Vietnam is famous for its delicious pho (rice noodle in broth), aromatic drip coffee and chaotic traffic conditions. An insane number of motorcycles zip pass you haphazardly with almost no regard for road lanes and traffic lights.
Statistics in 2016 reveal that there is a staggering number of motorcycles registered in Ho Chi Minh City alone – 7.43 million bikes compared to a human population of around 8 million.
Do not get me wrong, Vietnam is a fascinating country steeped in culture and beauty. However, their bad traffic situation can be rather terrifying for tourists new to Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi or its bigger cities. It is not only daunting to cross the roads; the streets are dusty and noisy and the air is choking with exhaust fumes.
To fully enjoy what Vietnam has to offer, here are some tips on how to manage and survive the traffic congestion.
Cross the road at a steady speed
Have I mentioned that the traffic conditions are crazy? There are few pedestrian crossings on the streets and even if there is, the cars will probably not slow down for you.
Do not trust the traffic signals here at all, a red light still sees a significant number of vehicles whizzing past. Waiting patiently for the motorcycles and cars to stop is a silly idea in this part of the world and it is not going to work.
The only solution is to take a deep breath and cross the road calmly at a steady speed. You will be surprised to realise that the motocycles will slow down or veer around you. Amazing! Of course, do keep a lookout for bigger vehicles because they are not able to slow down in time or maybe they do not care.
The crux here is to maintain a steady speed and not run or jump back because the drivers are trying to gauge your speed.
Once you get a knack for this, you will save yourself a lot of unnecessary worry and time. This is an authentic Vietnamese experience and you may even find it exhilarating after a few tries!
Prepare to be stuck in traffic
For those who want to visit attractions via a day-tour group, do be mentally and physically prepared to be stuck in traffic.
I signed up for a tour package to Tam Coc, a picturesque destination of a meandering river set against limestone cliffs and serene rice paddies. Impressive as the views were, the journey back (90km away from the heart of Hanoi) was a traumatic experience.
The estimated breezy 2.5-hour journey became a torturous four-hour ride because of peak hour congestion and a minor traffic accident. The need to use the toilet becomes highly exacerbated when you realise that there is no way the driver can stop along the highway.
For the sake of your bladder and sanity, do remember to always use the toilet before going up a tour bus. At the same time, prepare some snacks to curb hunger pangs because you do not have an idea when you will reach your destination.
Plan your activities to avoid the peak hour jam
The traffic jams start as early as 7am when the people head to work and they last almost the whole day, only quieting down in the afternoon and at night. From 7am to 10am and 4pm to 6pm, try to avoid travelling on the road because the city streets are inundated with vehicles, dust and noise. It is really quite maddening.
Why join the rush hour when you are not in a rush?
Instead of ending up being frustrated at the traffic, it is a smarter choice to plan your sightseeing activities around the peak hours. Go for a nice leisurely Vietnamese breakfast in the morning before heading out and maybe you can fill the evening with a massage or some pre-dinner drinks.
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The sunset over Hanoi was incredible from a sky bar; and a bonus, the mad scooter rooting became a background noise! So in love with this crazy city #Hanoi #skybar #skylineskybar #vietnam #vietgram #sunsetsanddaydreams #sunsethanoi #cityofthesettingsun #backpackfullofdreams
Skip the taxis and hail a motorcycle instead
Yes, taxis are definitely more comfortable because of the air-conditioning and the soft seats. However, for practical reasons, it is a better idea to hail a motorcycle than get stuck in traffic.
Motorcycle taxis (locally called Xe Om) are readily available at streets corners. You can spot them easily usually by a handwritten sign hanging on their bikes that reads ‘XE OM’. Do note that these motorcycle taxis are usually not in great condition and the drivers are not geared towards great customer service. Regardless, they are masters of the roads and will weave through traffic to get you to your destination in no time. I personally found it very convenient, cheap and thrilling.
Note: Remember to bargain because they jack up prices for foreigners.
Alternatively, take a GrabBike! It is easy to get one, prices are fixed and they provide helmets too.
While you are in the back of the motorcycle, one important point is to watch out for your belongings. Snatch theft by thieves on motorcycles is quite common especially at crowded junctions and streets. Do not carry a sling bag because they can be cut and snatched easily. Use backpacks instead and carry it at the front so that it is safely nestled between the driver and you.
Wear a face mask (just like the locals)
You will probably notice a big portion of the Vietnamese, both women and men, wearing face masks while they are on their motorcycles or just going about their daily life.
Strange as it seems, the main reason is to filter out the pollutants and dust from the heavily-polluted air caused by the excessive number of vehicles on the road. Sadly, air pollution has become one of the most worrying health and environmental hazards throughout Vietnam, especially in big cities such as Hanoi.
Another reason is that Vietnamese women like to be fair-skinned. So, the face masks serve a dual purpose, which is to block the sun rays while they are zipping through the streets exposed to the harsh elements of the weather.
Do as the Vietnamese do and buy some face masks while you are exploring the many attractions. The poor air quality may give you a sore throat and a persistent cough, which is very disappointing on a vacation. Don on those face masks, you will be thankful for it!
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