13 Oct How to ride a motorbike in Hanoi, Vietnam
It was late at night on a quiet Hanoi street (yes, such a thing does exist) and I was learning how to ride a motorbike. As I practised turning in the road Mr Nguyen, who’s renting me my slightly battered 125cc Yamaha for just £25 a month, advised me: “Make sure you use the horn so they know you are a bad driver!” The next comment was just as surprising: “keep my number in your phone and if the police stop you, call me and I will tell them that I know the boss so you get no fine – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, last week the police said ‘I don’t care about no boss, I retire tomorrow!’”
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I’ve now survived a whole month riding around this maze-like, traffic choked city with just one minor bump into the back of a stiletto-clad woman’s scooter. Oh, not to mention several trips to the garage (paid for by Mr Nguyen) to stop the engine from screeching and one flat tire which was repaired in minutes by a tiny Vietnamese woman wearing pyjamas who darted out of her Pho shop with a bucket of tools when she saw me wheeling my bike past.
Although Hanoi is nothing compared to Ho Chi Minh City, it’s still a big step up from the quiet roads of Dalat and sleepy Pai in Thailand. So, what have I learnt? Riding a motorbike in Hanoi is no easy task. Other drivers are your biggest obstacle, especially when they race past you, don’t bother indicating, squeeze into the tightest of spaces and tend to stare at their phones rather than the road. The up-side is that we generally travel at around about 20kph so there’s enough time to avoid most hazards.
Tips for riding a motorbike in Hanoi, Vietnam
So, here’s where I impart my infinite wisdom and give you the key points on how to drive like a true Hanoian:
- Don’t check to see what’s behind you, just go, you are only responsible for what is directly ahead of you.
- In the hierarchy of traffic, a motorbike is only better than a bicycle, which is only slightly better than a pedestrian.
- Since cars and buses are clearly more important don’t expect them to even notice you, let alone make room for you.
- Don’t bother checking your mirrors, or replacing them when they get knocked off.
- Use your horn at least 2,000 times per mile.
- Use a phone while you drive, it makes the journey more of a challenge.
- Overtake or undertake just before turning.
- Use a helmet to protect thin air – hang it on your handlebars or keep it in your seat but don’t bother putting it on your head.
- Red lights, what red lights? Beep at anyone who has the audacity to actually stop for the traffic lights.
- Make sure you know “the Boss” or at least someone who knows him in case you are stopped by the police.
- See how many people you can fit onto your bike, particularly small children; teach babies to cling on to the handlebars from an early age.
- If a space looks too small to squeeze through, go for it.
- Look out for cars heading straight towards you in your lane.
- Head the wrong way down one way streets.
- If you’re a woman, keeping the sun off is important so get yourself a flowery mac to blend in.
- See what you can fit on your bike, go on, be creative – a dog, ladder, a TV, a chair, a gas bottle?
- Swerve at the last minute to avoid manhole covers and pot holes.
- Don’t worry about getting a flat tire; you’ll never be far from a Vietnamese woman with a bucket-full of tools who’ll be willing to repair your tire for just £1.50!
- Finally, if you crash you’ll likely do so in slow moving traffic so just give the other driver a glare and get straight back on again.
This all sounds pretty awful but despite some appalling driving habits the road system in Vietnam actually works remarkably well. At first glance the traffic may look like an utter mess but actually, the chaos is kind of organised; like shoals of fish, motorbikes swerve around obstacles in unison and bikes slow to avoid collisions. Vietnam is also one of the countries in Asia where we’ve seen most people wearing helmets and haven’t witnessed any major crashes since we’ve been here. There are times when I think: ‘If I was cycling in London and someone did that to me I would be so mad,’ but then I beep my horn, shrug my shoulders and get swept along with the shoal. I think I might just be adapting to this Hanoian style of riding.
Have you ever ridden a motorbike in Vietnam? Would you be brave enough to try?