I recently spent a week in Vietnam holidaying with my family. After a few days of guided sight-seeing and poolside sunning; my wife succumbed to my relentless nagging and gave me permission to leave the safe, manicured pathways of the beach resort to venture onto the sticky streets of Hoi An. On a scooter.
It was nothing short of spectacular and I would highly recommend it to anyone that loves to ride, especially if you can get off the beaten track and meander through the picturesque countryside. It’s a beautiful place with incredibly friendly and humble people.
The ‘rules’ of the road might not be quite what you’re accustomed to, so before you thumb the electric starter, there a few things you’ll need to get your head around.
First things first.
I’ve spent my entire life driving on the left-hand side of the road. In Vietnam they drive on the right. This unnerved me a little at first, but it was surprisingly easy to make the mental flip. That is, while I was cruising along straight, wide roads like the one in the pic alongside. It got somewhat trickier at intersections. Allow me to explain.
Every intersection in Vietnam is a lot like a hornets’ nest moments after being pounded with a big stick. A maddening cacophony of high-pitched buzzing made by hundreds of little things zipping around in seemingly random directions.
It’s like a moving tableau of chaos, and in the middle of all that randomness, it can be a little difficult to remember which side of the madness you’re meant to be on. Especially when it looks like everyone else isn’t quite sure either.
But the truly remarkable thing about the intersections is that the hornets never seem to fly into each other. They flow without bother. It’s amazing and it brings me to my second observation: navigation via echolocation.
Where I’m from, you only use your hooter (horn) in one of two instances:
When it’s a life and death situation and you’re trying to avoid an accident; or when you’d like to make known without any doubt your intense dissatisfaction with another road user’s errant behaviour.
Not so in Vietnam. The hooter is a navigation device that politely alerts all other road users of your current location and your future intent.
It’s a courteous declaration to the guy in front of you. “Hey pal, I’m coming up behind ya to overtake, so don’t do anything sudden. Hold your course.”
Or it’s a considerate warning to whatever is around the blind corner. “Hey folks, I’m sweeping around this corner as fast as physics will allow me to, so please don’t be where I am going to be in a few seconds’ time.”
The only problem with using the hooter as a substitute for indicators or hand signals, is that on any given 50m stretch of road, there are 245 scooters honking away. It’s kinda like wearing that hornets’ nest on your head. Just hold your course. And no sudden movements.
This leads neatly into my third observation: random actions are reassuringly predictable.
To everyone in Vietnam, a scooter hugging the right hand curb travelling under 30km/h is an obvious declaration to all other road users that the rider is, without any prior indication or warning whatsoever, about to perform one of three actions:Proceed straight as normal, or come to an immediate and sudden full stop, or vanish in an instant by peeling off through the chickens and dust onto a side road.
Your best bet is to put as much space and time between you and them and NEVER attempt to pass another scoot on the right. That way lies pain.
This is a lesson you will learn very, very quickly and it’s as important to know as another (more alarming) road habit in Vietnam I like to call “What the fuck!?”
Riders tend to pull out into traffic without really worrying about sneaking a peak at what’s coming first. Like they have full and complete faith that you will see them in time, apply as much force to the brake levers as your shaking hands can muster and in so doing avoid an inconvenient collision.
So while you’re trying to soak up all the sights and sounds, remember to keep one eye out for the casual joiner and when they do swerve into the road just ahead of you, I wouldn’t bother hooting; they’ll just think you’re going to overtake.
I’ve shot quite a lot of footage that I’ll eventually get around to editing and when I do, I’ll upload it right here. Till then, here's a more tranquil scene from beautiful Hoi An.