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The Magical Choreography of Vietnamese Motorbikes, Cars, Pedestrians and Whatnot

The Magical Choreography of Vietnamese Motorbikes, Cars, Pedestrians and Whatnot

Hanoi, VIetnam

  • Author: HappyTraveler
  • Date Posted: Sep 30, 2014
  • Category:
  • Address: old quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam

For those of you who have traveled abroad, or perhaps visited Miami, you know that much of the rest of the world treats traffic laws as a quaint yet utterly irrelevant feature of modern society. Vietnam provides a case in point. When you first walk on the streets, say in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, you are struck, if not by a moving vehicle, then by the mindboggling number of near misses about your person. Chaos!

Old Quarter City Corner

Click to embiggen

As a little background, realize that you start with a vast number of motorbikes, that came on the scene well after the roads were built for a society with mostly bicycles in mind.   In Hanoi alone, for 7 million people, 4 million of these things zip around (true fact as reported by Sunny, my tour guide). Each of these has one or more drivers, who may or may not be thinking of the esoteric concept called “rules”.


One possible rule to follow, when it’s convenient, is to drive on the right side of the road. But there are many MANY other factors that precede convenience in navigating the roads. Including whim.   For your edification, I have recorded the following.

  1. If driving down the right side of the road proves impossible, or annoying, or you just get tired of it, feel free to drive down the left side of the road. Or the middle. Or weave back and forth to suit your mood. If you’re a car, go ahead and straddle any of the white lines. There are no yellow middle lines to dissuade you, just those white ones to….to….well, honestly, I’m not sure WHY the white lines are there. If, when driving along, you notice coming straight into you a pack of bikes or cars or trucks, you can play chicken, and hope that someone leans a bit to one side or the other (hopefully not the same side at the same time). You don’t need much space to pass, 2-3 mm will do to avoid smashing into each other. Any more than that is just wasteful. Or you can move on to strategy #2.


  1. Honk.        Honk.        And then honk again. Honk as if your precious life depends on it. Which it does. Honk when you are entering an intersection. Or turning left. Or right. Honk when you are aiming at a pedestrian, car, truck, bicycle, BBQ grill or the 900 year old woman tottering along with a 50 pound load of fruit on her back. Honk when you don’t like that someone is in front of you. Honk if you don’t like that they are beside you, or behind you. Honk if you slightly suspect that the person sleeping on his motorbike may wake up, start his engines and abruptly drive into your path. Honk because you like the sound of your honker. And if none of those predicaments presents itself, well, honk anyway.



  1. For sport, when you see a pedestrian in the street, speed up.   Ideally, your expression should reflect your fantasy of being a Grand Prix racer, and your prize is the terror you strike in said pedestrian. If you can pull this off, it is especially rewarding because pedestrians do not scare easily. The calm indifference with which people cross the road seems very Buddhist, or fatalist…..
  1. If you are a pedestrian, you must strike a nonchalant expression and body posture, as dozens of motorbikes, with hot engines and protruding metal, uh, protuberances, flow by you like a stampede of bison being chased by whatever stampeding bison are chased by. The key is to keep a steady pace so the drivers can estimate your path, and adapt theirs to miss you by mere inches. Or maybe brush up against you without causing enough of an injury to require paperwork.     My strategy, recommended by Chris Chiesa, was originally to find an old grandma crossing the road and stick to her like glue. Unfortunately, the grandmas I saw were wisely sitting on the side, watching the madness – which is, I suppose, how they got to be grandmas. So I substituted teenage girls on motorbikes who would cross the stampede of vehicular plastic and metal with a haughty mix of boldness and caution. I figured they could take the first crash better than me.   And they tended to think it was cute that this tall, awkward big nose stranger was acting like such a wimp.

  How To Cross The Street When No One Will Stop For You

  1. If you can, load a lot of cargo and/or family members on your scooter to give you extra oomph.   2 parents and 3 children, all under the age of 6 is not too small a load.   8 cages of ducks is not. 10 tires, half of which are ringing the driver’s body, is not too small either. Show a little gumption!   Not only will you go faster, but your motorbike will become much less controllable and the consequences of crashing will become much more dire. In other words, more fun for everyone!












  1. Do not pay any attention to traffic lights or signs or cops. Because there aren’t any. You must find your own way and pace through the stampede. However, I did notice a fairly common rule of thumb – try not to crash into something. I also noticed a really beautiful rhythm to the ebb and flow. While there were no traffic lights, occasionally “soft spots” appeared where you could see some pavement. Drivers following this soft spot would actually yield to the cross current that filled the empty space, like a summer Pacific Ocean fog getting sucked in through the Golden Gate by the heat of the Central Valley. (might have to work on my similes, or this could be a long year of blogging). It encouraged me to see. this And I USED that information!


  1. If you are a taxi cab, you must throw your weight around by virtue of your speed, caroming, and randomly opening doors (and honking, of course, let’s not forget that), in order to sweep the motorbikes off the road like they were pesky …uh….bison?


  1. Sidewalks are reserved for parking motorbikes, selling wares, and running kitchens. They shall not be used for pedestrians. Occasionally, when space miraculously allows, sidewalks can hold an extra moving motorbike or two. But not for pedestrians. Pedestrians belong in the street, where everyone can get at them.



That’s it for now.  Stay tuned as I explore the rest of SE Asia traffic patterns. Next up: an overnight train ride from Danang to Saigon (or, for the truly stodgy, Ho Chi Minh City).


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