Scootering 101 or how not to die in Vietnam
When we first arrived in Hanoi, I looked out into the sea of people and thought "that looks like madness." The way cars, scooters and pedestrians interacted in the street reminded me of a giant writhing snake. It seemed so foreign and so incredibly dangerous. After a couple of days, crossing the street seemed easier but I was still intimidated by the idea of driving a scooter. It wasn’t until we got out of the city and into the countryside that Lisa and I attempted a scooter ride. She decided right away that driving was not for her and I was officially named scooter driver. Renting one was easy. All hotels in Vietnam have scooters for rent. We told the woman at the front desk of our hotel in Phong Nha that we wanted to rent a scooter, and she instantly produced a key and two helmets.
I started it up, hopped on and went off on a quick test drive, solo at first. When I returned, Lisa informed me that the woman from the hotel was slightly horrified when I left. Apparently she did not expect me to speed off as I did. Her comment to Lisa: ”your husband drives just like a Vietnamese.” I took great pride in this.
Then we took off on our scooter adventure, easing our way through dirt roads and tiny paths in the countryside. Lisa was slightly terrified, but my confidence was growing.
Our next scooter ride started in the city of Hue, my first shot at real city driving. I have to say at first it was more than a little intimidating. Then I decided it was just like a giant bike race, and I felt more relaxed. After the city portion, we headed out on more gentle roads in search of tombs, mausoleums, and abandoned amusement parks (more about that in my next post). I was beginning to understand how the roadway system works. Here are some rules about driving in Vietnam:
1- When you’re making a left-hand turn, do not slow down. Simply turn into the lane of oncoming traffic on the opposite side of the road. Then when you have the opportunity to switch to the correct side of the road, do so.
2- The horn is to be used gently but frequently (two quick taps: beep, beep). It is an indication of your intention: hey I’m passing you, or hey get the fuck out of the road, or please don’t do that stupid thing you are about to do.
3- Traffic lights are mostly optional. Regardless of the color, if you see an opportunity to go through an intersection, most people expect you to beep the horn, and motor on through.
4- Physics is the only real traffic rule. Right-of-way is determined by size. Yield to the bus and taxi. They will kill you if you don’t. You however do not need to yield to the pedestrian. You will kill that person if they don’t stop. There is however a caveat to this rule, which is pedestrians never stop. They only slow down.
5- If you think you should stop or slowdown, what you really need to do is speed up. If there is something in the road that you’re unsure you should pass, you should definitely pass it.
Knowing these rules will help you negotiate all types of roads in Vietnam.
I’m happy to report that we have now completed our third scooter adventure. It involved a little city driving, a little bit of highway driving, and some very advanced U-turn maneuvers. However we have not been able to match the speed at which most Vietnamese drive. Sometimes we were hampered by the scooter. Often we were hampered by fear, mostly Lisa’s. In all fairness, it is a little terrifying to be on the back of a scooter going 60 km per hour, while people are passing you going 100kph! When I say people, I should be clear: all types of people. Young men testing their mettle; women in beautiful dresses and high heels; workmen loaded down with the most unbelievable cargo (I was almost taken out by a man on a scooter with a ladder across his back going against traffic); and of course families. Yes that’s not a typo, Families. Three, four, or five people, on one scooter -moms and dads, kids, infants. You name it, we’ve seen it.
Taking all this into consideration, I still think riding or driving a scooter in Vietnam is an intrinsic part of the experience of being here. If you come to Vietnam, plunk down your 100,000 dong ($4.50) and head out for the day. Just remember, physics.