My first lesson while in Vietnam is clear and concise: David, there is no such thing as an empty road in Hanoi, just look both ways before crossing the street.
There is something to be said for Canadian traffic regulations. Though gridlock can be frustrating, especially when in a rush, your safety is nearly guaranteed. Socially and judicially recognized regulations pertaining to road safety and training are strict, enforceable and work exceptionally well at maintaining a degree of security for the country’s drivers.
Rules in Vietnam pertaining to traffic and road safety are far more flexible. This takes a great deal of getting used to; in Canada there are certainties, absolute facts about traffic regulations we take for granted that do not exist in Vietnam. For example, the knowledge that traffic is restricted, by direction, to given lanes, is a false assumption in Vietnam. Additionally, it would be folly to assume that pedestrians could find respite from frenzied motorists on the side-walks. The list goes on.
Much of this, I suspect has to do with, with the transition of favoured mode of transportation. In Canada, the majority use cars or take the bus. These are large, cumbersome vehicles that require a lot of room and space to manoeuvre. In Vietnam, however, the preference in on motorbikes. I was told that Vietnam is second only to Indonesia for the number of motorbikes and scooters on the road, per capita. Motorbikes, unlike cars or buses, can manoeuvre quickly and seamlessly through small spaces.
Traffic an Hanoi, simply due to volume, is on a level all it’s own. Regardless of the minute amount of spaces needed for a motorbike, roads are solid columns of metal and rubber at rush hour. Crossing is at first a heart stopping ordeal. I can best describe it as walk through a swarm of bees that weight roughly a ton each. Though the speeds are lower in Vietnam than in Canada on most roads, that is of little solace when you’re taking that first step praying that the driver of that motorbike goes around you and his compatriots follow suit.
Though this may sound overwhelming, there is an organized chaos to the seemingly insane traffic system on Vietnam. The unofficial rules are simple and easy to follow: larger vehicles move out of the path of smaller vehicles, pedestrians move slowly through traffic and are responsible for being aware of their surroundings, cars and motorbikes will move around people if possible (if not, you shouldn’t have stepped there), don’t step in front of buses, always follow the path of least resistance.
The last rule is key to understanding the system. Traffic lights can be ignored, intersections are are sometimes impossible to decipher and side-walks and the opposite lanes are fair game if the street traffic isn’t moving. This is why it is important to keep your eyes and ears open when moving through the streets; Vietnamese drivers are excellent at signalling with their horns, and the sound of a bus approaching or a motorbikes taking a quick turn quickly becomes linked to a Pavlovian response of hoping aside and this has literally saved me life more than once.
Though the chaotic racing of motorbikes through the streets can seem insane, it really is the best way to travel in Vietnam. It is cheap, fast and effective. The first ride is always a little jarring and I found myself holding on the the back of the bike (I’d been told not to hold onto the driver; they really don’t like that) while praying I wouldn’t die. Xe oms (motorbike taxis) quickly became my preferred method of transportation. It’s not without risk and some are better than others. I’ve had drunk drivers and simply reckless ones but I learned some solid rules: older drivers are usually safer, don’t discard female xe oms (they are rare but they exist) and bargain; after my first two weeks I almost never paid more than 50,000 VND for a ride and I know people who never paid over 30,000 VND.
My one main suggestion would be to find a solid helmet. There are cheap helmets in Vietnam but they will protect little more than bubble wrapping your forehead. Helmets are required by Vietnamese law but there are little to no standards. I even heard a rumour of a man who hollowed out half a watermelon and wore it as a helmet with not problems from the traffic police.
Also, if you can, find your own driver. Locate a driver you trust and exchange numbers. When you have you’re own driver prices are usually cheaper and the driver is more reliable.
I think it’s easy to to say that I’ll miss rides on the back of my friends’ motorbikes more than anything, save of course the friends themselves. There is a sense of freedom to driving in Hanoi and makes you feel like you’re in an 80’s coming of age story; it’s like living the Lost Boys but with more rice. I do worry how well I’ll reintegrate into Canadian society after this. I’ve been spoiled with freedom when it comes to the roads. I’ll be irritated with waiting for traffic lights and the claustrophobic car seats, but I’ll be happy about the increased safety and slightly more reliable but definitely less cramped buses. Besides, motorbike outings wouldn’t fare well with Canadian winters.