Andrew ready to go on the 125cc motorbike

How to ride a motorbike in Hanoi, Vietnam

It was late at night on a quiet Hanoi street (yes, such a thing does exist) and I was learning how to ride a motorbike. As I practised turning in the road Mr Nguyen, who’s renting me my slightly battered 125cc Yamaha for just £25 a month, advised me: “Make sure you use the horn so they know you are a bad driver!” The next comment was just as surprising: keep my number in your phone and if the police stop you, call me and I will tell them that I know the boss so you get no fine – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, last week the police said ‘I don’t care about no boss, I retire tomorrow!’”

Me ready to go on the motorbike

If you’re heading to Vietnam then you’ll probably need an invitation letter for your Visa On Arrival, we recommend Vietnam Visa as they provide a professional, efficient and transparent service.

I’ve now survived a whole month riding around this maze-like, traffic choked city with just one minor bump into the back of a stiletto-clad woman’s scooter. Oh, not to mention several trips to the garage (paid for by Mr Nguyen) to stop the engine from screeching and one flat tire which was repaired in minutes by a tiny Vietnamese woman wearing pyjamas who darted out of her Pho shop with a bucket of tools when she saw me wheeling my bike past.

Rush hour in Hanoi, Vietnam

Although Hanoi is nothing compared to Ho Chi Minh City, it’s still a big step up from the quiet roads of Dalat and sleepy Pai in Thailand. So, what have I learnt? Riding a motorbike in Hanoi is no easy task.  Other drivers are your biggest obstacle, especially when they race past you, don’t bother indicating, squeeze into the tightest of spaces and tend to stare at their phones rather than the road. The up-side is that we generally travel at around about 20kph so there’s enough time to avoid most hazards.

 A true family vehicle, four people on one motorbike

Tips for riding a motorbike in Hanoi, Vietnam

So, here’s where I impart my infinite wisdom and give you the key points on how to drive like a true Hanoian:

  • Don’t check to see what’s behind you, just go, you are only responsible for what is directly ahead of you.
  • In the hierarchy of traffic, a motorbike is only better than a bicycle, which is only slightly better than a pedestrian.
  • Since cars and buses are clearly more important don’t expect them to even notice you, let alone make room for you.
  • Don’t bother checking your mirrors, or replacing them when they get knocked off.

Motorbike loaded with cement

  • Use your horn at least 2,000 times per mile.
  • Use a phone while you drive, it makes the journey more of a challenge.
  • Overtake or undertake just before turning.
  • Use a helmet to protect thin air – hang it on your handlebars or keep it in your seat but don’t bother putting it on your head.
  • Red lights, what red lights? Beep at anyone who has the audacity to actually stop for the traffic lights.
  • Make sure you know “the Boss” or at least someone who knows him in case you are stopped by the police.

The essential flowery mac of Hanoi

  • See how many people you can fit onto your bike, particularly small children; teach babies to cling on to the handlebars from an early age.
  • If a space looks too small to squeeze through, go for it.
  • Look out for cars heading straight towards you in your lane.
  • Head the wrong way down one way streets.
  • If you’re a woman, keeping the sun off is important so get yourself a flowery mac to blend in.

 

Fully-loaded motorbike

  • See what you can fit on your bike, go on, be creative – a dog, ladder, a TV, a chair, a gas bottle?
  • Swerve at the last minute to avoid manhole covers and pot holes.
  • Don’t worry about getting a flat tire; you’ll never be far from a Vietnamese woman with a bucket-full of tools who’ll be willing to repair your tire for just £1.50!
  • Finally, if you crash you’ll likely do so in slow moving traffic so just give the other driver a glare and get straight back on again.

 

Motorbikes in Hanoi, Vietnam

This all sounds pretty awful but despite some appalling driving habits the road system in Vietnam actually works remarkably well. At first glance the traffic may look like an utter mess but actually, the chaos is kind of organised; like shoals of fish, motorbikes swerve around obstacles in unison and bikes slow to avoid collisions. Vietnam is also one of the countries in Asia where we’ve seen most people wearing helmets and haven’t witnessed any major crashes since we’ve been here. There are times when I think: ‘If I was cycling in London and someone did that to me I would be so mad,’ but then I beep my horn, shrug my shoulders and get swept along with the shoal. I think I might just be adapting to this Hanoian style of riding.

Have you ever ridden a motorbike in Vietnam? Would you be brave enough to try?

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38 Comments
  • Emily
    Posted at 07:30h, 13 October Reply

    Haha – oh driving in Asia. We forgot about the franticity until we got to India…add in cows (and other random livestock) to the roads and you wonder how you don’t witness crashes on an hourly basis! Somehow they make it work! 🙂

    • Andrew
      Posted at 14:54h, 13 October Reply

      It’s amazing Emily but their system (if you can call it that) seems to work; how there aren’t more accidents I have no idea! We’ve seen animal carcasses being driven around on motorbikes too, as well as live pigs and cows! 🙂

  • Katie
    Posted at 12:16h, 13 October Reply

    Haha! I love this post.

    You are incredibly brave getting on a bike in Vietnam. Like you said, the traffic does appear to move like a shoal of fish, but I can’t imagine ever being able to work that out enough to join in! How do you get on with missing the pedestrians crossing? I found that terrifying!

    The best thing we saw on the back of a bike (in Hanoi, funnily enough) was a VERY large pane of glass; the guy on the back holding it had his arms spread quite wide to keep it steady. I was speechless.

    K

    • Andrew
      Posted at 15:00h, 13 October Reply

      Haha, the pane of glass sounds like some kind of comedy sketch! The pedestrians are yet another obstacle but you have to look about 10 vehicles ahead of you and to your side to check for them. The pedestrians move very slowly and you can mostly spot them in time – I haven’t hit one yet! 🙂

  • Miriam of Adventurous Miriam
    Posted at 21:26h, 14 October Reply

    What a great article, guys! I remember learning how to drive a scooter in Vietnam and it was nerve-wrecking. The traffic is insane!

    • Andrew
      Posted at 08:24h, 15 October Reply

      That’s right Miriam, the traffic is still insane and it takes some confidence to get into the flow here! 🙂

  • Rob
    Posted at 23:39h, 14 October Reply

    Well done for navigating your way through the swarm. Top tips indeed my friend. The ladder is my favourite and a sight I saw many times in India. Imagine popping to B&Q on a moped to buy a ladder… Odd.

    • Andrew
      Posted at 08:23h, 15 October Reply

      Thanks Rob. I’ve seen a ladder or two; at least they have the sense to carry it vertically! 🙂

  • Charlie
    Posted at 20:42h, 15 October Reply

    Haha, love it! Though this sounds absolutely terrifying to me, I really want to rent a motorbike to travel in Vietnam. Never been on a motorbike before and a bit of a wimp on the road but hey, will give it a go! Perhaps the roads are less crazy outside the cities though?

    • Andrew
      Posted at 03:20h, 16 October Reply

      It gives us such independence Charlie, although I would say try and get some experience before if you can. I had a little lesson from the guy I’m renting the bike from but I’ve also had a bit of experience in other Asian countries too which helps. The roads out of the cities are quieter and in smaller cities like Dalat it is much easier too. Good luck! 🙂

  • Gilda Baxter
    Posted at 21:23h, 15 October Reply

    I thought the people riding bikes in Bangkok were prety mad, but sounds like Vietnam is even worse. You are very brave to face up to this challlenge. Your tips made me laugh.

    • Andrew
      Posted at 03:17h, 16 October Reply

      Thanks Gilda, Bangkok is quite crazy but Hanoi is a whole different animal…

  • Bean
    Posted at 22:32h, 15 October Reply

    I went to Vietnam on honeymoon and my husband rode us around in a few places… You’re right, it’s not as chaotic as it looks once you’re in it and the shoal thing works remarkably well. I also found as a pedestrian that crossing the road was initially scary but if you just go for it the traffic tends to move around you. You might get beeped at but its not because of an angry driver (like in the UK), they’re just letting you know they’re there! Happy biking!

    • Andrew
      Posted at 03:04h, 16 October Reply

      Thanks Bean! When we came here in December we talked with a group of students in HCMC and they gave us a leaflet with tips on crossing the road! It truly is a different world here. 🙂

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  • Motorbike Vietnam
    Posted at 06:23h, 14 December Reply

    Traffic in Hanoi looks crazy, dangerous but actually it’s quite safe because everyone ride/drive slowly and carefully.

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    Posted at 09:10h, 09 December Reply

    Ahh so much crowd in Hanoi still people visit there for motorbikes tours which is affordable and adventurous.

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    […] roads, the calm traffic and neat lanes of cars queuing patiently on the highway. Where were the swarms of weaving, aggressive, horn-beeping motorbikes I was so used to in Hanoi? Why wasn’t our taxi driver beeping his horn? In fact, after living in Hanoi where horn-tooting […]

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  • Vietnam Motorbike Tour Asia
    Posted at 02:55h, 20 November Reply

    Hanoi traffic looks crazy but people are so calm on the road. I feel so funny looking down from coffee shop. My head turn left and right like table tennis watching.

    • Andrew
      Posted at 05:45h, 20 November Reply

      Yeah, that’s so true, the traffic seems chaotic but everyone seems so calm!

  • Vietnam Motorbike
    Posted at 02:58h, 20 November Reply

    We rode Hanoi countryside on dirt bike, just 15 mins from outskirt then we see no more traffic and the scenry is so amazing. Hanoi traffic during the rush hour is so funny.

    • Andrew
      Posted at 05:46h, 20 November Reply

      Yep, you’re right, the further out of the city you go the calmer it is. Although you do sometimes get some crazy drivers out in the countryside too.

    • Madd
      Posted at 07:00h, 11 February Reply

      Where abouts did you ride? We are trying to find a quieter place to ride for the first time !

      • Andrew Wyatt
        Posted at 16:24h, 11 February Reply

        I can’t remember the exact location, but it was between the Old Quarter and the Mausoleum. Good luck!

  • Puddin
    Posted at 11:33h, 10 July Reply

    This article help me. Thank your for sharing.

    • Amy
      Posted at 10:37h, 11 July Reply

      Glad we could help.

  • Footwear Boss
    Posted at 21:54h, 24 July Reply

    This looks like so much fun! I did the moped thing in Hanoi, and I remember wondering if it was humanly possible to have that much fun.

    • Amy
      Posted at 11:01h, 04 August Reply

      Yep, it’s definitely an experience, that’s for sure!

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