Ho Chi Minh city can be a lonely place if you’re not ready to climb aboard a motorbike. But beware the crosswalks.
“I don’t want to die,” crooned Arlo Guthrie, the American folk singer. “I just wanna ride on my motorcy — cle.”
Virtually every day of my life in Vietnam, I am on a motorbike. Fifteen months ago, I never would have believed this would happen. I had previously spent hundreds of hours and thousands of miles on bicycles, but (except for a four-day odyssey around Bali in 1976) almost never on a motorized two-wheeler.
Motorbikes outnumber cars (and trucks and buses) in this country by multiples. There are 45 million registered motorbikes in a country of 97 million people. And that doesn’t include highly fuel-efficient 50cc bikes, which are not required to be registered. There are perhaps another 10 million of those.
In Ho Chi Minh city alone, a metropolis of some 13 million people, more than 8.5 million motorbikes are in use, their horns beeping endlessly. They share eight-lane arterial highways and tiny lanes not wide enough for one bike to pass another. Empty lots become de facto parking areas, as do sidewalks and, often, private parlors and living rooms. Business opportunities abound for parking attendants and security guards who can assure the safety of these vehicles for their owners.
Filling the gaps
All riders must wear fitted helmets, subject to a fine of around US$10; Most do so, although flip-flapping straps are almost as common on drivers as flip-flop sandals. Motorcycles also must not exceed 50 kilometers per hour (31 mph), but few riders are true to that law. They are not patient drivers.
Indeed, it seems most have the same perspective as building contractors: If there’s a gap, an empty space, fill it. Don’t wait behind a half-dozen other bikes at a traffic light when you can wheedle your way through the breach between a bike and a commercial van to get 10 meters closer to the stop line. And if the congestion is too stifling — well, there may be a sidewalk where you can negotiate a passage between pedestrians and mobile kitchens.
Right-of-way between motorbikes is determined by whose tire is ahead of the other’s. Right-of-way for pedestrians is determined by … well, there is no right-of-way for pedestrians. As I wrote in an earlier blog post, my first big culture shock came in merely crossing a street.
Negotiating a crosswalk, even with a green walk light, is always an adventure. The key is to wait for an ever-so-minor break in traffic and begin walking slowly and steadily. As long as you don’t stop and start, as long as you maintain a steady pace in the direction you’re going, drivers are very good at gauging your stride. They won’t stop, they rarely even slow down, but they veer at all the proper angles.
If you remember the 1980s video game “Frogger,” you’ll have some idea what it is like. Local TV hostess Tracy Thuy gave me this advice: “When you want to cross the road with so many motorbikes, do not worry. Close your eyes, and then keep walking straight. But during that time, don’t forget to pray to your god. And then you can cross the road!”
Fourteen thousand people die on the road in Vietnam every year. In Ho Chi Minh city, the death rate is about 20 per day. Traffic fatalities are the leading cause of death for men and women between the ages of 15 and 29, and motorcycles are responsible for more than half of those deaths. Traffic congestion, inadequate law enforcement, poor driving skills and bad street conditions are often cited as reasons. Police may turn a blind eye or accept a private cash settlement to avoid ticketing.
No doubt, motorbike exhaust contributes mightily to the frightening level of air pollution in both Ho Chi Minh city and Hanoi. In recent years, both cities have proposed schemes to ban motorbikes from the urban core to discourage traffic congestion. By 2030, boosted by new subway systems projected for completion before that time, full-sized motorcycles could be relegated to urban fringes. Already, local manufacturer VinFast is producing smaller electric scooters, cutting into the profits of Honda and Yamaha, who have dominated the motorcycle market in Vietnam for 50 years.
Motorcycles aren’t going to go away. For many families, they are the principal means of transportation. It’s common to see mom, dad, three kids and the family dog sharing a single bike. And they carry staggering amounts of goods, as well as people: Visitors are often surprised to see how much can be stacked on a bike. Rather than renting a pickup truck or other four-wheel vehicle, placing the burden on a bike saves time and money.
Now, here I am on a motorbike. The cycle isn’t my own, but the helmet is; it’s an Andes, a solid piece of equipment that cost me about VND 300,000 (about US$13).
Every day, I travel the 6.2 km (3.9 miles), between my home in the Binh Thanh district and my work place in District 6, by taxi — motorbike taxi, that is. By day, it costs me about VND 43,000 (about US$1.85). By night, there’s a surcharge of another 20 percent. When I call a bike to take me into the heart of District 1, it costs well under US$1.
There are two main ride-sharing services. Singapore-based GrabTaxi merged with Uber in 2018; Grab controls the market in countries throughout Southeast Asia. GoJek (formerly Go Viet) is a newer startup that offers service of similar quality for a substantially lower price. GoJek, however, doesn’t have any cars, and during rainy season, Grab automobile taxis are welcomed by non-drivers who will pay more to stay dry.
A growing number of drivers speak sufficient English to communicate with foreign riders. Although some pay insufficient heed to safety, hygiene or most convenient routes, the vast majority of drivers are excellent.
Tracy Thuy told me that if I want a serious girlfriend in Ho Chi Minh city, I’m going to have to shell out for a motorbike of my own. I’m not sure that’s worth the risk, as an inexperienced rider, of braving the traffic — especially when there are others who can do it for me!