If you’re planning on travelling in Vietnam, renting a motorbike to drive within a city or the entire country is one of the most popular ways of going around here. The notoriously known chaotic traffic scene especially in big cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh do not stop many adventurous travellers to drive.
You can get an idea of it by watching a YouTube video or seeing with your own eyes of what happens on road in Vietnam. It is simply catastrophic! There are all kinds of ill-mannered drivers – all the time – and it’s almost incredible how everyone still gets their way around it. And you can too!
Frankly speaking from my personal experience living in Hanoi for over a year now and also from other foreign and local friends here, traffic laws are more just the “written” rules and guidelines and not applied in reality. I’m saying this because even the most obvious driving manners – like wearing a helmet or not using a mobile phone while driving – are not really respected by many people.
I know the fear factor is HUGE to think if you’d have to be in the middle of that disaster and wonder how on earth you could ever survive that. It does sound hyper nerve-racking, but the good news is, it’s not as hard as it seems once you just jump into it and slowly catch up at your own pace. I did not mention all of the above to discourage you from driving, but to address some realistic scenes and dangers only to encourage you to take extra precautions in your Vietnam adventure.
Plus, motorbike is undeniably the number 1 mode of transport because of its convenience and established motorbike culture in Vietnam. So whether you’re a traveller looking to drive during your trip or an expat planning on or currently living in Hanoi, it is best to study the local rules on driving and take precautions.
On a side note, Vietnam’s government is working on the grand plan of eliminating motorbikes from city centres by 2030 in order to improve traffic conditions, air pollution and other related matters. This is the beginning stage of a long-term project and I think Vietnamese people and maybe even the government aren’t quite sure how they’re going to make it happen. There’s also a great chance of it being delayed for years, but let’s say it could really happen. Then it means we should take the advantage of this time – before the ban – to experience a motorbike world!
So here are some basic rules and tips for you to know to ensure that you can have a safe journey with a motorbike in this country.
1. Wear a helmet
This one is obvious, but as I mentioned earlier, a lot people do not wear a helmet. It could be because it’s out of habit, or because they’re driving in their neighbourhood alleys where police are not present. But just wear a helmet whenever and wherever you drive or get on a motorbike.
2. Carry your driver’s license
It is commonly allowed to drive with an international driver’s license as long as it states that you can drive the vehicle you’re driving. If you live in Vietnam, some may recommend you get a Vietnamese motorbike license, but it is not necessary. None of my foreign friends or I had to provide a license when buying a second hand motorbike. It’d only be necessary if you want to purchase a first-hand motorbike, in which case you’ll need a valid license to own it.
3. Drive slowly
The speed limit signs are hard to see or spot here, so it’s hard or impossible to know the exact speed limit of each road. The general rule is that it’s much safer for both physical safety and regulatory safety, to drive at a similar or slower speed to others on the road (except those racers).
4. Respect traffic lights
One of the biggest frustrations I have here is how the traffic lights are set here. There are many junctions where traffic lights do not make sense. For instance, it’s green light for going straight from both sides and also green light to turn left. It seems as though it’s designed to create chaos and congestion. You could also be honked by drivers at your back for stopping at red light. But ignore them and just always respect the light.
5. Use indicators & Turn on light when it’s dark
Another very logical and common sense rule is to always use the indicator when you’re turning left or right. Also, turn on the motorbike light in the evening. You could be caught for not using the indicator or not having the light on in the evening.
6. Have at least the left mirror installed
I found this one super absurd and even hilarious when someone told me that the minimum requirement is to have at least the left mirror installed. I mean, I thought and still think there should be two mirrors, but from observation, I know that NO ONE really looks at the mirror when driving. It’s just not in their habit. You’ll also be able to see many bikes without any mirror and they’ll be caught and fined for that when they’re unlucky. So remember that you should have the left mirror (or just have both mirrors) if you want to avoid being caught.
7. Be cautious – every minute, every second
There are instances where you could be unlucky even if you drive like in the driving test and respect all the rules and show all the manners you could possibly imagine. It’s because there are some people who do not go by the same rules. They could rush past you straight even when you used the indicator to turn. There are many drivers who race and rage on road. You could be bumped (lightly) by a motorbike behind when you stop at the traffic light.
It’s very common that accidents are not dealt in a manner that’s internationally common – like stopping to check the severity of the accident, or calling insurance company etc. Most of the accidents in cities are not major and severe, but even those incidents when people fall off their bike from collision will be dealt only with “are you okay?” and that’d be the extent of it.
So, do all you can to drive safely respecting all the rules, but also be constantly cautious of others.
I listed these according to tips and information from local friends and sources as well as my personal experiences. I have been driving my motorbike everyday for over a year in Hanoi and I am very fortunate to have ZERO accidents because I follow the rules and tips listed above. But I live by a big road near the Old Quarter and from my window, I’ve seen many many accidents happening – from small to big ones when some people fainted and possibly broke a leg from falling off motorbike.
So my number one advice would be to always be careful. And when you’re careful, you can safely drive around and not only survive, but really grasp that joy of driving like a local pro! I was also very scared to drive at first, but now I feel very comfortable driving and I feel the sense of achievement for improving my driving skills and merging in with locals. But I never forget that safety is always the most important priority because you can only truly enjoy when safety is the baseline.
Safe driving everyone and I hope you’ll have a huge blast in Vietnam!