When in Viet Nam, Drive as the Vietnamese Do!

Motorbike drivers in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

An expat shares some philosophical reflections and practical tips on the free-for-all that is Vietnamese traffic.  This is my latest English language article for VNExpress InternationalFollow this link to read it in its entirety.  Below is the unabridged version:

In any country, driving culture and etiquette, or a lack thereof, is a window into the that society.  Viet Nam is no exception.  Here’s my take on being an active participant-observer of transportation in Viet Nam on a part-time basis since 1996 and full-time since 2005. 

I ride a bike but not in the city.  (Yes, I wear a helmet because I value brain function over vanity.  I’ve never owned a motorbike.  I am a frequent pedestrian who has had too many death-defying experiences in city traffic to recount in a single article.  My main mode of transportation is a car. 

What is it like driving in Viet Nam?  Much like the country itself, never boring, always an adventure.  What to expect?  The unexpected – virtually every minute of every day that you’re on the road.  Drive defensively and, when need be, offensively.  Protect yourself, your passengers, and everyone else on the road.  A tall order?  Welcome to the crazy world of driving in Viet Nam! 

The Hierarchy:  You’re Hot or You’re Not

Respect the hierarchy:  it determines the rules of the road, such as they are.  The following are ranked from top to bottom based on the level of respect each deserves.  

  1. tractor trailers, buses, cement trucks, garbage trucks
  2. those crazy little delivery trucks whose drivers have no fear and are sometimes high as a kite on meth (or whatever)
  3. cars (big to small)
  4. motorbikes with merchandise ranging from pig carcasses, glass panels, poles, and everything else you can imagine, plus some things you probably can’t (seeing is believing)
  5. motorbikes with passengers, sometimes, entire families
  6. electric bikes
  7. bicycles
  8. pedestrians

If not might, then at least size, makes right.  Don’t worry about what or who is behind you, only what or who is in front of you.  Caution is key.  Even stupid drivers do not deserve to get injured or, God forbid, die.  Their lives are in your steady hands.  Take good care of them.   

Beware of new drivers, both men and women.  They are legion.  Many of the former will end up as hell on wheels fueled by machismo and most of the latter will become good drivers who don’t take chances – to the benefit of themselves, their passengers, and everyone else on the road. 

Pedestrians as an Endangered Species

A word about those bottom feeders known as pedestrians.  You have to know your place, which is at rock bottom of the hierarchy.  That means you always have to have your wits about you because no one else is going to watch out for you.  Having said that, eyes are on you when crossing a street simply because no one wants to run into or over you.  Too messy, too costly and, for most, a burden on their conscience. 

As I am fond of telling foreigners who are rookie travelers to Viet Nam, watch out for drivers who are constantly checking their smartphones for Facebook updates or texting someone and those, particularly men, who may be driving under the influence.  (In most cases, with the exception of Tết, the Lunar New Year holiday, it’s the former you have to worry about because they are not focusing on you.)  

What about letting pedestrians cross a busy street?  Only if they’re foreigners, in most cases.  (In fact, those who are just off the boat or plane expect it because they come from countries in which the lowly pedestrian is king or queen.)  For Vietnamese, only if they’re disabled or old, or families with small children  Even then, some of them might look at you like you’re from another planet, fully expecting you to keep driving and not let them cross because that’s the way it’s done.  

Patience is Not Only a Virtue, It Can Also Save Your Life

A note to foreigners who either recent arrivals or are planning to relocate to Viet Nam:  If you were not a patient person before driving in Viet Nam, you will become one, or else.  Road rage is not an option.  Even though Vietnamese don’t carry guns like US Americans do, for example, chances are any conflict will end badly, even more so if you’re a foreigner. 

I remember one foreign man and a Vietnamese man on motorbikes who were mixing it up at high speeds on a mostly deserted street late one rainy night in Hanoi.  The Vietnamese guy gave him the “come here” hand gesture (index finger up), very rude in Vietnamese culture but perfectly acceptable in the US, for example, a cultural note that may have been lost on his foreign friend.  At any rate, he got the message and they both sped off into the night – the latter in fast pursuit of the former.  I can only hope they both lived to tell the story.  

OK, I admit it.  I use a “A” word more than I should while driving and, occasionally, spicier language.  I’m working on it.  Yes, and even the occasional hand gesture, which is more for my benefit than that of the object of my wrath, who usually doesn’t see it.  I know words in Vietnamese than I can only utter under my breath because they would get me killed if another driver heard them. 

Of Etiquette and Accidents

Driving etiquette in Viet Nam is that there is no driving etiquette.  It’s pretty much a free-for-all.  Courtesy, even of the common variety, is virtually nonexistent.  Cut in front of someone, almost causing an accident?  No problem because the other driver is either in a rush or a wannabe VIP.  Drive slowly in the fast lane?  Just pass him on the right, as long as there are no police in sight.  Turn the shoulder into a third lane?  Go for it!  Keep your headlights on high beam?  Just do it!  Courtesy is but a dream delayed. 

Someone once wrote in an expat Facebook group that one should drive as if everyone else is trying to kill you.  While an overstatement, that’s not bad advice, especially for motorbike drivers, who are not surrounded by 1.5+ tons of steel. 

Having said all of the above, there are not as many accidents as one would expect in the densely populated cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC).  Most car accidents are minor because of the relatively low speeds involved.  Accidents involving cars, other large vehicles and motorbikes can and often are much more serious involving injury or even death. 

I remember once seeing the body of a motorbike driver covered with a straw mat, feet sticking out,  on a bridge crossing the Red River.  It appeared that he took one too many chances trying to pass someone from the motorbike lane, i.e., the shoulder, into one of two lanes reserved for everyone else, big and small.  It was a sad and surreal scene with money blowing around the road dropped by people who wanted to help the poor fellow on his next trip to the afterlife – and a guy running around like a crazy man picking it up, bad luck, by the way, a gallows humor example of greed trumping a cultural taboo.  As the saying goes, karma’s a bitch. 

Social Covenant on the Highway? 

Here’s a key culture difference that I’ve noticed in Viet Nam, when compared to the US, where I was born and raised.  In the US, I let other drivers merge because I know they would do the same for me.  (OK, 90% of them.)  That is not the case in Viet Nam; therefore, I just keep driving.  In fact, if I were to let someone in, they would think I was a bit strange because it is just not done

I admit to occasional bouts of self-loathing as I drive through crosswalks with pedestrians waiting, blow by slowpokes on the right, or drive on the shoulder to pass people blithely driving in the middle of the road.  It goes against my nature and culture-specific socialization but I rationalize my behavior and am consoled by a variation on the theme of the well-known proverb about Rome, “When in Viet Nam, drive as the Vietnamese do.” 

In the US, which for all of its problems related to people getting along and living in harmony, there is a social covenant that applies to that country’s driving culture.  People, total strangers, maybe even “the other,” let other people in with a wave of a hand and often a smile.  It makes you feel good inside.  It’s an unwritten and unspoken code of behavior that works just like many written laws work, e.g., stopping at a red light.  (The US not Viet Nam!)  It’s civility in the midst of insensitivity, cruelty, and incivility.  (Maybe there’s hope after all for a country that is so divided along so many fault lines.)

What about four-way stops?  Unthinkable in Viet Nam.  In the US and elsewhere?  It’s also the law but that’s beside the point, since there are rarely police hanging around four-way stops.  It’s about people from many different walks of life following a silent yet compelling code.  

What the Future Holds

Will traffic become more orderly and more civil(ized) in Viet Nam?  Will drivers become more law-abiding?  Probably, as the society continues to evolve, but probably not in the near future.  

Whenever I see someone run a red light or make a left turn from the far right lane, I invariably think of what Jim Carrey’s lawyer character in the movie Liar, Liar screamed into the phone – during the magical time when he could not tell a lie – to a former client who had just knocked over an ATM machine:  “Stop breaking the law, asshole!” 

Keep in mind that Vietnamese graduated from bicycles in the not too distant past to motorbikes and, more recently, to cars.  Many seem to drive a car the way they used to drive a motorbike.  They just need more time to make the adjustment.  And there need to be police and more police who will enforce existing laws. 

Also, don’t forget that it was only in 2007 when it became mandatory for all motorbike drivers and passengers above a certain age to wear a helmet.  (Smart parents buy quality helmets for their children; others take their chances, as well as those of their children.)   That change occurred literally overnight in December of that year.  You woke up and there was this sea of helmet-wearing motorbike drivers.  (The questionable quality of most helmets is another matter.  All meet the official requirement but relatively few will spare you and your head from injury or worse.) 

While laws can take effect overnight, a change in behavior takes a little longer.  In the meantime, stay safe out there on the mean streets of Viet Nam and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do! 

Peace, MAA