Vietnam is a long, narrow country running north-south. There are all kinds of regional characteristics including food styles and distinct dialects, industries and so on. No matter where you go in the country though, it seems Vietnamese people love their motorbikes.
There are two basic types. The scooters, like Vespas, are “twist & go” beasts. You just crank the throttle and off you go. These machines have generous compartments for putting stuff and they seem broader or chunkier than the sleeker geared motorbikes. The geared bikes, on the other hand have more get up and go and I think they are more popular.
Mostly people wear helmets, although on several occasions we saw an adult with a couple kids piled on a motorbike – the adult with the helmet on and the kids without. Many riders wear face-masks, which must offer some protection from diesel fumes and dust along the roads. Sometimes a guy would have his face-mask pulled down over his chin so he could enjoy a smoke while riding.
With great ingenuity, people manage to carry more cargo on a motorbike than we could fit into an SUV. Live chickens. Furniture for food stalls. Construction materials. Eggs straight from the market. Anything goes.
Rain is no barrier. People, cargo and bike are covered up with huge rain ponchos.
Traffic laws are a guideline at best. In Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, as it is officially called, it is not unusual for people to ride their motorbikes on the sidewalks. Horns are honked constantly, but these are not honks of anger. In fact drivers seemed remarkably calm. They honk their horn to tell other drivers where they are, where they are going and where it is impossible to go.
Drivers in Vietnam have a different sense of space than we have and drive much closer together than we would ever consider safe. What we would deem a close call, they would call changing lanes.
After a couple days we started to get our “legs” crossing roads in Vietnam. You can’t wait until there is no traffic because there is always traffic. Sometimes you just have to cross. The important thing is to be predictable. Choose a direction. Choose a pace. Keep going. Whatever you do, don’t try to go back. The motorbikes simply go around you. I became quite accustomed to crossing roads in Vietnam in ways which would undoubtedly get me killed if I tried it in Toronto.
We went on a food tour on the back of Vespas in Hoi An (it was fun zooming around in traffic, if a little scary), but I certainly didn’t feel like I had the driving confidence to rent a scooter and join the fray. If I lived there, I suppose my comfort level would increase. I can imagine driving in Hanoi, or Hue or Hoi An, but not in Ho Chi Minh City. The relentlessness of the motorbikes is almost overwhelming in Saigon. There are 11 million people in the city and at one point I imagined they all must be on a motorbike at the same time.