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Riding a Motorbike in Ho Chi Minh City

by Tyler

Our destination for today is the Củ Chi tunnels, an elaborate network of underground Vietcong hideouts, used heavily in the War of American Aggression. There are two sites open to visitors: the first is about 50km north of the city, easily accessible by cheap and frequent bus tours; the second is 15km further on, and it is supposed to be much less trafficked.

Choosing which site to see is a non-decision; of course we're going to the further one. Weighing the options on how to get there, we decide against making this visit a very long bicycle trek. The choices which remain are a) hire an expensive taxi, or b) ride in the infamous Ho Chi Minh City traffic on a crappy rented motorbike. This too is a non-decision; we're getting the motorbike!

Us on a Motorbike in Vietnam Tyler & Vietnamese Lady Filling Gas Tank Vietnamese Gas Pump

I learned how to ride motorcycles on a 1980s Kawasaki KX60 when I was a little kid. As a result, I feel as comfortable behind a pair of handlebars as I do on my own two feet. Yet even with a lifetime of experience, riding a motorbike in Ho Chi Minh City is nothing short of intimidating. The traffic here is quite literally unmitigated, solipsistic chaos.

Just like in any other town, there are stoplights, stop signs, one way streets, and more. The difference with Vietnam, and this city in particular, is that everyone is completely ignorant to the rules of the road. Or, perhaps, each and every person has chosen to ignore them entirely. Whatever the case, it really is unconditional anarchy on every street, no matter what the size. I've never seen anything like it.

Ho Chi Minh City Traffic

For example, in most places, when someone is merging into the flow of traffic, they don't normally jump into a sea of vehicles, expecting everyone to dodge them. Here, it seems that riders don't even give the road a cursory glance before they dart directly into the line of traffic, narrowly missing dozens of collisions each time.

Even universal rules like following clearly marked lanes on the road are up for interpretation. Here, people regularly drive the wrong way, directly into crowds of scooters, honking at the throng, expecting it to make way. And the amazing thing is, it does. Similarly, when traffic approaches a halt, impatient riders on the edges of the mob take to the sidewalks, blasting their horns at pedestrians to make way. And they do.

I think the only thing keeping this insane parade from devolving into a million accidents is the relatively slow speed at which the traffic travels. When the roads are clogged with hundreds of people sharing the road with no kind of order (that I can discern), most people have no choice but to go very slowly.

Ho Chi Minh City Traffic

Tara's note: Actually, they all seem pretty, well, communist to me. They're all sharing the road, and nobody actually gets hurt. I like to think that everyone is communicating in some inaudible way, like a colony of bees.

Tyler's note: You think everything is like a colony of bees.

My modus operandi for the ride is simple: keep us alive. As I maneuver our dilapidated scooter through the obstacle course that passes as traffic, there's no time to gawk at the chaos. Keeping us safe requires 360° of rapt attention. Also, without the aid of a good GPS, I can't imagine trying to safely navigate out of this town as a foreigner.

GPS on Rented Motorbike

The entire experience is one terrifying and exhilarating. I suspect it gets easier with practice, but one round in this video game is enough for me.

Riding in Ho Chi Minh City
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What did you press the shutter with? Your tongue? ;) Just kidding, I'm guessing it was Tara sitting behind, but it's a cool shot. I sometimes get squeezed between two buses while commuting to work in London too, it's a bit disconcerting!
Posted by David on March 11th, 2011 at 1:08 PM
Hehe, thanks! You're right, I took those pictures while sitting behind Tyler. :-)
Posted by Tara on March 13th, 2011 at 5:56 AM
I also had a review of riding motorbike in Saigon, many lessons leared from that
Posted by Keith Valentina on May 15th, 2015 at 9:27 PM