If you've read much of my writing from my time in Hanoi, you've probably picked up on the fact that traffic in Vietnam is a little cray.
Okay, it’s a lot cray.
It’s chaos in fact. Complete and utter chaos.
Within the first few months that I spent in Vietnam, I had a couple gnarly accidents, the second of which landed me in the hospital. But before I got to the hospital—while I was I was lying in the street at the end of a long skid mark of blood and metal—it occurred to me that passing on the wisdom I had gained through learning to drive in Hanoi would be prudent. They say that the first 3 to 4 accidents are a rite of passage for driving in Southeast Asia, but that doesn't mean that you need to go into the experience blind. What follows are my 10 rules for staying safe on the road in Hanoi. But, before we get to any of that, I have a lil' treat for you.
Everything seen in this video is on or near to my normal driving routes in any given week. It should give you a good feel for what it’s like to drive around Vietnam. It's dangerous, but it never stops being fun.
Get ready to take notes.
Get ready to take notes.
The word ‘rules’ implies that there are some sort of consequence for doing otherwise. By this standard, there are no rules. You can run red lights, you can drive the wrong way on a one-way street, you can go left of center, you can drive on the sidewalk; if you can dream it you can do it!
There are Vietnamese police officers that will occasionally attempt to direct traffic or jump out of the bushes and pull over an arbitrarily chosen bike, but beyond that, you are on your own. They will rarely pull over a westerner, since very few Vietnamese police officer speaks English. They see me and they just roll their eyes.
Anyway, at this point in my life I have at least three near-death experiences per week. ...Okay, maybe that's a bit dramatic, but one does not survive in these conditions without learning a ‘lil somethin'. So for lack of any actual rules, I will at least try to outline some general tendencies and guidelines regarding the traffic here that I have observed. This knowledge is the reason I have only crashed 5 times.
If you see somebody else doing it, then it's okay. You can get away with a lot here but you are at your safest when you are traveling the speed of the traffic around you. Even if that means going 80 km/hour. Even if it means running a red light. Whatever it is, just fall in line and don’t ask questions. The lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.
The rules for safely making your way through Vietnamese traffic are similar to the rules for what to do if you encounter a bear in the wild. Mainly, do not make any sudden movements. You want your course of action to be as predictable as possible to the people around you. Waiting for what you perceive to be the right time to turn or merge suddenly will almost certainly get you into an accident. It's better to move over slowly and steadily so that the drivers around you have time to adjust.
In the Western world, honking your horn carries a weird social gravity. People honk when they are angry or in danger. That is not the case here. The horn is more like a sort of primitive Asian sonar system. That is the best way that I have heard it explained. It is nothing more than a proclamation of existence to everybody else on the road. When you drive in Vietnam, you are running an awareness campaign for your own humanity and location. The more you honk, the safer you are.
Honk = “Hey guys, I exist.”
Another thing is that Hanoi is a labyrinth of narrow alleyways and blind turns. When you are about to get to one of these turns, HONK! That's how you let drivers on the other side of these turns know you're coming. And if you're coming up on one of these blind turns and hear a honk coming from the other side, watch out!
Don’t take anything personally. It’s easy to get frustrated during rush hour. You will be honked at, stink-eyed, yelled at, light-flashed, rear-ended, cut-off, tailgated, taken advantage of—you name it! It can be pretty overwhelming at first, but to quote Tom Hanks in the 90's Rom-Com You’ve Got Mail, “It’s not personal, it’s business. Recite that to yourself every time you feel your losing your nerve.”
Find your happy place and keep your wits about you. And remember that you now also have license to do all of those bad things too. There is no right and wrong on the road here. There is only survival. The only power you have as a participant in this traffic is to change your attitude. So take a moment to internalize that fact and then do your best to enjoy it.
Maybe I’m biased—both of my accidents so far have been taxi induced. But yeah, this one is pretty self-explanatory.
Fuck taxis. Keep as far away from them as possible.
This is my biggest pet peeve on the road—garbage trucks and buses tearing through the congested streets like it’s Grand Theft Auto. If there is an accident, all of us common folk on our motorbikes will die horrible, bloody deaths, but the drivers of these behemoths will be totally fine. I really can’t offer any sort of explanation for this egregious gap in common sense but this is how it is. Watch out.
Be selfish. In addition to being a person-eat-dog world, Vietnam is also a dog-eat-dog world. Or, at least when it comes to traffic. On the road, your only job is to look out for number one. Don’t try to be polite. Don’t think twice about cutting somebody off. Don’t put the needs of others ahead of your own. You are powerless to change what is around you. The only power you have to make it out alive, so just do you! The rest will take care of itself.
Drive slow. There is really no reason to ever be in a hurry. In Vietnam, nobody is ever on-time to anything anyway. If you get somewhere late, nobody really cares. I constantly need to remind myself that I am not in a culture that puts the same value on punctuality that I am used to. If I’m late... I’m late. Better late than dead.
Life happens fast on the roads here. In Hanoi, you will drive by a lot of interesting things, and you might be tempted to look at them, but taking your eyes off what you are doing for even a second can spell disaster. Seriously, sometimes even blinking is too long a time to have your eyes closed. Keep your head in the game, and for the love of God, do not text and drive.
Once every two weeks or so a westerner is killed in a fatal accident. More often than not, this is a result of drunk driving, which is (unfortunately) pretty socially acceptable amongst expats here. In my time here, I have had multiple friends who’s lives have literally been saved by their helmets. I have also heard people tell me first hand accounts of being the scene of fatal accidents where the decease had not been wearing a helmet and... let's just say it was messy.
Don't drink and drive and the odds are overwhelmingly in your favor. But, regardless, just wear your damn helmet. Hell, I’d wear a full body of padding if I could figure out a way to make it look cool.
I'm here to help.
I'm here to help.
Getting started driving in Vietnam can be scary, but I promise you that it gets easier. If you're careful, you should be fine. Don't let it shake you if you have a few minor falls, scrapes, or bruises. These are a rite of passage when it comes to driving in places like Vietnam. You're not made of glass—pick yourself back up get back on the road! Rising above the chaos is an empowering experience, and I'd be happy to help you in any way that I can. So if you need some advice, or even a pep talk, don't hesitate to get in touch with me! I'll respond to your message as promptly as I can.
If you're interested in learning more about life in Hanoi (specifically), then you should check out my other two guides. They have lots of great inside information that I gathered through my time living there. Happy reading!