I love to ride on two wheels. In the US, I ride a scooter – no, not a little putt putt like Audrey Hepburn rode around Rome with. Mine is a road-going 400cc Suzuki , and I’ve written some stories about my rides on it.
In Việt Nam, people ride for a different reason. Whereas most bikes in the US are ridden for recreation, the bike is used for regular daily transportation in Việt Nam. And riding is done differently too – very differently.
But first -to my riding friends in the US who are all saying “Hey – what’s with the shorts, t-shirt and sandals?” They never see me on my scoot unless I am fully swathed with protective clothing – mesh pants and jacket, gloves, boots and full helmet.
(Be sure to click the photos to see a larger version.)
I admit that to some degree, I have to say that it’s easier to just go with the flow – nobody wears protective gear here. But there are some other reasons, not the least of which is speed. You seldom go very fast here. In the videos below, it looks like I am going fast, but actually, I am only going 20 miles per hour – 25 at the most. Obviously, one can still get hurt at 25 mph, but the road rash would be significantly less than it would be at 70mph in the US. With heat in Việt Nam, it would just be too much hassle to take in on and off just to go to the next block for coffee, then again to go to the store and still again at the market.
The scooters and motorbikes in Việt Nam seldom leave town – the vast majority of the riding is done going to work, to the market, running errands or to meet friends. People ride around town in the rain and at night. When one does ride outside of town, it is not for fun either – it is because you have an errand. I few days ago, I rode down to Lăng Cô to see Trang. It took me about two hours, riding comfortably at 30-40 mph and stopping to take photos.
Route One is the major north-south artery of the country. In and around Huế, it is a four lane road, but it narrows down to two lanes just south of Phú Bài, where Huế ‘s airport is located. As expected, the road carries heavy trucks, inter-city busses and cars, but it also carries motorbikes and even bicycles.
While the road is in good condition (an improvement from even a few years ago), the variety of vehicles make things “interesting.” I might have to pass an old lady on a bicycle while being passed by a large truck. And not all passing is done on the left either. Most traffic laws are just suggestions here. A bus might cross the center line to pass a truck even though there are motorbikes in the oncoming lane. The bus driver knows the motorbikes will get out of the way. Notice that there is enough room on the shoulder for a motorbike – barely enough room.
Going through small villages, the local residents have built market places right on the road. Now you have heavy truck traffic barreling through local motorbike traffic and people walking across the road – with children thrown in to the mix. Is it dangerous? You bet it is – and Việt Nam’s traffic accident death rate is one of the highest in the world.
But the two-wheeled rider boogies along. Việt Nam is upgrading from the motorbike (similar to a motorcycle with manual transmission) to the scooter (which the Vietnamese refer to as a motorbike even though it has a step-through design and an automatic transmission.) Helmets were required beginning in 2008 and that is enforced by the traffic police. Laws against carrying more than two people were enacted, but it is not uncommon to see a family of three on a moto.
A few days later, Cindy and I rode north of north of Huế to spend some time with Trang and her family. They live in a small village off the highway. I’d forgotten the way from the main road to their home, so one of Trang’s brothers rode out to meet us and lead the way. This is a different kind of scootering – you don’t need an off-road bike, but the pathway is narrow and bumpy. My speed was about 15 mph – maybe a little slower in the narrowest places.
(My laptop lacks the horsepower to edit video – this is right out of the camera.)
And riding through the city is different, mainly because of the traffic rules – or lack of rules. At the beginning of the video you will see I make a left turn and ride on the left side of the road for a bit. That scares the hell out of an American rider, but is standard practice here. You just hug the curb until a hole opens in traffic, then slide on over to the ride side. Not a big deal. Notice too that before I make a right turn, there is a van with the right turn signal flashing, but the driver is not in the right lane. Also normal. Traffic is crazy in Việt Nam until you get used to it.
And remember, American riders – this is all much slower than what you are used to. The largest machine that can be bought and ridden with a regular license is 150cc, and most bikes are 110 or 125cc. Anything over 150cc requires a special license.
And oh yeah – the reverse of licenses is true in Việt Nam – one gets his motorbike license first; the auto driving license is the special license you get later.
Saddle up – and take a ride in Việt Nam.