Is it safe to be a first time biker in Vietnam?
April 23, 2006 11:21 PM   Subscribe

Is motorcycling in Vietnam safe for a first-timer?

I'll be travelling with my girlfriend to Vietnam in two weeks, and our plan is to first head to Phu Quoc island, then work our way upcountry over four weeks. We're not going to rely on motorcycles to travel long distances, but we'd like to use them to explore locally, especially in the countryside. Is it realistic for us to hop on a bike and start tooling around? We don't have any experience with motorcycles or scooters. We would of course start on country roads during the day, and rarely if ever ride into the city or at night. I understand the basics of motorcycle operation, but is that enough?
posted by sudasana to Travel & Transportation around Vietnam (23 answers total)
No, don't.
You'll be in culture shock anyways,
They drive like meth addicts,
If you hit a chicken the village will rob you,
If you hit a kid, they might kill you, it won't be pleasant,
The roads suck,
Not the place nor the time to learn to ride.
No, don't.
posted by Meatbomb at 11:27 PM on April 23, 2006

The local buses are interesting, I guarantee.
posted by Meatbomb at 11:29 PM on April 23, 2006

Well it's all just a matter of your personal risk versus reward curve, isn't it? My girlfirend jumped on a scooter for the first time in her life in Ho Chi Minh City. me personallly, as an experienced motorbike rider, tehre's no chance in hell I would.
posted by wilful at 11:46 PM on April 23, 2006

I used a motorbike for the first time in India, a 250cc. I've also used (125cc) scooters in Thailand. I would not use one again.

If you do decide to use a bike, be careful. Not just careful like you would be on the road at home, more so. In the countries I used a bike (haven't been to Vietnam, but I figure roads/signage are similar to where I used a bike), sign posting is random, if indeed at all present, on country roads. The state of such roads is a lottery too. What starts off as a good tarmac road can turn into a pothole ridden (or even swept away) death trap at very short notice. On even the best country roads, there is the danger of un-marked speed bumps (especially as you pass through villages). If you hit one of these things at speed on a bike, it is near certain you'll lose control, even if you're an experienced rider (I've seen this happen twice. It was not pretty, but luckily not fatal either time).

Also, check your travel insurance to see whether you will be covered for this activity. Given your lack of experience (and presumably, license) I'm going to guess you'll not be covered should you have an accident. In my time as a travel sales exec, I received a few calls about automobile accidents. In one tragic example, a customer of mine's parent called and I had to explain that her son, who'd been involved in a motorcycle accident, was not covered for the activity in his insurance. He didn't survive and the parents were liable for all bills incured (hospitalisation, ambulance, body repatriation, etc). Luckily, the company that underwrote the insurance were awesome and paid out.

Don't bank on this happening, it was an exceptional case.
posted by davehat at 12:29 AM on April 24, 2006

I don't think it's safe for a first-time biker.

The roads are packed and there's too much traffic in Hanoi, so I reckon you'd be better to avoid it. You can get a driver cheaply so I reckon you should just hire someone for the day.

With pedestrians there's a Mr Magoo rule whereby they walk onto the road and don't look at you and they're supposed to walk at a constant speed and you're supposed to move around them. It's really hard if you're not used to it.
posted by holloway at 1:05 AM on April 24, 2006

A few things to consider...

Vietnam has some truly horrific road fatality statistics. Nearly 40 people die each day in traffic accidents and twice that number suffer debilitating head injury, according to Asian Injury. The World Bank says only China has a worse record.

You might also want to take into account that it's hard to buy a western style crash helmet there. The only ones I saw for sale were the type that, in the west, would typically be worn by someone on a pushbike. I never saw a Vietnamese person wearing *any* helmet.

People (Vietnamese and expats alike) regularly get tanked up and hit the road. And hit all sorts of other stuff too.

Westerners on motorbikes are also, allegedly, pretty popular targets for traffic police looking to enforce a, uh, 'fine.' That's not something I saw myself, but it was a pretty popular complaint amongst expats -- ymmv obviously.

That's not to say don't do it. Plenty of people do, and they have a great time. The traffic isn't moving that fast usually and it's mostly step-thru Hondas.

I suspect too that driving in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City is way crazier than driving in the countryside. I spent a couple of days in Hue and there was almost no traffic.
There's certainly plenty of open (heavily potholed, unsealed) road in the countryside.

Still, think about waiting 'til you get there and have a chance to scope out the traffic chaos before you make a decision. Seriously, it has to be seen to be believed.

You can always hop on a xe om and buzz around for a couple of days to get a feel for it.

Final caveat - for god's sake, if you do it, make sure you have really good travel insurance. And have a list of western style clinics in case of emergency - and at least $USD100 to pay out the clinic fee.

Good luck - Vietnam is awesome. You'll have a brilliant time whatever you decide bike-wise.
posted by t0astie at 1:21 AM on April 24, 2006

No, it's not safe, especially if you don't have any experience on motorbikes or scooters. I'd expected to see lots of bikes when I went there last summer, but the traffic there (Hanoi, Saigon) was unlike anything I'd ever seen anywhere before (in Japan, Canada, Mexico and the US), and the people there didn't seem to be following any kind of rule. Don't do it.
posted by misozaki at 1:22 AM on April 24, 2006

Oh - I forgot. With insurance - make sure you read the bit where it tells you you are / aren't covered if you're on a motorbike without a helmet.

And check with them what sort of helmet they'll accept.
posted by t0astie at 1:25 AM on April 24, 2006

I was in Hanoi for a short time last year (loved it, by the way), and that video doesn't even come close to conveying how insane the scooter traffic is there.
posted by wilberforce at 1:45 AM on April 24, 2006

I did pretty much exactly what you're suggesting when I went to Vietnam (8 years ago? Jeez.)

Anyway; would never have dreamt of driving in Saigon or Hanoi, but did hire one in a few of places (can't remember which ones. Two were small cities, one was rural area) and used it to pootle around places.

While if you were my son I'd clearly tell you to stay the hell off any motorbikes, I'd have to say that when I did it, as a complete novice with no insurance etc, it worked out fine and had a better and more interesting time than if I hadn't, for example on one day we met two Vietnamese bikers, who drove around with us all day and showed us lots of cool stuff.

So, you know, it's a judgment/risk call but if you're sensible (i.e. both in general and specifically (spending your first hour or so in as quiet a place as you can find etc)) then I'd say go for it.
posted by Hartster at 2:02 AM on April 24, 2006

Here's an insider's view.

Obviously it's not safe but your approach, starting carefully in the countryside, sounds sensible. One strategy is to be prepared and decide when you get there. Insurance - obviously, an International Driving Licence which helps a lot with dodgy police (at least in Indonesia, it's official looking and incomprehensible), a stout lock and photocopies of your passport (as deposit) sound useful too. It might be worth mugging up on the engineering basics (brakes, tyres and chain particularly) because you'll have a very short time to decide whether the machine you're offered is safe to ride (and there's every chance it won't be).

One last word. Everything in the other comments is true, but riding a rented motorcycle in a foreign country is unbelievably stimulating, exciting and fun. It's possible to get quite carried away. That's your real danger.
posted by grahamwell at 2:09 AM on April 24, 2006

I understand the basics of motorcycle operation, but is that enough?

I would take lessons here and now. Things will be weird enough without you not even being experts with your vehicles. Get the phonebook out, explain your situation to a driving instructor, and see if you can get some situation-specific instruction in close maneuvers and road hazards on a bike similar to the one you expect to ride. Possible?

As for the real riding: drive slowly. No matter what else happens, at least be going slowly enough to survive. Plus, if you're slow, other people (and wandering livestock) will have an easier time avoiding you (assuming you aren't going so slowly that you're blocking traffic). And you'll see more if you aren't racing.
posted by pracowity at 3:27 AM on April 24, 2006

obviously, an International Driving Licence which helps a lot with dodgy police...

FYI: International driving permits and U.S. drivers' licenses are not valid in Vietnam. Foreigners renting vehicles risk prosecution and/or imprisonment for driving without a Vietnamese license endorsed for the appropriate vehicle.

Not sure about the reality of enforcement in general or relative to insurance, but just so you know.
posted by whatzit at 4:50 AM on April 24, 2006

Having used motorcycle taxis before in SE-Asia, I can tell you it's no simple maneuver to have a 60lb backpack and two people on a bike. Now try it with two 60lb backpacks. But even worse than that is the feeling you'll get the first time you wipe out on a sandy corner. I've seen it happen a few feet infront of me, and wouldn't wish that on anyone.
posted by furtive at 5:25 AM on April 24, 2006


"Consular Information Sheet for Vietnam"
TRAFFIC SAFETY AND ROAD CONDITIONS: While in a foreign country, U.S. citizens may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning Vietnam is provided for general reference only, and may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance.

Traffic in Vietnam is chaotic. Traffic accidents, mostly involving motorcycles and often resulting in traumatic head injury, are an increasingly serious hazard. At least 30 people die each day from transportation-related injuries. Traffic accident injuries are the leading cause of death, severe injury and emergency evacuation of foreigners in Vietnam, and are the single greatest health risk that U.S. citizens will face in Vietnam.
Traffic moves on the right, although drivers frequently cross to the left to pass or turn, and motorcycles and bicycles often travel (illegally) against the flow of traffic. Horns are used constantly, often for no apparent reason. Streets in major cities are choked with motorcycles, cars, buses, trucks, bicycles, pedestrians and cyclos. Outside the cities, livestock compete with vehicles for road space. Sudden stops by motorcycles and bicycles make driving a particular hazard. Nationwide, drivers do not follow basic traffic principles, vehicles do not yield right of way, and there is little adherence to traffic laws or enforcement by traffic police. The number of traffic lights in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City is increasing, but red lights are often not obeyed. Most Vietnamese ride motorcycles, and an entire family often rides on one motorcycle.

Road conditions are poor nationwide. Numerous tragic accidents have occurred due to poor road conditions that resulted in landslides, and American travelers have lost their lives in this way. Travelers should exercise extra caution in the countryside, as road conditions are particularly poor in rural areas.

Driving at night is especially dangerous and drivers should exercise extreme caution. Roads are poorly lit, and there are few road signs. Buses and trucks often travel at high speed with bright lights that are rarely dimmed. Some motor vehicles may not use lights at all, vehicles of all types often stop in the road without any illumination, and livestock are likely to be encountered.

Motorcyclists and bicyclists are strongly urged to wear helmets. Passengers in cars or taxis should use seatbelts when available, but should be aware that Vietnamese vehicles often are not equipped with working seatbelts. The Vietnamese government began mandating the use of motorcycle helmets on major roads leading to large urban centers in January 2001, but application and enforcement of this law have been slow and sporadic at best. New laws have been promulgated concerning the use of motorcycle helmets in urban areas as well, but have not been enforced. Child car seats are not available in Vietnam.

Penalties for driving under the influence of alcohol or causing an accident resulting in injury or death can include fines, confiscation of driving permits or imprisonment. U.S. citizens involved in traffic accidents have been barred from leaving Vietnam before paying compensation (often determined arbitrarily) for property damage or injuries.

Emergency roadside help is theoretically available nationwide by dialing 113 for police, 114 for fire brigade and 115 for an ambulance. Efficiency of these services is well below U.S. standards, however, and locating a public telephone is often difficult or impossible. Trauma care is not widely available.

The urban speed limit ranges from 30 to 40 km/h. The rural speed limit ranges from 40 to 60 km/h. Both speed limits are routinely ignored. Pedestrians should be careful, as sidewalks are extremely congested and uneven, and drivers of bicycles, motorcycles and other vehicles routinely ignore traffic signals and traffic flows, and even drive on sidewalks. For safety, pedestrians should look carefully in both directions before crossing streets, even when using a marked crosswalk with a green "walk" light illuminated.

International driving permits and U.S. drivers' licenses are not valid in Vietnam. Foreigners renting vehicles risk prosecution and/or imprisonment for driving without a Vietnamese license endorsed for the appropriate vehicle. Americans who wish to drive in Vietnam should contact any office of the Provincial Public Transportation Service of the Vietnamese Department of Communications and Transport to obtain a Vietnamese driver's license. The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi and Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City cannot assist U.S. citizens in obtaining Vietnamese driver's permits or notarize U.S. drivers' licenses for use in Vietnam.

Most Vietnamese travel within Vietnam by long-distance bus or train. Both are slow, and safety conditions do not approach U.S. standards. Local buses and taxis are available in some areas, particularly in the larger cities. Safety standards vary widely depending on the individual company operating the service, but are generally much lower than what would be found in the U.S.
I also seem to remember that it's illegal for tourists to drive at all outside major city centers, but I can't find a link to back that up now.
posted by tiamat at 5:38 AM on April 24, 2006

I wouldn't consider myself safe riding here in Canada without full gear (full-face helmet, leather or cordura jacket and pants, boots, gloves), and I consider myself a competent motorcyclist. There's no way that motorcycle rentals in Vietnam will be supplying you with full gear, or with a full-face helmet that fits correctly and is less than a couple years old. (Or a mechanically-sound bike, for that matter.) Hospitalization in a strange country isn't a fun way to spend a vacation, especially when it involves de-gravelling wounds with a wire brush.

And that's all before I start worrying about Vietnamese traffic.
posted by mendel at 6:39 AM on April 24, 2006

Oh, christ. I'll have you note that everyone on here who told you straight up not to do it with no thought otherwise has ever actually ridden a motorcycle in Vietnam. Meatbomb's insane little poem there pisses me off quite a bit - Vietnam is not a country of chicken-loving barbarians.

Look, there are a lot of factors to consider here,and I think the main one you're concerned about is this: if you don't get your ass on a motorcycle, you aren't going to see shit. You'll be stuck in the tourist centers and around attractions and will never really see what these places are actually like. You cannot, by any other means of transportation, see everything so freely as you can on a motorbike.

I lived in Saigon for two months last year and drove to and from work on my 125cc Honda Wave (what you're likely to rent) every day and never had any problems. After that, I went north and drove through the mountains for 8 days on an old Russian 2-stroke. I'm 19, and the only experience I had riding motorbikes was when I rented them in Thailand a month before to do what you want to do. Learning to ride them is way easier than you probably think.

Driving on country roads in Vietnam is not that dangerous and everyone here who tells you otherwise is being ridiculous. Wear a helmet, don't go over 40km/ph and you will be perfectly fine. There aren't that many people out there, the roads are good and there's nothing to worry about.

Driving in Saigon or Hanoi can be a death wish for newbies, but it's not nearly as dangerous as it looks. True, Saigon itself has 25 traffic deaths per day, but these are mostly from people who are drunk. If you drive in the city, do not do it late at night when you're likely to run into people wasted on rice liquor. The fact is that everyone there has been driving these things since they could walk, and they all know what they're doing. If you drive in a straight, predictable line at a constant speed and don't get freaked out when people get too close, you won't die. Really though, just get a driver - for 1USD, they'll take you anywhere in the city. It's not worth it.

"You might also want to take into account that it's hard to buy a western style crash helmet there."
This is absolutely incorrect. Anywhere you rent a bike will provide a helmet upon request, and if you really want a big thing with a visor, you can buy it anywhere.

Don't worry about the cops, seriously. They'll leave you alone in cities, and in the countryside if you're not doing anything blantantly illegal (not wearing a helmet, driving like an idiot, carrying more than two people on one bike) they won't pull you over. Even if they do, they're not going to do anything - foreigners often talk about the "special Ho Chi Minh lisence" - a few 100,000 dong bills. Just slip it to them discreetly and they'll be on their way. All they're looking for is a bribe. You do technically need a Vietnamese driver's lisence, but in practice nobody cares.

In particular, I think Da Lat and Hoi An had some amazing countryside to drive around, and It's wonderful cruising the seaside road in Nha Trang at night.

This isn't to say their aren't dangers. You could fall off, you could break all of your limbs, you could die. But couldn't you get hit by a car when you walk out of your house this morning? The chances aren't that much more slim. Go see Vietnam like the locals see it. Don't be afraid, just use common sense, and if you don't feel safe get off. And never, ever EVER put the key in the ignition if you're drunk.
posted by borkingchikapa at 6:43 AM on April 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

Oh, P.S.

I applaud your desire to get on one of these things. Most people don't even have the balls to independently travel around anywhere, let alone Vietnam, let alone using a motorbike.
posted by borkingchikapa at 6:49 AM on April 24, 2006

Traffic moves on the right, although drivers frequently cross to the left to pass or turn, and motorcycles and bicycles often travel (illegally) against the flow of traffic. Horns are used constantly, often for no apparent reason. Streets in major cities are choked with motorcycles, cars, buses, trucks, bicycles, pedestrians and cyclos.

Honestly, this and the speed limit paragraph sound a lot like major US cities to me. Or at least what I would expect first-time visitors to the US to be told. Hey, these info sheets have to be written in the strictest language possible. For most non-European countries in particular, the tone boils down to, "if you must visit this place, USE EXTREME CAUTION, and remember that it will be DIFFERENT than the United States!"

Make the judgement call when you get there. But if you do decide to use motorcycles, don't be afraid/too proud to decide that it's not for you after you give it a try.
posted by desuetude at 7:10 AM on April 24, 2006

Thanks for all the answers! We're definitely going to be bringing helmets (we're in Taiwan right now and have been for the past 7 months, so it's a paradise for motorcycle gear) and will stick to country roads. There's no way we'll ride in Hanoi or HCMC. Hopefully we'll be able to get some practice here before we leave, and if we don't feel right on the first day we'll stick to buses and xe oms.
posted by sudasana at 8:22 AM on April 24, 2006

The last time I was in Vietnam, I had the delightful experience of watching a young man die after the motorbike he was riding (with a helmet) hit the back of a small truck. It was not pleasant. It was truly tragic - his mother-in-law was on the back and he was (ironically) taking her to the hospital as she was ill. We were there for quite a while and the ambulance did not come in that time. So I wouldn't assume that one will come for you either.

It reminded me of Africa, and friends i knew who after having a motorcycle accident had to drive around with a bone sticking out of their arm to find a doctor to fix it.

Since that time I can only imagine road conditions have gotten more congested and chaotic (I have been to Vietnam 3 times and each time the traffic situation is much worse.

That said there are some delightful ways to travel on motorbike - the best in my personal experience is to hire former ARVN soldiers (they speak great english and they really like Americans). They have huge bikes and they will take you on a tour of the backroads and on things you probably won't experience on your own. That said, i can't tell you where to find them but to ask in the market, shopkeepers who are former ARVN (mostly in the south) and the other tourists.
posted by zia at 8:35 AM on April 24, 2006

Honestly, this and the speed limit paragraph sound a lot like major US cities to me. Or at least what I would expect first-time visitors to the US to be told.

desuetude, have you been there? It's really not exaggerating. To make a left turn, you pull into the other lane. Not the left-turn lane - you pull into the lane of traffic going the other way. You drive against the flow of traffic in that lane, working your way to the left, for some distance before you reach your turn.

It is truly nothing like any US city, major or otherwise.

The fact is that it is more dangerous than driving around a US city in a car. On top of that, the medical system is worse (though much, much cheaper) than that in the US. See the above comment about an ambulance or lack thereof. Having a list of western style clinics is a good tip.

I rode on the back of my brother's bike in Da Nang (he had lived there for a year or so) when I visited him. It was pretty thrilling, and it's definitely a good experience. Just don't discount the very real danger, which is much greater than driving in the US, etc.

sudasana, I think your decision to not ride in major cities is a good one. Be smart, do some planning beforehand (i.e., what will you do if you do have an accident?), and you'll probably have an awesome time.

Oh, and watch out for national holidays. The idea that other drivers will only be drunk late at night might not apply so much on holidays. My brother was hit in the middle of the day in a wide open plaza on a holiday. It required a hospital stay with major abdominal surgery, and the whole situation would have been a lot worse if he hadn't lived in the area and made several good friends (one of whom just happened to drive by right after the crash and helped him out).
posted by whatnotever at 9:49 AM on April 24, 2006

Oh, I didn't mean to suggest that Vietnam's traffic wasn't a completely different story than US point was that the consular advice is not necessarily a good travel guide. It's offiical state assessments of the infrastructure of the country, not a cultural guide for adventurous tourists.
posted by desuetude at 11:08 AM on April 24, 2006

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