Vietnam Roadtrippin’ – A Lesson on rules of the road in-country!

Vietnam has a reputation – a well-earned reputation, might I add – as the land of the motorbike. On the average city street no less than 90% of traffic on any given day consists of scooters and bikes from all walks of life: from turn of the century vespas and shiny semi-automatics to honkin huge Honda 250cc dirt bikes and old, rusted cliches like the Russian Minsk. It is the natural instinct of many tourists to hop behind the handlebars on one of these bikes to explore the Vietnam-less-traveled…and that’s exactly what I did – all in the name of research and development for Free & Easy’s new Vietnam adventure!

One thing you have to understand about Vietnamese rules of the road is that they are nothing like back home. One rule abides above all others, and I think it’s a pretty good one: Don’t run into what’s in front of you. That’s pretty much it. Everything else…signalling, looking for oncoming traffic before you make a turn, obeying traffic lights or road signs, driving on the correct side of the road, cutting people off…those are all entirely optional. Oh, how could I forget…rule #2 is to honk like your life depended on it. It just might! Honking back home is kind of a rude gesture, something you would use to display unhappiness with another’s driving (can be accompanied by a specific finger to add emphasis). Not so in Vietnam. You’ll want to honk most of the time you’re on the road, although I can’t quite put my finger on when exactly you should or shouldn’t lay on the horn. The Vietnamese honk at such deliciously random times, it almost seems like they’re doing it to throw off my attempts to learn their traffic culture. For example, attempting to pass a bike who is clearly taking up too much of the road – no honk. About to drive past the sweet old lady with a basket of mangoes who can clearly see us coming and is patiently waiting at the side of the road to cross after we pass – incessant, repetitive blasts, the kind that make you cringe and wonder when it’s going to end, the driver happily dishing out everything that obnoxious little noise-maker can offer. If I wasn’t so intrigued what that old lady did to deserve such punishment, it might even be annoying.

The way honking is responded to is intriguing in itself. I can only guess that a Vietnamese person has heard as many honks as grains of rice they’ve eaten in their entire lifetime, so you can probably imagine it doesn’t have the same head-turning effect as it would back in Canada. But I have seen on multiple occasions bikers who are being honked at do something a little unexpected – absolutely NOTHING. They don’t move, they don’t slow down, don’t give way…they go on about their business as if they were as deaf as John Stamos is handsome. Does this deter the honker from continuing his obtrusive habit? Oh no, our horn honker has no hesitation to lay it on the next rider we pass as well – often with the same effect.

Now that we’ve laid the ground rules for our little endeavour, let’s get on with the story. I jumped on a trusty ol’ 5 gear bike with a bit of an alignment issue and an engine that would inexplicably groan and shudder for more gas as I neared ever closer to 80 km/h, and along with Sylvio, the owner of Jungle Beach resort where we stay, took off along the coastal highway of southern Vietnam in search of paradise. As much as Mom wouldn’t approve of me playing frogger on a bike with sami trucks on a Vietnamese highway…that is exactly what we did for about 8 hours that day. At least along Highway 1, the main traffic artery connecting the north and south of this 2000 km long country. As soon as we got off the highway we were in for a much more pleasant journey. We rode far and wide, weaving our bikes around gentle curves along Vietnam’s phenomenal coast, crossing paths with pristine, untouched beaches, stopping to swim in water so clear it looked as if the whitecaps were riding on a shimmering wave of glass. We found more than enough drop-dead beaches to fill our days here and then some!

Mission accomplished, we turned around to head home, which is not quite the end of the story yet. Road conditions are anything but ordinary here – what is that in front of you? Could be a herd of cows. Might be a pothole the size of that truck you just passed. Hell, you might just be riding moguls just outside of town…on the main road! You’ve got to stay sharp on Vietnam’s highways…sharper than that tack you used to put up dirty pictures on your childhood fort building days. If you daydream for just one moment…thinking up your next blog perhaps…you may suddenly discover that your game of frogger has turned into a game of chicken with two trucks taking up either lane AND a motorbike going the wrong way on the wrong side of the road! Talk about threading the needle! Sometimes trucks even like to drive on the wrong side of the road for no good reason…shits & giggles, perhaps? As I sit in a taxi the next day writing this, our car slowly swerves over the middle line into oncoming traffic…again, for no apparent reason. Point made!

Sometimes, when something so ever-present, incomprehensible and potentially annoying as never-ending horn honking and seemingly reckless driving persists in a culture different from our own, there is nothing to do but sit back and accept it. Even enjoy it. Personally, I could sit on an uncontrolled street corner in any large city with a cup of tea and watch the thousands of motorists drive impossibly around, behind, and in front of each other in perfect harmony, against all odds. No wonder that reputation stuck.