Motorcycling in Vietnam

With awe-inspiring dexterity and split-second timing, the Vietnamese are able to glide through these high blood pressure arterials with complete equanimity. The foreign visitor, however, is likely to find crossing a city street to be as challenging as piloting a space ship through an asteroid belt. Vietnam is also not a place to motorcycle if you already know how to ride. The experienced Western motorcyclist will automatically assume certain common sense rules of the road. This is guaranteed to lead to disaster. In Vietnam, aside from the theoretical rule that traffic moves on the right side of the road (as in the U.S.), none of the rules common to driving elsewhere in the world are valid. This leaves the experienced rider worse off than the person who has never ridden. Some may think, “Yes, but I’ve ridden across the country,” or “I was a motorcycle messenger in San Francisco,” or “I won the Grand Prix at Laguna Seca.” Assuming that previous riding experience will help you will lead to your figurative and literal downfall as none of this will prepare you for the mayhem called motorcycling in Vietnam.

Honda 50s, 70s, 90s and 100s are infesting Vietnam the way nutrias have taken over the Louisiana bayous. These bikes can be rented in most cities, fixed almost anywhere and are reliable and economical if not always comfortable or well suited for Vietnam’s roads. If you’re used to riding the latest superbike, these bikes might seem like toys. It’s possible to ship a large cycle to Vietnam, but be aware that there’s probably not a spare part available anywhere in the country. Even Japanese bikes over 150cc are still rarities. To see Vietnam by motorcycle, the best bet is to rent or buy what’s locally available and, in most cases, that means a small Honda.
Before renting a bike and attempting your first merge into traffic, it would be useful and potentially life-saving to know what to expect. Because the Vietnamese are so wildly imaginative when it comes to inventing driving stunts never thought of before, the following list should not be considered as comprehensive but simply a general outline of potential hazards.

Never rent a motorcycle that doesn’t have a functioning horn. In practice, motorcycle horns in Vietnam are about as useful as automobile alarms in the US: they are forever going off and yet no one pays any attention to either of them. Nevertheless, going out without a horn can only be described by terms like “death wish,” “suicidal,” or “wild, thrill seeker.” You must have a horn, the louder the better.
Just having a horn is not enough. It took me several weeks to realize that horn signaling, like the Vietnamese language, is tonal. The same sounds can mean many different things depending on tone, inflection, duration, position and personal nuance. These tones are very difficult to master and can only be understood after several hundred near (and not so near) misses.
The next thing to realize is that most Vietnamese drivers’ field of vision is extremely narrow, generally limited to the 30 degrees directly in front of them. This approach takes some getting used to but once mastered is very convenient. Anything behind or to the side is not your concern (the exception being the large loud vehicles just mentioned).
At first I found this befuddling. Why not simply take the mirrors off, I wondered. I decided there must be some inventive reason for this, such as shielding the rider’s face from the wind and dust. I unscrewed my mirrors and gave it a try. My eyes still became clogged with exhaust fumes and dust. The only advantage I could see was that I was no longer distracted by the riders about to run me over from behind.

Eventually I asked a young local rider what the idea was. He looked at me with the disdain of the hip informing the unhip. “It looks cool,” he said and rode on.
Next to the horn, brakes are the most important piece of mandatory equipment. Unfortunately, the Vietnamese consider functioning front brakes, like mirrors, as fashion accessories. This will be most distressing to the experienced rider who, about to collide with a cyclo carrying twelve children home from school, grabs the front brake lever in last second desperation.
Motorcycle clothing is another concern for the Western rider. There are two schools of fashion in Vietnam. In the north, green army fatigues and matching pith helmets are the rage. In the south, women wear elbow length, Jackie Kennedy-style gloves, high collars, long skirts or slacks, and bonnets straight out of 1950s musicals.
For Westerners I suggest sturdy all natural fiber clothing such as cotton or khaki. Long sleeves and long pants are absolutely necessary protection against the sun. Pick colors that will look reasonably clean after a full day of riding through the red dust and mud of Vietnam’s back roads. (Leave your leathers at home.) Bandannas for the face and neck may make you look like a bandit, but the extra protection against the sun is worth the sacrifice in style. A broad brimmed hat may be difficult to keep on your head, but provides still more relief. If traveling with a passenger, an umbrella for further protection against sun and rain can be a useful accessory.
Here are a few additional rules of thumb or advisories:


Advisory #1. Expect anything. The more incredible or improbable a maneuver might be, the more likely it will occur directly in front of you. People making U-turns on one way streets, or veering across several lanes of traffic without signaling, or stopping to fix a break down in the middle of a jammed street are common-place and must not distract you from the more perilous things that other riders will be doing all around you.


Advisory #2. Do not think that a multiple lane road means you can take it easy. Although most roads in Vietnam are narrow, lightly traveled paths, there are a few stretches of wide, multiple lane, well-paved highways. These provide great temptation to let down one’s guard. Don’t do it. A four lane highway in Vietnam only means that rather than a single lane of opposing traffic to monitor there are now four. Heightened caution required.


Advisory #3. Cyclos, Vietnam’s pedicabs, like dirigibles and sailing ships, have absolute right of way and can be expected to stop or turn directly in front of you without so much as a glance over the shoulder by the cyclo driver. Although cyclos are a motorcyclist’s most dangerous adversary they can also be one’s ally. The traffic circles of Saigon make the etoile around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris look like a merry-go-round. Before entering a round-about in Vietnam it’s best to let a cyclo run interference for you. Trying to enter without protection can induce catatonia in the most experienced riders. With a cyclo on either side you will miraculously slide through what appeared to be an impassable logjam.


Video of Motorcycle trip in Ho Chi Minh Trail, Vietnam
 
Author: Robert Strauss Tags: Vietnam motorcycling tours, Dirt bike Vietnam, Vietnam motorcycle tours, Motorcycling Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh Trail Tours
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