are certain things that you need to know before renting a motorbike and driving out into traffic. We’ll review the laws surrounding riding a motorbike as a foreigner, and tips on how to drive like one of the few traffic law-abiding locals.
Can I ride a motorbike in Vietnam?
Yes, you certainly can, and probably should. If you have the passion and interest enough to ask that question, then it’s time to give riding a motorbike in Vietnam a shot. It’s interesting to note that foreigners cannot rent a car to self drive in Vietnam, which is probably for their best. It’s only available if you hire a local Vietnamese driver. Let’s review some tips to keep you safe.
Learning to ride a motorbike in VietnamThere is a perfect harmony and chaos, a yin and a yang, to the traffic flow in Vietnam. Visit any of the big cities, like Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, and you’ll witness tourists filming the perceived madness. It’s not as scary as it looks, and after a few days riding in the city, you’ll understand the system and be having a blast!
Here are some tips to riding a motorbike in Vietnam:
Wear a quality helmet
This one may seem obvious, but every year I hear another story about a foreigner who fell off his motorbike, without a helmet, got a concussion and died. This is a sad shame because these careless accidents are often preventable with one necessary piece of safety equipment.
Vietnamese law requires everyone on a motorbike to wear a helmet. It also states that no more than two people can ride a motorbike at a time (although you’ll see more than that, my record sighting is a family of six). Police love to pull over foreigners, so don’t give them an easy reason to.
All helmets are not created equal. Most Vietnamese are nearly born on a motorbike and wear just enough to be legal. They wear what is called a “hat”, because it’s little more than a hat. Cheapo plastic is not enough to protect you from a serious bump on your head. Often they go flying off too, so always properly fit and tighten your helmet.
If you’re not smart enough to wear a solid helmet on your head to protect the most important piece of equipment you have, then you are a dummy.
It gets hot in Vietnam, which is part of the reason for those lightweight hat style helmets. Deal with it, and at minimum get something with good protection and covers your ears too. If you’ll be driving in the country, I’d highly recommend a plastic face shield that comes down to protect from the sun a little, bugs and wind. And get a safety certified motorcycle helmet because of the higher speeds that outside-the-city highway driving calls for.
Be as aware as you’re able to the actions around you, but keep your focus always in front of you. An instant slight glance to the side to check things out, then back forward. If everybody remains aware of what’s happening in front of the them, the traffic flow above will harmonious. In Vietnam, nothing behind you matters. The concept is called the Cone of Awareness.
It’s why you’ll see motorbikes creeping forward while turning left in front of a mass of traffic coming right at them. They’re safe because nobody beside or behind them is a threat. Those to the right coming at them will stop because they enter their cone and they need to adjust. It’s all about flow and predictability, which we’ll discuss more about.
An analogy is downhill skiing. You are only worried about the skiers in front of you. You aren’t looking behind or to the side, you are focused forward and responsible only for those forward skiers. If you hit one you are in trouble. If someone hits you from behind they are at fault. Ride under control and don’t get erratic.
Go with the flow
I equate riding a motorbike in Saigon to swimming with a school of fish. You’ll flow with the little Nemos of the water, going slow, matching their speed and movements. Protect yourself in strength in numbers. The large automobiles are sharks and buses whales….both of which you treat with the upmost respect.
If you are turning left across a busy lane of traffic, try and find someone else who is turning, line up your motorbike beside them on the inside, unless you want to be the leader on the outside going first. You can zip across if you have time, or during insanely busy traffic days, you may need to inch slower and slower into the traffic, until the opportunity comes to zip across. If you think you can wait until a perfect opening happens, you’ll be there all day, pissing people off, and not being predicable. Drivers expect you to turn in front of them and are ready to adjust.
You’ll notice the traffic flows like water. If a vehicle is slowly turning, you’ll see the little motorbikes splitting on both sides of the slowly turning vehicle or motorbike traffic. It’s the same as if a pedestrian is slowly crossing the street. Eventually, they’ll offer the turning vehicle(s) a chance to complete the turn.
One hand on the brake
Speeds vary and things are always happening, but everyone always has one hand on the brake (or should), even often while stopped. The right hand is always kept on the right brake lever, which on motorbikes controls the front brake.
This allows you to be ready to slow and brake gradually. If need be you’ll hit both brakes and get stopped quicker. When starting you’re motorbike, you’ll want your hand on the brake lever ready to go. Ever see a video of a newbie rider going instantly fast on startup?! It usually ends poorly.
I almost lost my life today 🥵🤕 pic.twitter.com/ZMVOmfC1a5
— rellikiss (@RELLIKISS_) September 2, 2019
If you’ve ever walked across a busy street of traffic in Saigon, it’s not quite a game of Frogger, although it feels like it. You’ll start walking across, and at times stop, but never ever step back. Only stop and forward movements. In fact, driving a motorbike is great practice for walking across busy streets, and vice-versa. Because you’ll understand what all the motorbikes and pedestrians are thinking and how to react. Motorbikes don’t want to hit pedestrians and just want to go around you to the left or right.
Relating to driving a motorbike, let them know what you’ll be doing. Don’t make sudden, sharp turns or switch lanes. Ease into the left or right lane slowly, in case a driver behind you is zipping up quick. He’ll have a chance to see you slowly heading in his direction and adjust.
Be light on your brakes unless it’s a last resort, which it shouldn’t come to if you’re properly reading the traffic cues. People ride bumper to bumper in traffic in Vietnam, so always expect you are being tailgated.
Always be ready on a motorbike to do what you need to do. If you can’t do what you want to do at an exact moment, then you’re not ready. Meaning if you want to go left or brake, but you’re not in the right hand position or whatever, you’re not yet ready.
The best defense can be a strong offense as well. Keep that in mind with this concept of defensive driving. Just as you want to behave as predicability as possible, that’s what you hope for from everybody else on the road. But expect the opposite, always alert.
Be ready to proactively get yourself out of a situation. Don’t wait until the last minute to switch lanes, or brake to traffic in front of you. Always be observing the cars, motorbikes and people in your cone of vision. Maybe speed momentarily to past a car or motorbike to get safely back into your lane. If you don’t like the look of the guy on the phone in front of you, then get into a different lane and/or pass him.
GPS only on your phone
This is in regards to having your cell phone out while driving. Sadly, like car drivers, you see motorbikers messing with their Iphones from time to time as well. Pull over if you need to text or look something up. At least wait until the traffic light like the other addicted souls. For GPS purposes, buy a motorbike mount so you can safely glance at it as needed. And don’t forget to pull your phone out with you when you park or else it might jump out of the mount and run away to never return.
Download the Google Map of Vietnam to your phone so you can access it offline. If you have a quality phone, you should be fine using GPS on your phone while driving, without data or wifi. I had a cheap Vietnamese burner phone that couldn’t keep pace with my driving, but my Iphone 8 crushes it.
Always use a parking service or attendant
Unlike a place like Phuket, Thailand, where you might just park your motorbike on the side of the street and walk away for a few hours, in Vietnam it’s always recommended to leave it under the watch of a security guard, either in front of a shop or at a parking lot/garage. Motorbike thefts happen every day, don’t be a statistic.
You’ll see men in uniform (sometimes asleep 🙂 outside most shops and restaurants open to the public. Make eye contact with them as you pull up and they’ll direct you where to park. Usually, you get a ticket with a number on it to give back when picking up the motorbike (don’t lose this – it’s unnecessary hassle). Sometimes they say a ticket isn’t necessary, because either the place isn’t crowded or you’re an easy to remember foreigner so they know you at pickup time.
Most shops and restaurants offer free parking, although sometimes at city centers in busy areas there’s a fee. It would be 5,000 or 10,000 dong if a security guy charges (~25 to 50 cents). But charged more than 20,000 and you’re getting ripped off for sure.
Parking lots and garages will give you a ticket on the way in and charge a fee. This is anywhere from 3,000 to 20,000, sometimes 50,000 (~$2.50) total in downtown city centers. Parking lots are usually a flat charge for the day, garages often charge by the hour.
The same basic traffic laws you follow in your home country, such as the U.S., are very similar in Vietnam. The only difference is that no one follows them in Vietnam, and the police rarely enforce them. If you’re expecting someone to obey certain rules, you’re going to be in for many surprises along the road.
Some locals ride on the sidewalks just to gain a few car lengths in traffic. Some run red lights if there’s a brief opening in traffic flow. They go down the wrong way streets. They pile families and skyscraper tall cargos to transport on their motorbike. It’s chaos. It’s madness. Sure, but it’s normal. This doesn’t mean you should do any of that though.
It’s very common for Vietnamese to start driving through a traffic intersection seconds before their light turns green. They’ll wait 55 seconds for a 60 second traffic, but not that extra 5. This is all the more reason to never run a red light and be hesitant of yellows going the other way because you have someone already starting through on their side.
Use your horn
The late comedian, Mitch Hedberg’s bit about car horns and people only getting so many honks per month before it stops working, came to my mind when I was initially driving the streets of Saigon. Cars and trucks, especially, blast their horns at seemingly everything and everyone in front of them. You’ll wonder where you can go, and why they are honking at you, don’t sweat it. Just do your best to get over out of their cone and let them by. This is part of the flow.
Understand what honking means because honks are done to keep you safe. A bus will honk when it’s passing to let other drivers know he is passing by them and to be aware. You should do the same when passing someone. You’ll learn to both listen for the horns around you and ignore the horns meant for somebody else. It’s as chaotic as the driving looks, but an important part of it. USE YOUR HORN.
Drive to the right
On some bigger city and highway roads, motorbikes often have their own designated lanes. Other times it’s just etiquette to use the right most lane for motorbikes. You’ll see motorbikes everywhere, but stay right. At a stopped traffic light, be courteous and leave space on the far right for single motorbikes to get by and make a right turn.
In the country you’ll really want to hug the right side of the road as much as possible for safety. You don’t want to get mixed up in someone else’s game of chicken.
Cops happen so be legal
Like local vendors selling crafts at the markets, some police see foreigners and get dollar signs in their eyes. They tend to target foreigners with a ‘how much can I make off him attitude’. So the best thing you can do is follow the rules, be polite, and only care a small amount of cash on you.
Similar to a small town cop in the sticks of America with nothing to do, even if you don’t give them a reason to pull you over, Vietnamese cops still might. It’s not as prevalent in the big cities because there are so many people to blend in with. But driving cross country increases the chances. There’s a notorious stretch of costal road outside Mui Ne by the sand dunes where the local cops love to collect bribes. I’ve been pulled over 3 times in Thailand, but not yet randomly in Vietnam, although I hear about it.
Use your turn signal when changing lanes, obey the speed limits, which tends to be no more than 40KM in the city, and 60KM on the country roads. Don’t drink and drive. After this last new year, Vietnamese police have been cracking down a bit with random checkpoints in HCMC.
It helps to look the part too. The more skin you’re showing, the more likely you’re a foreigner. Wear a mask, not just to blend it, but to keep the pollution particles out of your lungs. Locals also do it to protect against the sun, which is why masks are more commonplace during daylight – sun and traffic.
International Drivers License
Technically, your home country’s driver’s license is not enough to drive on the streets legally in Vietnam. You should either have an international drivers license or acquire a local Vietnamese driver’s license (which can be done without a job here if you know the right people). It’s all about looking official if you get pulled over. The more paperwork you can show, valid blue card (ownership of bike – they should provide a copy of it when renting) and driver’s license, the better.
In the United States AAA offers the International Drivers Permit, which for $20 will give you some peace of mind. Technically, Vietnam is a country that is supposed to honor this, as is Thailand. When I was pulled over in Thailand 3 times, I was let go all 3 times because I had this permit, wasn’t drinking and didn’t have any drugs in my motorbike that they searched. In Vietnam, they still may try to collect a bribe off you, you could hold true and be stubborn, or give them the 500,000 dong ($25) and be on your way relatively hassle-free. Choose the latter.
Now that you better know what to expect riding a motorbike in Vietnam, it’s time to put it to the test. Like driving a car, the best thing for you is time on the road. Learn to drive your motorbike everywhere from rush traffic to merging on a busy highway, and you’ll be ready to take on the countryside. In fact, a motorbike is one of the most popular ways to travel from Saigon to Hanoi, along with planes, trains and automobiles.