The Tribulations, Observations, and Consternations of a Motorbike Rider in Hanoi

Hanoi’s traffic is bad and getting worse, and the public buses ferry cost-constrained and safety-concerned denizens about in uncomfortably cramped circumstances. I’m just guessing from the outside. Just 15 years ago, Hanoi was a land of bicycles, with small hubs of activity scattered about and catering to a local crowd. Now, motorbikes are the most conspicuous feature of Hanoi, and the dominance of this open and intimate means of transportation sets the stage for many a drama.

The hierarchy of the road here is quite simple:

( Bus > Car > Motorbike > Bicycle > Pedestrian ) < immovable obstaces

A good friend pointed out an important caveat to this: motorbikes have strength in numbers, and collectively can influence the behavior of larger vehicles. This is also driven by the fact that in an accident, the assumption is that the car is at fault.
That motorbikes are so prevalent gives them a category of their own, and there are four types of drivers:
Insane-Agressive: these individuals are outta control, and no doubt have obscene accident rates. They’re flying at break-neck speeds through traffic, making a point to show off with unnecessarily-quick and darty manuevers. They have absolutely no regard for the laws of physics or Hanoi, and eventually become subject to Moore’s. There’s a limited number of these guys (and they are all guys), I think because few people have such a low regard for their own safety. Those few that do race around are subject to an ass-whooping by the cops and also subject themselves to the laws that Darwin so beautifully described. Let’s just say that this evolutionary pressure keeps the population numbers of this group low.
Sane- Agressive: If there’s an open space in front of them and they haven’t maxed out their speed, they’re all over it. Calculated risks, occasional obedience to traffic laws motivated primarily by one’s mood, and a concern for temporal limitations and how they might be overcome characterize this group.
Lolligaggers- They don’t want to crash, probably because their kid is standing on the seat taking in the view and cherishing those warm blasts of black-air being thrust in their face by the bus in front of them. They take it easy, go with the flow, and keep things safe. Your parents definitely belong in this group, as does your girlfriend, and all the other smart people in your life.
Whereas Insane-Agressive and Sane- Agressive put most of their attention on actual driving, the Lolligaggers are much more social. Think about it: your cruising along a crowded road in the open air, with dozens of people within talking distance. I crack up sometimes thinking about if the U.S. was like this, what kinds of things people would shout, the failed pick-up attempts, the showboating, the small talk.
If you want to survive riding a motorbike in Vietnam, its not enough to be able to skillfully operate a bike. You also have to understand the traffic pattern over here, like the impossible puzzles that are slowly solved at intersections with dozens of bikes trying to squeeze through each other, the casual disrespect for traffic lights, the log-jammed nightmares that occur when streets meant to handle pedestrians become bus routes. Here seems like a good place to interrupt my monologue with a video clip a friend took, an absurd occurrence that you just have to see for yourself:

A few insider tips for driving a motorbike in Hanoi:

1)I go faster than most traffic, which means that I don’t have to worry about people passing me, which is a significant source of danger on the road. By going 10km/hr faster than everyone, I can focus on the traffic from the other direction and obstacles in front of me. The only way to know about traffic coming from behind you is through sound (or light at night), so eliminating this worry makes the fact that I listen to music/ podcasts while driving a little bit safer.

2) While I go faster than most traffic and seize all “gaps” presented in traffic, at intersections you’ve got to slow waay down. Intersections are the most dangerous place on the road, and you’ve got take it easy going through them.

3) If turning left, use your [censored] turn signal. Also, don’t do it from the middle of the right side of the road, where people passing on your left will slam into you as you cross the lane to turn.

4) Understand that traffic signals are casually ignored by many people, so don’t assume everyone else is stopping as you move forward after a red light.

5) Buses are bigger than you, and don’t care about you, and won’t think twice about running you over. Also, I think some taxis have an active deathwish for their fellow motorists, so be prepared to swerve out of their way.

Break Number 2: A few select pictures
Motorbike loving:
Courtesy Julia Plevin, professional photographer and cultural critic:

In the 10 months I’ve been in Vietnam, I’ve been in four motorbike “incidents”, as described below. The first two were my fault, the second two were other’s fault:

1) Accidental “off road” driving: coming home late one night, I was speeding along the empty streets and didn’t see a sharp turn ahead. The sidewalk barrier was sloped upward reasonable, so instead of trying to make the sharp-turn, I turned my bike toward the sidewalk, since there was grass on the other side and it was safer than hitting the sidewalk barrier at an angle. Came to a jolting stop in the grass, and by “jolting stop” I mean I eventually fell over going at about 4mph. Embarrassing and novice mistake, but glad I handled it well and turned out OK.

2) Tight turn fall-over: Again late at night on empty streets, tried to make a sharp turn around the temple of literature a little too fast. My tire pressure was low, so when I put the bike at an angle it just fell right over. I wasn’t going that fast, but had a little bruise on my leg and my ego.

3) Pedestrian crash! Yes, while returning from work one night I hit a pedestrian. Luckily for him he was a strong and stout guy, luckily for my crash statistics, he jumped out from behind another car and I had no choice but to hit him. It was definitely his fault. I was going maybe 10-15 miles per hour before I slammed on the brakes and then hit him. He went sprawling maybe three feet, then jumped up and sized me up angrily. My first reaction was “Are you OK?”. That was settled pretty quickly, and I couldn’t help my next reaction: anger and nervousness. It had been a scary situation that could have ended much worse for both of us. I then shouted “Mat cua anh o dau?”, which means “Where are your eyes?”. There was little else to do, so I drove off thanking my lucky stars.

4) T-boned at an intersection: Again coming home from work, was t-boned by another bike at an insane intersection that sees six streets come together in an incomprehensibly unorganized way. At any given point, there are 100 motorbikes and 20 cars at this intersection, all taking the path of least resistance. I’d almost made it across, and was passing in front of a car when someone slammed into my left side. Somehow my bike stayed upright and the other person fell. But, they nailed my foot. I stopped for a moment, looked back and saw that the lady was OK and already was putting her bike upright, so I resumed going home. My foot was swollen to twice its normal size for a week, but eventually the bruising went away.

I’ll close by noting that motorbike accidents are very common over here, and most expats I know have seen the aftermath of atleast a few fatal crashes. I’ve seen two of these, as well as countless other more minor incidents.
In Vietnam, as of two years ago, all motorbike riders are required to wear a helmet. There’s even a somewhat shocking infomercial before movies where a small child dies because it wasn’t wearing helmet. Because of the real danger involved, I wear a huge full-face helmet, even though its outta style amongst the Vietnamese. Its anti-social in many ways, can cost more than the minimum wage for one month, and just isn’t in-style. This doesn’t keep me from wearing one or ragging on friends that have the other things, those pieces of cardboard that sit on your head with an adjustable chin strap. Laaaame.
I’ll concluded this post with an amusing little anecdote. When I arrived in Vietnam, I already had a motorcycle license that I’d gotten four years ago in college by attending a three-day course and passing a driver’s test. I’d actually forgotten how to ride a manual bike. When I went to go rent a bike in the old quarter, I paid $5 and gave them my driver’s license and they gave me a manual four-speed Honda Wave. I realized I had no idea how to operate it, and this problem was compounded by the seller’s inability to explain it. This was going to have to be trial and error, and I spent a clumsy twenty minutes navigating the throes of old-quarter mayhem in a clumsy and jolting haze. It turns out not to be that difficult though, and I quickly figured it out, adjusted, and thus began my motorbike adventures in Vietnam.

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