The tug of wanting to rent or buy a môto is strong. True enough, it will expand your horizons. It gives you a sense of independence.
But be aware of this simple, horrendous fact: Việt Nam has the second highest traffic fatality rate in the world. Just a few weeks ago, we saw a man killed near our guest house. A few days later, we saw another bad wreck with two people sprawled on the pavement. Its dangerous out there.
According to the Việt Nam News, the official English language newspaper, there were 9,918 traffic accidents in the first eight months of this year. Let’s just round that number up to an even 10,000. Though we don’t know how many of those involved motorbikes, you be assured most of the 7,703 people who were killed were riding a môto.
Why is it so dangerous? I think there are a number of reasons.
First - the median age of the population. Over 65% of the population of Việt Nam was born after reunification in 1975. That means most people are under thirty years old. This is a ground swell of population growth that dwarfs the American baby boom. As with young people around the world, they lack experience and they take uncalculated risks.
Secondly, the rapid economic development of the country since doi moi in 1986 means that very few people could afford a motorbike until the 1990s. We have a friend who is 60 years old – and he bought his first motorbike in 1993. That means even older people are fairly new at driving. There is no passing on of motoring skills from father to son, and no driver education, and no ingrained sense of how traffic works. The entire population is new to driving. When you combine the youthfulness of the population with the fact that older Vietnamese are new to driving, its as if 90% of America’s drivers are 17 years old.
Third, there is a general lack of respect for traffic laws. Yes, there are traffic police, but they are usually found at large intersections. While you will occasionally see them out on the highway enforcing speeding laws, they are seldom seen in the city enforcing common sense traffic laws. For instance, it is the norm to be stopped at a traffic light with another motorbike to your left – and when the light changes, have him accelerate quickly, and turn right in front of you. Because there is not a sense of what controlled traffic should be like, one often sees people passing on the right, driving slowly down the street four abreast talking with each other, or people just pulling out in front of you from a side street without looking. Remember your mother telling you to look both ways before you cross the street? Not so in Việt Nam.
Fourth – traffic experts will tell you one of the prime cause of vehicle wrecks is differences in speed. Americans traveling on an urban expressway are used to “staying with the traffic.” You worry less about the speed limit, and more about trying to travel at the same relative speed as the other cars. Not in Việt Nam. A cyclo driving, moving at a pace slower than a walk, is in the center of the lane with young motor bikers zooming by on the right side, and children walking three abreast down the street just ahead of them. Bicyclists commonly ignore traffic signals – and almost get clobbered by the taxi driving through on a green light. Pedestrians, bicycles, motorbikes, and automobiles all share the same streets.
Fifth – right of way is determined by the size of the vehicle. There is no such thing as traffic turning at an intersection must yield to traffic going straight through. Everybody just drives fast to go they way they want to go – and the biggest guy wins.
Finally – few people wear helmets. Yes – they are supposed to wear them, and many do out on the open highway, but few people wear them in town. A certain fatalism permeates Vietnamese society.
So – if you must, ride a môto – but be careful out there. You may be the best rider in the world, but its always the other guy.