I wanted to write about my experiences riding a scooter and to make some tips for others considering hiring scooters in Vietnam. Firstly, I have to say that riding in Vietnam isn't for the faint of heart. It is definitely more challenging than what I have experienced in other South East countries, predominately Thailand. These are some of the differences which I noted.
One thing to know is that you need to be aware of approaching vehicles and pedestrians in all directions, constantly. As the rules of the road are somewhat "flexible", to say the least, don't be surprised if a another scooter cuts straight in front of you. You also need to be assertive and to not be afraid of cutting. One thing that Vietnamese don't expect is if you give way to them due to their extreme closeness, it just creates confusion where neither person is sure who should continue.
Right Hand Travel
A column of scooter traffic in Saigon
The most obvious difference is that the Vietnamese drive on the right-hand side. Possibly a hang over from French occupation, I don't know. I did a quick google to get some stats about right versus left, and it seems that about 65% of countries drive on the right, and 35% on the left. So it seems that I have been in the minority all this time! But regardless just this basic change had a big impact on my technique, but didn't take as long to get used to as I thought. The learning curve for me may have been eased due to all those years playing American computer games *cough GTA cough*. The biggest mistake I made because of this difference was on a roundabout. I always ride with my headphones in to receive directions via Google Maps, so when approaching a roundabout I got an instruction; "take the first exit of the roundabout". Instinctively I assumed that the first exit was the one relative to myself in a clockwise direction, as opposed to the first exit which I passed from the direction of my travel. Luckily it was a easy mistake to correct as I could just do another lap around the roundabout.
Avoiding Obstacles (Read: Pedestrians)
Pedestrians v scooters
Ok, so this one is a fairly rude awakening for the uninitiated travellers of Vietnam. When travelling in Thailand, cars will stop for you if you are walking across the road in front of them. However in Vietnam the cars and scooters don't stop, they swerve. Sometimes they will slow down if there is no where for them to swerve, but generally they will avoid stopping or even breaking if they can. The drivers will gauge how fast you are walking to decide which direction they should swerve to dodge you. Therefore, it is very important that you walk at a constant speed. If you are walking in front of a scooter, just keep walking and with confidence. If you slow down or speed up suddenly then it affects the driver's selected travel path and could potentially put you in peril. The best tip that I can give is just to watch the Vietnamese do it. Once you have seen the way they move, then next time ghost walk next to them, so you can see the way that traffic reacts to your presence. Once you get used to crossing roads in this way it becomes quite an amazing thing, the way you can just walk across quite busy roads and the traffic just flows around you. However it goes without saying that it is quite intimidating at first. You should also cross at pedestrian crossings if you can, however the same rules apply and cars won't stop at pedestrian crossings if they see you.
I mention this as once you are behind the handle bars of a scooter, you need to act like a Vietnamese. If someone walks in front of you, you should behave how a Vietnamese behaves as otherwise you will create confusion on the road, which I believe is one of the most dangerous things that you can do. For example, if someone steps out in front of you and you suddenly stop to give way for them, then the car behind you may not expect that. So, if someone does step out in front of you, you can swerve so that you will pass them by behind them preferably, or slow down if their is no one behind you and it is challenging to swerve.
Traffic from All Directions
An old scooter found on the streets of HCMC
In Vietnam traffic can cut in front of you from all directions, so you need to be aware of what is around you at all times. Check you mirrors and over your shoulder periodically so you know the landscape of vehicles behind you and can predict if there is potential for someone to pass you. Intersections can be a bit fiddly, so slow down when approaching to let you react more easily. A lot of intersections don't have lights and therefore it is not uncommon for a scooter to drive right in front of you. Very often two directions of traffic will merge in the centre of the intersection, resulting in scooters weaving through each other in opposing directions at very close proximity. In this case you need to gauge travel speed to see who will pass in front of who first, if you will pass first then be assertive yet don't behave erratically, if they will pass first at the current speeds then let them go first. This aspect of Vietnamese driving I found to be the most challenging of all.
Scooters are a very important part of the local economy
Generally, I found it easiest and safest to stay on the rightmost edge of the road, but to leave some allowance (at least the width of a scooter) for cars to pull out and for scooters to drive in the wrong direction between you and the gutter. In Vietnam often the footpaths are completely covered with stuff; parked scooters, signs, construction work, etc. Therefore it is extremely common for pedestrians to step in to the shoulder of the road without even checking. Therefore, you shouldn't drive right in the gutter of the road, especially in built up areas. Additionally when driving on highways there are often barrier walls separating directions of travel, therefore often you will find that cars and scooters, and even once a bus for me, will drive in the wrong direction in the shoulder of the road. So, if you wish to drive in the shoulder of a fast-moving highway, always be aware of traffic going in the wrong direction. If a scooter is driving the wrong way, generally they will stick to the right most edge, so let them pass on your right.
Once at night a scooter was driving in the wrong direction in the shoulder of the road without his lights on. I was driving near to the shoulder, so he gave me a big surprise when I eventually saw him.
Liberal Horn Use
Man sleeps on scooter!
In Australia using a horn is kind of rude. You only use it really when someone is doing the wrong thing on the road. However, road rules are a lot more flexible in SE Asia, especially in Vietnam where seemingly completely unregulated. So, drivers use horns predominately for the awareness of other drivers. If you are going to cut through a narrow gap, then sound your horn to let the person in front know. Or if you are going around a corner and your line of sight is broken, then sound your horn to make sure there is no car going in the opposite direction that you can't see. This is especially important on windy country roads, as cars will often cut corners in to your lane to avoid slowing down, even if the line of sight is completely broken due to the shoulder of a hill. Especially watch out for this at night, a good tip to use in this regard is to watch for reflections on metal guard rails to spot headlights of oncoming traffic before taking the corner.
One of the most intimidating aspect of driving in Vietnam is turning left across a busy road. In Australia when turning across a busy road, the opposing traffic always has right of way; you need to wait until the traffic is cleared before you can go. However, this isn't normally a problem as the busiest intersections have lights for you to cross. Not so in Vietnam. Often you will be faced with three lanes of non-stop traffic which you will need to turn left through. The solution to this problem sounds really dumb when written down, yet in practice it mostly seems to work. Basically what you do is just go, but slowly. You drive in front of the traffic, but at a slow speed so that traffic can flow around you. It basically has the same rules as walking across a highway; you slowly move through the traffic at a predicable speed and the opposing drivers will swerve or slow down for you. I would highly suggest to wait at your first intersection where you have to do this and to watch a Vietnamese person do it first, then copy their actions. Sometimes it is easier to cut through the traffic at an angle close to 45 degrees, this way you can turn away from traffic if you need to. If you are cutting through the traffic at an angle of 90 degrees, then your only option to avoid traffic is to slow down, as it is an impossibility for you to turn around in that short a period of time and space, where if you are driving through the traffic at an angle close to 45 degrees then you can turn in to the traffic to give way if someone isn't slowing down. I saw a lot of Vietnamese do this through busy lines of traffic and it seems to work ok, though admittedly sounds completely absurd.
Driving in Vietnam can be quite a challenge, yet if you watch the way they move then you can pick it up as well. My main tip if you are in a new situation where you are not sure how to react, then let a Vietnamese go first and mimic their actions. If you aren't already a confident scooter driver, then I would suggest that Vietnam isn't a good practice ground.
Thanks for reading! Email or leave a comment if you have any questions. I post on Instagram often if you want to stay up to date with my travels in real time. Link in the footer.