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Driving a motorbike in Saigon

My late uncle's old bike I'm currently using

When I first arrived in Vietnam, I wasn’t sure if I was going to want to drive on the crazy streets of Saigon.  I had read from some expats that you can get around the city fine by walking and taking the buses and I had intended on doing just that for the first few months I was here…but I soon missed the ability and the freedom that I had in The States to just hop into my car and be able to explore the city…or just go drive until I found a new restaurant I wanted to try.  Yes I could call the Xe Om guy that I had been using….but I hate having to depend on him and his schedule every time I needed to go somewhere…and I had a couple of bad experiences with some other guys that I had used.  I could also take the bus…they are extremely cheap and there are over a hundred routes that cover the expanse of the city, but the closest bus stop is about 3 blocks from my Aunt’s house….and during rush hour there are no places to sit and you are crammed uncomfortably close to a bunch of strangers with questionable hygiene…and depending on where you want to go….you might have to hop onto a few different buses to get there.

Motorbike Parking Lot

I knew that if I was going to drive around Vietnam….I wanted to do it on a motorbike like the locals and not in a car.  First of all…although I still don’t know how long I am going to be staying in Vietnam….I knew it wouldn’t be long enough that it would be worth it to invest in an expensive car…and let me tell you…cars in VN are extremely expensive!!  Cars are taxed at 100% in VN…so take the price you would pay for a typical car in the U.S. and double it.  Secondly…cars take up a lot of space on the roads.  During rush hour…driving a motorbike could cut your commute time by 1/2 the time or more.  Plus parking spaces for cars are much harder to find than for motorbikes.  Most busy streets in VN have at least couple of places for you to park your motorbike (Gui Xe).  Many restaurants and shopping centers will allow you to park for free….while others will charge you a nominal 3000 Dong (about 16 cents).  And thirdly…it is so much more fun to drive a motorbike than a car.  You will notice a lot more things when you’re not enclosed in the confines of a car.  Of course there are advantages of being in a car also….you won’t breath in as much pollution, you won’t be exposed to the elements, and you are much less likely to be run over by another car or bus…..BUT I think that if you are a  conscientious and defensive driver….driving a motorbike isn’t as dangerous as it might seem at first glance.

Honda Wave

Honda’s are by far the most popular brand of motorbike in Vietnam…and the Wave is the most popular model.  By default…Honda parts are the easiest to find in Vietnam and most every mechanic will be able to service a Honda.  You can get a Honda Wave with a manual transmission for $1000 or less brand new.  An automatic might cost you $500-$1000 more depending on the model and features.  I always liked driving manual transmissions….and my last car was a 2007 Toyota Tacoma SR5 pickup with a 5 speed manual.  I considered purchasing a new Honda Wave…but my late Uncle has a very old Honda Dream II that is perfectly serviceable so I am going to drive that for awhile until my future plans are more concrete.  Driving a manual transmission means that you have to shift up and down with your left foot (shift up by stepping on the front left pedal with your tip of your foot, and down by pressing on the back pedal with your heel) to change your rate of acceleration as you would with a car with a 5 speed manual shifter…except there is no reverse.  One big advantage of a manual on a motorbike vs. a car is that there is no clutch to worry about and you can be in any gear while at a full stop…without worrying about the engine dying out on you.  If you’ve ever driven a stick shift….you will find the principle of driving a manual motorbike exactly the same.  If you shift at the right time…you can have an extremely smooth ride….but if you shift down too quickly your bike will jerk like crazy.

Learning to drive

Once I decided that I wanted to learn to drive a motorbike, I needed to find out a safe place to practice.   My 7th Aunt (Mo Bay) offered to be my motorbike instructor.  She took me to an isolated street near a golf course in District 7, where I could practice without worrying about traffic.  Let it be said that if you can ride a bicycle you can most likely drive a motorbike since the tires are so much wider than a bicycle so it’s much easier to keep your balance.  My father can ride a motorcycle…but he cannot ride a bike.  That being said it is also much more dangerous than riding a bicycle because you are capable of going so much faster on a motorbike.

The hardest thing for me at first was just to get used to the idea that the accelerator is controlled via your right hand.  When you panic…there is a natural tendency to grab and hold on tight to whatever is at hand.  Anyways, once I got accustomed to driving up and down the street I was on….I wanted to practice making sharp turns.  I did fine the first couple of turns….but on my 3rd try I turned a little wider than I planned to and went off the paved road and onto gravel at which point I panicked and instead of squeezing the front brake , controlled by my right hand….or the rear brake via my right foot, I just froze and clung onto the handlebars and ACCELERATED right into an aluminum fence, falling on my ass in the process.  As I was struggling to get up….a guy who had apparently witness my misfortune drove by on his motorbike and just stopped and stared at me like I was an alien.  He has obviously never seen anyone fall on their ass on a barren street before.  Other than my pride…I was relatively unscathed.

I knew that practicing on empty streets or quiet neighborhoods would never prepare me for what I would face on the mad streets of Saigon…so I asked my 4th Aunt (Di Tu) whom I am living with….to take me to Vung Tau (port city about 80 miles north of Saigon) so that I could practice on the much less congested streets there.  Vung Tau is a perfect place to practice driving a motorbike.  The main streets are very wide and spacious….and seems to be in much better condition than pothole filled Saigon.  So I borrowed one of my cousin’s bikes and followed him all around the city.  There is enough traffic to be dangerous…but gives a newbie like me room to maneuver without worry of crashing into people around me.  So I practiced for 2 days in Vung Tau and it did wonders for my confidence.

Once I returned to Saigon, I decided that I would have to immediately get back on the streets or I would lose whatever nerve I had gained the prior couple of days.  So I called the Xe Om guy I had been using and asked him to drive in front of me and lead me to Ben Thanh market in District 1, and then to my 7th Aunt’s house in Binh Thanh district….while I followed behind.  I have gone skydiving twice in my life, and let me tell you that my first time driving on the streets of Saigon was scarier for me than jumping out of an airplane.  🙂  I wasn’t so much scared of getting hurt…but just getting into an accident and have to deal with the Saigon Police or the legal consequence that might occur because of it.

There is no way to describe the traffic in Saigon until you try to actually drive around yourself.  It was a totally difference experience than even riding on the back of a Xe Om.  Imagine being so close to others that your mirrors are clanging off one another…or your legs are rubbing up against another person’s bike….or a car or a huge bus just turns or changes lane without even pausing to consider where you are.  It is always the job of the smaller vehicle to yield to the larger one.

That first day…I was extremely tense…which makes it so much harder to balance on the bike.  I was also gripping the handlebars so tight that my hands were full of perspiration.  I felt like everyone around me was staring…secretly laughing at the idiot who was wobbling all over the place.  It was a miracle that I didn’t hit anyone.  That first day was made harder by the fact that the bike I was using hadn’t been driven in such a long time that the battery wouldn’t hold it’s charge….so whenever I stopped at a stop light the engine would die…and I would have to use the kick start to start it up.  This happened at least 5-6 times that first day.  Motorbikes, Cars and Buses would honk at me furiously each time…and while I’m nervously hopping up and down trying to start up the engine….people are zooming around me cursing.  Once I get the engine started, I try to get moving as fast as I can and rev the accelerator while in 1st gear….which causes me to buck around like a bull rider…and I’m doing my best to stay on my damn bike.  In retrospect it was stupid and careless of me to try to drive my first time in Saigon on a bike in that condition. Needless to say, I took the bike to get the battery changed the very next day.

I have been driving my motorbike for a week in Saigon now.  Today is the first day that I have felt completely comfortable riding in the thick traffic.  My posture is more relaxed and my palms are no longer sweaty.  I don’t feel like people are staring at me anymore…and I am enjoying my new found freedom.  I had given myself a goal of 3 months after I arrived in VN to be able to drive in Saigon…..I did it in 3 weeks.  And if I can drive a motorbike in Saigon….anyone can.

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20 comments to Driving a motorbike in Saigon

  • Benny

    Anyone can – Thx for the kind and encouraging words. I have been behind the wheels since 1977, all of it in the US. I have driven cars with automatic and manual transmissions. I am currently driving a Toyota Landcruiser in Houston. Nevertheless, I would NOT dare to drive anything with a motor in Saigon, especially during rush hour. The closeness to other motorcyclists gives me impalpable and gripping anxiety which makes defensive driving moot. So, I salute your courage and adaptability to a familiar (yet so foreign) surrounding. You’re doing fine, dude.

  • Benny

    You got that right!! That may be laughable and/or ludicrous to many natives, but I have tried it a few months back and prefer not to repeat that experience. I may have to stay there for a few months before I realize that I have no other practical means of transportation. Then I will throw caution to the wind, and ride.

    BTW – Colts are going to the Superbowl vs. the New Orleans Saints. I think the Colts will come out victorious. It’s the Saints first time at Superbowl which is in Miami this year.

    Are you still going to Gia Rai?

    • odgnut

      I’m rooting for New Orleans. I like Peyton Manning….but I hated my time in Indiana.

      Yep to Gia Rai. Leaving Friday…coming back Sunday….will post an update soon afterward.

  • Craig N

    I apologize for my prior advice. I hadn’t realized that you had never ridden a motorcycle of any kind anywhere. Although, now that you have ridden a manual with a centrifugal clutch, I still think one day on an automatic would help you. Just one day of not worrying about gear selection would teach you so much about all other aspects of the Saigon ride. When you get back on that old Dream II you would be five times as confident.

    I know what you mean about the bad battery too. I had the same problem, but while carrying a 2-year-old (Minh Man) in front of me, and my sister-in-law behind me. It is really hard to kick those things when trying to balance so much.

    I must say, the photo makes your bike look quite handsome for a Dream II. Most Dreams have that white fairing on them. It looks fairly knew as well.

    Like the old Kawasaki marketing campaign said, “Let the good times roll!”

    • odgnut

      I actually got used to the manual gears really quickly….it was never much of an issue…although it would have definitely helped to not have to shift back to Neutral every time the battery died on me.

      My confidence has grown exponentially this week. I no longer instinctively try to swerve away from people driving too close to me. Most important thing I learned is what I call the “pedal walk”….walking the bike with my left leg on the ground…slowly accelerating…while keeping my right foot on the brake. By being able to do the “pedal walk” I can keep myself steady on the bike while maneuvering in tight spaces and at stop lights…which was what I was most nervous about. I think I have really got the hang of it.

      Trying to keep myself from being too overconfident now. It’s been really fun driving the last few days now that the fear is gone. I think it will be awhile still before I get up the nerve to take on a passenger. Really brave of you and Minh Man to let you drive him around VN. 🙂

  • Craig N

    I had the whole family on one bike a couple of times. 5 year old, 2 year old, my wife AND me. I wish I had pictures.

    My boys LOVE motorcycling in VN.

    • odgnut

      I would’ve definitely taken a picture of that!! I haven’t seen any foreigners doing like the locals yet….and I thought I was brave for driving just myself around Saigon.

  • Craig N

    I think that one day you will be back in the States, and you will be in your closed up metal box of a car, going 40 or 50 MPH, and you will look at the completely isolated and lonely person in the car next to you, and you will miss the intimacy that is the Saigon Honda Ride. You wil yearn fot the intimacy with the other motorists, intimacy with the shops and houses, and intimacy with Vietnam itself.

  • Thuy

    Before I read this, I had already decided that when I head back to the states, Im going to learn how to operate a motorbike that way when I do return I will be ready to drive myself around instead of relying on my cousin.

    Not ready for the streets of Saigon, but at least I have an idea of what the traffic is like.

    A gf of mine already owns 5 bikes. Her favorite one is the Ducati and she constantly bugs me each time I see her to join her on the road.

    She knows that out of the lot of girls we hang out with, we are the only 2 that drive manuals and have a love for bikes so she never lets up about trying to get me to buy a bike.

    Probably not going to happen, but I will borrow hers and practice first.

  • Tuyen

    Hi:

    I’ll be moving to Saigon in August. I’m wondering if you are driving the motorbike with a legal license. If so, I would appreciate information about the licensing process. Thank you.

  • jen

    I’m travelling around Vietnam for 3 weeks and then going to Cambodia. I’m looking at doing a 3 day motorbike tour in Cambodia. I know that I can pick up outdoor gear like North Face and Columbia in Saigon, can anyone tell me if I can pick up decent, reasonably priced bike boots, gloves and helmet? And where?

  • Khanh

    You’re my motivation ODGNUT! I’m going to be in Saigon for 2 months starting December, and planning on buying a motorbike. It’s going to be my first time as well…so hell yeah it’s going to be scary! I was afraid to cross the damn street last time! I think I might take the same approach as you, as to practice first in a smaller town, such as Vung Tao. Does anyone know where to buy a CHEAP, but reliable motorbike at in Saigon? I’m going to be on a tight budget since I am staying for 2 months, so I cannot afford a brand new bike.

    • odgnut

      Hey Khanh, you can buy a really cheap used bike HERE. If you are only staying for a couple of months you can also just rent a bike for about $50/month….no point in going through the hassles of buying and then selling it. There are areas in District 7 with relatively little traffic that you can use to practice driving. If you need some pointers and help navigating Saigon just give me a ring.

  • Khanh

    Thanks ODGNUT! I was considering buying a bike at first, but I think a monthly rental for about $50 a month will work out even better! I will definitely look into that as soon as I get there. Do you know of some good places to go get these $50 monthly rentals? I heard from one person that we have to leave our passports with the people who rent out the bikes? Is that true? Thanks ODGNUT, I’m pretty sure I will need some pointers and help around town since this is my first time traveling to the Nam alone for a couple months, so I will be sure to keep in touch!

  • Tom

    Let me give you a fourth reason not to consider getting a car: regardless of whether it’s your fault or not, if a car hits a motorbike then you’ll be in a very bad position. The unwritten rule is that the larger vehicle is most always held liable.

    Did you hear about the story of that Viet kieu singer who hit and killed someone on a motorbike while driving his car, got sent to prison, and ended up dying in prison by contracting some sort of virus? He had Viet kieu status, celebrity and money on his side, yet couldn’t maneuver out of the court system and still ended up behind bars. From what I hear Vietnamese prisons are not as well run and clean as US prisons.

    I can’t emphasize this enough: given the crazy reckless driving in Vietnam, there’s a high risk that you’ll eventually bump or scrape someone on a motorbike unless you drive like a turtle or you have mad skills as a stunt driver or rally racer. And remember that it doesn’t even have to be your fault to be royally screwed if you’re in the bigger vehicle.

    One more thing to worry about is burglary. My cousin in Vietnam has three cars and is a member of a big car club in SG (otosaigon.com). From what he tells me and what other members have reported, it seems thieves like to target cars. They like to steal everything from gasoline to the side mirrors. The theft of side mirrors is so prevalent that many car owners are now securing the mirrors to the frame of their cars with aftermarket cables. In a sense, when you’re driving a car in Vietnam you’re shouting to all the common folks “Hey, look at me, I’m rich!” and sometimes that can come back to bite you in the arse. I know many car owners are constantly worried about their cars and where to park their cars.

    If you accept these risks, then by all means get a car because it’ll definitely protect you from the scorching heat, spare you from having to breathe the polluted air, and maybe even save your life if you get hit by a truck. My cousin told me the #1 reason he upgraded to a car was safety.

  • Jake

    I’m planning to go to Saigon next month but I’m terrified of traffic yet I want to experience riding a motorbike in a big city (I’ve done so in smaller cities). Can anyone give me some tips or pointers please?

    • odgnut

      If you know someone in Saigon, tell them to take you to District 7 to practice. Relatively safe and little traffic there. I know a company that will teach you and escort you around the city if you like. You can email me if you want more details.

  • MRISA

    hI ODGUT

    can you give me the name and the address of the company that will teach me how to ride a motor bike in Saigon…

    • odgnut

      That’s easy 🙂 My company provides motorbike driving lessons. Here’s our website address: xotours.vn

      The cheapest way to learn is if you have a friend that will teach you, but if don’t know anyone in Vietnam then we would be happy to help you buy/rent a bike, take you
      out to a low traffic area and teach you how traffic in Vietnam works and to accompany you around the city while you get a hang of things.

      All our employees are female, fun and really know their way around the city. Just email us at info@xotours.vn or call the phone number on the website whenever you
      get in town.

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