How to Drive a Motorbike in Saigon

Driving a motorbike is one of the great joys of living in Saigon. The millions of two-wheeled smog factories congesting these streets are the machinery of this enigmatic city — the blood pulsing through the veins of this smoky organism.

This guide will teach you how to stop driving like a foreigner. While you may never entirely pick up on all the nuances of Vietnamese driving, the techniques and methods detailed in this guide help you to begin the long process of assimilating yourself into this place you now call home.

First, let’s start with the elemental building block of Vietnamese driving:

The Cone of Awareness

Every puzzling aspect of Vietnamese driving can be explained by this one simply concept: If you can’t hit it, it doesn’t exist. Seriously, you’ll go crazy trying to keep track of everything that’s going on around you — so thinking like a stupid foreigner. All you have to worry about is what’s in front of you. If it’s outside your cone of awareness, then it’s not your problem.

I understand that this will be difficult for you. As a foreigner, you’ll want to know what’s coming up behind you before you go weaving across three lanes of busy traffic — but that is not how we do things in Saigon. Your notions of traffic safety mean nothing here, so you must learn to use power of your cone.

Okay, now let’s see what it can do.

Merging

This will probably be the most difficult skill for you to learn. You’ll find yourself waiting by yourself at intersections,

Original photo by Bin Thiều

always looking for that perfectopportunity to open up before you merge into traffic. Stop doing this.Vietnamese

people will neither appreciate your diligence, nor understand your reasoning. To them, you’re just another annoying foreigner getting in the way.

To merge like a Vietnamese person, you must get your cone of awareness pointed away from traffic as quickly as possible. The faster you can get yourself in front of the people driving at you, the better. Think about it: If the vehicles posing the greatest risk to you are all behind you, then you are safe — because, thanks to your cone of awareness, they don’t exist.

Lane Etiquette

This one is easy: Just don’t drive into anything.

With your cone facing in the same direction as traffic, you have little to worry about. As long as you don’t drive into the person in front of you, you’re free to do whatever the hell you want. Need to make a turn but you’re on the wrong side of the street? No problem — simply point your cone where you want to go and drive. Get a phone call when you’re in the middle of a busy intersection? Well, you can’t drive into anything if you’re not moving!

Go ahead, stop and take that call. Let your cone tell you what’s right.

Now, you’ll probably hear some people honking their horns, but don’t just assume that they’re angry. That’s how foreigners think. Let’s have a look at what horns actually mean in Saigon.

Communication

It’s no secret that foreigners in Vietnam love to complain. It’s their favorite defence mechanism against all the weird and wonderful aspects of Vietnamese culture that they don’t understand — like why do truck drivers turn left into an intersection when there’s clearly nowhere for them to go? Huh? Now nobody can move, you fucking idiot. Oh, and now you won’t look at us? What’s the problem? Did you just realize that you’re blocking hundreds of people?

However, complaints are little more than symptom an underlying ignorance. For example, one of the most common complaints that I hear from foreigners often goes something like this:

“Why the fuck are you honking at me? Where the hell am I supposed to go?”

— Me

Since you’re a foreigner, it’s safe to assume your Vietnamese language skills are somewhere between “None” and “I can order beer” — but that doesn’t matter, because drivers in Saigon don’t speak Vietnamese; they speak with their horns:

One toot: “You are in my cone.”

A pair of toots: “You are in my cone, and I don’t feel like slowing down for you.”

Three or more toots: “I’m about to try something bold, which I’m sure will impress you.”

One long blast: “I would’ve done the same.”

Many long blasts: “It’s so lonely being me.”

Expressing Frustration

Road rage is a bad idea in Vietnam — especially for foreigners — because your opponent has one severe advantage over you: They can rally a mob, and you can’t.

Instead, you must learn to express your rage like a Vietnamese person: with your Cone of Awareness. Think about it: What is the worst possible thing you can do with your cone?

Look away from it, of course.

To express your rage — Vietnamese style — just look at the person who offended you for about two seconds. Every Vietnamese person knows that if you’re not looking at your cone, it means you’re fucking pissed. Don’t bother with your foreigner nonsense like middle fingers and violence. Vietnamese people don’t fight easily, but they’ll be glad to whoop your foreigner ass if you deserve it.

Turning Left

The main problem with turning left in Saigon is that it suddenly puts you face-to-face with your own mortality — but you must overcome your fear, because hesitation will get you killed on these streets. To turn left like a Vietnamese person, you just have to go for it. Give your throttle a little twist and force your way through oncoming traffic. Don’t worry; they’ll stop. They have to — you’re in their cone of awareness.

Advanced Vietnamese Driving

Too many foreigners stop with the cone of awareness, thinking that’s all they’ll need — but if you truly want to assimilate into the local driving culture, here are the advanced techniques you must learn:

  • Try to weave erratically every time you start moving, and don’t bring your legs up until you’ve reached top speed. [Dangling legs are for women only. Men should replace with a lit cigarette held out at just the right angle to catch people in the knees as they drive past.]
  • The thinner the helmet, the better.
  • Transport trucks are for foreigners and the disabled. Every true motorbike driver in Saigon knows how to strap furniture and industrial equipment to a motorbike.
  • Never put a helmet on a child.
  • Your intelligence is inversely proportional to the amount skin you show in the sun.
  • If you wish to turn, always start on the far side of the lane.
  • Ambulances are just vans with lights. Don’t bother moving for them.
  • If a kid gets in your way, it is always their fault. Never show mercy to them. There’s plenty of space for them to play inside.
  • The outdoor hierarchy is as follows: Dump Trucks > Buses > taxis > Big SUVs > Small SUVs > Vans > Cars > Loud Motorbikes > Motorbikes With LED Headlights > Motorbikes Driven By Tiny Women > Motorbikes > Electric Bikes > Bicycles > Kids > Dogs > Cockroaches > Pedestrians.
  • Sidewalks are overflow lanes. Never let a lowly pedestrian tell you otherwise.
  • Refusing to drink and drive is a sure sign of weak character, so never leave your motorbike at the bar if you’re with people you respect.
  • If you’re waiting at a red light, make sure to stop in a place where nobodycan get around you to turn right. Bonus points if you pretend not to hear them screaming at you.
  • Traffic laws only apply if police are within sight.
  • If you come out of a side street and want to be in the far lane, drive along the shoulder, against traffic, until a gap opens up for you. You’ll gain even more respect if you also leave your lights off and don’t use your horn.
  • And finally: When you come up to an accident, the best way to help is by taking a cellphone video. The families will be eternally grateful to have videos of their loved ones dying put up on social media.

Time to hit the road

It is a hell of a lot of fun to drive a motorbike in Saigon, but only if you know what you’re doing — so get your ass out there and start practising your cone of awareness. And remember, never let fear get in the way of a selfish decision — no matter how many people it affects. Imitation is the best form of flattery, so show your appreciation of Vietnamese culture by driving like a complete fucking asshole. Trust me, it’ll feel good.

By Matthew Pike

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