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.
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’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.
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.