Riding Tips | The Rentabike Guide

Riding Tips Specific to Vietnam

Recently, we had a renter sign up for a bike and shared some tips with him as we always do with our new customers. As it turned out, he’s been living overseas for ten years in several countries, riding motorbikes in all of them, and he sent us back some thoughts of his own on how to ride in Vietnam.

Whilst we generally agree with all of these, we do have to say that they are just suggestions and are certainly not professional advice. You may find that at times they are useful and at others they aren’t. Use your judgement as to whether or not they are applicable to your situation.

Tip 1: When driving in traffic in Vietnam stay more attentive than you would need to be in the US or Europe.

We Say: Firstly, be attentive EVERYWHERE. This is generally true, due to the vehicles here being so close and, therefore, reaction times having to be faster. However, speeds are lower so…

locals riding their bikes in the city
locals riding their bikes in the city

Tip 2: Focus on what is in front of you. Avoid glancing backwards.

We Say: Generally, yes, people in Vietnam worry about what is in front of them and not so much what’s behind them. However, it is wise to use your ears and mirrors.

Tip 3: Never assume anything. Green lights do not mean you have the right of way. Cars, motorbikes, or pedestrians will try to cross in front of you or go the 'wrong way' any time.

We Say: Right on. Prepare for the worst: at any time, the most stupid thing that someone could do is more likely to happen than you might think.

Tip 4: Never assume you have the right of way. In general practice the right of way goes to the vehicle or person who was there first. A vehicle coming towards you the wrong way down a one way street has priority because they were there first. However, size equals power so some vehicles will demand right of way because of their relative size/perceived importance.

We Say: Totally. Arguing about right of way from a hospital bed is not our idea of fun!

Tip 5: If you are on a main thoroughfare vehicles will merge from side roads at varying speeds but typically they will make minimal effort to merge gracefully. They may not glance at all at the prevailing traffic. They will simply keep driving and expect the prevailing traffic to move over for them regardless of traffic lanes or any 'right of way'.

We Say: Hence, keep your eyes on the road ahead. Assume responsibility to avoid all that is in front of you. This is irrespective of right of way.

Tip 6: There is minimal safety space between vehicles as part of typical driving here. When you leave room between you and the driver in front of you other drivers will cut in front of you. The cultural expectation is that if you leave room someone else is welcome to overtake. (Sometimes even if you don't leave room they will still overtake.) It is a world of opportunistic driving.

We Say: Exactly that. It will be uncomfortable at first but it is something you get used to. Speeds are lower than back home and this goes some way to reducing the inherent danger.

Tip 7: Cars and motorbikes will come to a complete stop or pull a U-Turn anywhere. Literally. Expect this. Be very wary, and always be prepared to patiently wait.

We Say: Keep a good stopping distance between you and the vehicle in front and when this is not possible (see No.6 above) try to drive offset to the vehicle ahead. Also, be careful as drivers can fool you by pulling over to the right just before sweeping left to make a U Turn!

Tip 8: At night it is not uncommon for cars, motorbikes, bicycles, or pedestrians to be traveling with no lights on. They could also be wearing dark clothing with absolutely no reflective material. Be careful at night.

We Say: Absolutely, drive a little slower and it will also help you see the potholes in the road that might be harder to see in poor lighting.

Tip 9: One good note is that in general drivers remain calm no matter what. They rarely get angry. They may honk a lot, but they are still usually very calm. To be emotional in traffic is against the cultural norm. If you get angry you are the oddity.

We Say: Agree, try (it can be hard) to keep your cool as being angry is a bit weird.

wee Mai Chau mountain pass
wee Mai Chau mountain pass

Tip 10: Honking happens all the time. There is little correlation between the type of honk and the importance of the situation. A very slight honk might be followed by a massive truck passing you with a centimeter of clearance. A huge honk or repeated honking right behind you could mean the driver is worried about the mud on the back of your bike. Most honking is ignored, however, on occasion both motorbike and car drivers will begin honking and literally take over the road with your safety and their safety at risk and be expecting you to move out of the way. In these cases it is best to move out of the way.

We Say: There are perhaps some unwritten rules to honking but they are muddled. Be wary of honking but don’t necessarily attach the same importance as you would do back home. Sometimes, it means, ‘hi, look out.’ and other times it means, ‘I am not stopping!’ Further to this, a vehicle coming at you with flashing headlight(s) usually means ‘I am not stopping! Get out of my way!’

Tip 11: Entering into traffic that is already moving is an interesting process in Vietnam. The same is true if you are a pedestrian crossing a busy street with no crosswalk. The social norm here is to walk very slowly and deliberately into the oncoming traffic and the traffic will eventually have to acknowledge your existence and begin moving around you first to the front and eventually at the back too. This runs counter to the US and European driving rules but in most of southeast Asia it is the only way you will be able to get to where you are going. In many cases if you don't do this you will be stuck waiting for an eternity.

We Say: It is uncomfortable but ‘pushing in’ is necessary.

Tip 12: Passing is often done in situations that US or European drivers would consider very risky. Expect overtaking on dangerous sections and even when little safe space is available. When the two vehicles appear head to head everybody slows down right away and makes room. Somehow it almost always seems to work out.

We Say: Don’t try this but recognize that it happens and, as they say, ‘be prepared’.

To Conclude

Driving in Vietnam is dangerous and you must keep your wits about you. It is very difficult to give a ‘one size fits all’ guide as to how to behave on the roads. So, bearing in mind a few of the things above will be a good start to keeping you a little safer. Lots of people drive here and have little to no problem. However, you can never control your surroundings (the other driver) and defensive (cautious) driving is the best chance you have of staying safe.

Good Luck.