Driving in Southeast Asia comes with the ever-present dangers of poor road surfaces and suicidal animals darting across the road. That being said, driving in Vietnam poses some unique dangers of its own. The roads are a paradigm of the country itself: busy, unpredictable and wonderfully mad. Unsurprisingly, they are also incredibly dangerous. Vietnam has one of the highest road mortality rates in the world. Approximately 14,000 deaths per year are caused by traffic accidents. Visitors die regularly on the roads, mostly whilst riding motorbikes, which make up 95% of all registered vehicles.
Even if you are a safe, experienced driver, there are still many perils to consider. So please take five minutes to read these vital rules to help you understand the method in the madness. Vietnam is a breathtakingly beautiful country, but please, appreciate it carefully.
- Thou shalt be wary of the lanes. Things are rarely simple in Vietnam. Despite the fact that the Vietnamese drive on the right-hand side, this is also where the fastest traffic can be found because it is here that all of the motorbikes gather. The second fastest lane is on the left which leaves a tiny middle lane full of careful drivers surrounded by speed-freaks on either side. Of course this isn’t to say that motorbikes won’t be weaving through the traffic in every lane so watch out!
- Thou shalt always keep thine eyes on the prize. The most important maxim behind Vietnamese driving states that: ‘If everyone is constantly looking straight ahead of themselves, then no one will ever crash into anything’. Unfortunately this doesn’t account for hitting someone from the side, a slight loss of concentration …or blinking. In Vietnam, it is unlikely that a motorbike has wing mirrors, and it is even more unlikely that the motorbike driver uses them. The same goes for checking blindspots before turning. Yes, you should check your blindspots before turning, but choose your moment very carefully and don’t take your eyes off of the road ahead for too long. When you need to turn or change lanes, it is essential that you move slowly and steadily with plenty of warning. Vietnamese drivers will be unprepared for sudden movements.
- Thy horn is thy best friend. All too often, visitors get aggravated by people constantly honking their horns for what seems like no good reason. There is a reason and it’s an important one. Due to rule 2, people need a system to let other drivers know where they are. The horn works as a kind of primitive sonar system that lets other drivers know how close to them you are and which direction you’re headed in. Listen carefully and use yours wisely, especially when over-taking.
- Thou shalt not expect people to obey all of the rules that thou art used to them obeying. Red lights seem to be more of a timid suggestion to some drivers. Keep an eye out for this when you’re driving or walking. The same goes for one-way streets, no entry-signs, zebra crossings and just about every other instruction that you learnt in the Highway Code.
- Thou shalt not take rush hour in vain. The main danger here is starvation. Most of the time traffic is so busy in Hanoi and Saigon that seeing hordes of motorbikes driving on the pavements is a regular occurrence. A talented driver or master Tetris player can work his way through these crowds. But during rush hour, traffic can come to a complete standstill. During other times of the day, motorbikes tend to form a hive mind, like a shoal of fish moving efficiently as a unit. However, during rush hour, motorbike drivers seem to lose their sense of fraternity and turn into a mindless mechanical octopus squeezing itself into every tiny little space available in order to get an inch closer to their destination, which regularly brings traffic to a complete deadlock.
- Thou shalt not expect everyone to indicate. Perhaps half of Vietnamese drivers do not use their indicators. Nor do you have any guarantee that they will notice or respond to your indicators. A wave of the hand is more likely to get noticed but it’s best to do both for extra safety.
- Thou shalt be wary when giving priority. Giving priority is a dog-eat-dog system in ‘Nam. As a rule of thumb, the bigger vehicles have right of way. If size is equal, then the larger number of vehicles have right of way. If the vehicle count is equal, the fastest vehicles have right of way. If the vehicles' speeds are equal, the loudest vehicles tend to have right of way. If everything else is equal, the driver with the biggest cojones has right of way.
If it fitteth on a bike then so it shalt be. In Vietnam, cars tend to be impractical, serving primarily as status symbols for the higher echelons of Vietnamese society. Everyone travels by bicycle or motorbike. This also means that whenever someone has to carry something big or heavy, they will need to use a motorbike. And they will carry anything. This provides a constant and ever-changing hazard. It is common to hear stories of poorly fastened gas canisters bouncing off the backs of bikes in the middle of the highway or people having to duck under ladders and panes of glass held by drivers like some sort of deadly vehicular Laurel and Hardy show.
- Thou shalt be ever cautious of women attired in floral coats. Don’t be deceived by their flowery appearance they are the most dangerous people on the roads. Pale skin is fashionable for many Vietnamese women so when the sun is out they cover up every inch of flesh in facemasks, large sunglasses and the dreaded floral jacket. All fashions come at a price, the price of this one being peripheral vision. They may well make sharp turns even when you’re driving right next to them. Give. Them. Space. The same rule applies when it rains because everyone wears huge hooded waterproofs.
- Thou shalt drive slowly and predictably. There is a reason Vietnamese tend to drive slowly, and it isn’t from a lack of experience. Due to rules 1-9 reflexes are very important, you need to give yourself as much time as possible to react to the unpredictable. What is more, Vietnamese drivers are used to Vietnamese drivers. It’s dangerous to try and beat the system.
Good luck and, by God, slow speed!
Banner photo source: Joseph Gobin