One of the most confronting new things you’ll discover when travelling through Vietnam is trying to negotiate the roads. Whether by foot or in a vehicle, dodging traffic in Vietnam is like nothing you have ever experienced before.
We’ve only been in the country for less than two weeks, but the road etiquette education you receive from day one is an intense, fast-tracked learning experience that will have you comfortable on the roads in no time. We’ve travelled on Vietnamese roads by car, bus, rickshaw, pushbike and on foot already, so we’ve had a bit of time to find out how the ‘system’ works. If we saw or experienced any of the traffic behaviours like this back home in Australia we’d be horrified, but here it’s a natural course of events at every single intersection.
Crossing the road on foot is like a real-life game of Frogger. You’re simply trying to get to the other side in the hope you don’t get squashed by any oncoming traffic that may or may not be on the ‘right’ side of the road. So given our vast traffic dodging experience, here’s a little advice we can offer any first time travellers to Vietnam:
Zebra (or pedestrian) crossings don’t seem to mean anything
Back in Australia if you came to a pedestrian crossing by foot you’d wait, the cars would stop in an orderly fashion, you’d cross the street, then the cars would continue on their merry way. Not here. The cars, buses, pushbikes, motorbikes, rickshaws and any other vehicle on the road don’t stop, it’s up to you to cross and make it to the other side without being bowled over. We were given a piece of advice before we came to Vietnam, “when crossing the road, just go, don’t hesitate, and the traffic will make their way around you”. We’ve lived that mantra as best we can and so far, so good.
Those white lines in the middle of the road are there more as a guide than the rule.
In Australia you stick to the left hand side of the road, whereas in Vietnam and most other countries you stick to the right. Here you start in the right but you drift across whenever you need to almost regardless of any oncoming traffic. For example, on the taxi ride from Danang train station to Hoi An our driver got fed up coasting behind the truck in front, so without any concern he pulled into the left hand lane to overtake, despite the line of cars hurtling towards us in the opposite direction. While we were slightly panicking in the back seat, our driver simply starting beeping his horn, the cars slowed down and we made it back into ‘our’ lane in the nick of time. He carried on as though nothing had happened while I was looking for a new set of underwear in my backpack!
Don’t be offended by the beep
Back in Australia I have a bad habit of beeping fellow drivers when they screw up, or at least when I believe they’ve screwed up. It’s an anger thing, I’m annoyed at the ‘bad driver’ for doing the wrong thing by me. Here beeping your horn is polite, it’s simply a way of saying “I’m just letting you know I’m here to make sure you don’t have an accident”, or “be careful old chap I’m just going to merge here if that’s ok with you”. And given beeping your horn is polite, the Vietnamese are the most polite people on earth! Their beeping is non-stop. I’ve seen cars and bikes beep when there is literally no-one else around. It’s almost a reflexive action, something they’ve done since the day they started driving, and therefore do it at any random moment without even thinking about it. Even I’ve got in on the act, ringing my bike bell at every opportunity. It’s actually quite fun!
Negotiating intersections can be both exhilarating and frightening at the same time
Where I’m from if there’s no traffic lights or other signage like ‘Stop’ or ‘Give Way’ signs, you give way to the right. Not here, in Vietnam it’s every man for themselves. Imagine four schools of fish converging on an intersection, with every fish wanting to go left, right or straight all at the same time. That’s what it’s like in Vietnam, with every fish managing to go their merry way without crashing into another fish. Brilliant to watch, always looking for the accident that never happens. The most interesting traffic condition is when vehicles make left hand turns at intersections. Normally you’d drift into the middle of the intersection, and when there’s a gap, make a left hand turn. Not here. Vehicles simply cut the corner and merge into oncoming traffic, then drift across into the ‘right’ lane when there’s a gap. This one takes a bit of getting used to, especially if you’re on foot trying to cross the road.
Red doesn’t necessarily mean stop
While traffic lights are obeyed for the most part, if you’re turning right most people just go even if the light is red. Merging is totally different in Australia. Back home the vehicle merging must give way, taking care to join the traffic flow so as not to cause an accident. In Vietnam vehicles merge without even looking, with the oncoming traffic lumped with the duty to slow down and allow them in. In fact, I’ve seen motorbike riders simply beep their horn and emerge from blind intersections without even looking whether there’s traffic coming or not. And each and every time they safely join the rest of the traffic flow without anyone getting annoyed.
The safety of passengers on motorbikes seems to be of little significance
For example, hardly anyone wears a helmet, and if they do they’re more like worksite helmets than the full faced state of art style you see on Japanese road bike riders back home. They’re probably going to do more harm than good if they have an accident which is probably why people don’t wear them. There also doesn’t seem to be any restriction on how many people can be crammed on a motorbike. The most we’ve seen is five, one adult and four kids. The crazy thing is I’ve often seen the adults wear a helmet when multiple passengers are on a bike, but never the children.
There’s probably a thousand other traffic conditions that I’m yet to witness, or understand, but these six above have opened my eyes to the wider world of traffic management! The ‘chaos’ seems to work as I’ve only seen one accident. Actually, I didn’t see it, but I saw the aftermath. Three guys around 20-years of age had come off second best with a taxi, their motorbike laying on the street. It wasn’t a crash where anyone got injured, they don’t really ride fast enough to cause too much pain. It seemed as though the three guys and the taxi driver were discussing who was in the wrong and what they were going to do next. After a few words were exchanged the three guys simply picked their bike up and rode off, the taxi driver got back in his car and carried on taking his passengers to their destination. There was no animosity, no angry words exchanged, no threat of physical violence. And that’s the thing that has struck me most about negotiating the roads here in Vietnam, it doesn’t seem like anyone ever gets angry. Even when people almost hit each other, or cut each other off, or do something that would result in a honk of the horn and angry exchange of words back in Australia. We hired pushbikes for two days while in Hoi An, with Jack sitting on a little seat that attaches to the front of the bike, between the handlebars and the main seat. Despite our inexperience on Vietnamese roads, we never felt in danger at any time. And funnily enough, I never got angry on the road either. Despite what seems to be anarchy on the roads here, it works, and I along with a lot of my fellow countrymen could take a leaf out of their book on anger management.