Driving a Motorbike in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

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Never in a million years did I think that I would ever be able to say that I can not only drive a motorbike, but I can drive a motorbike in Ho Chi Minh City. If you have ever seen the traffic in HCMC, you know that this driving a motorbike here is both exhilarating and a nightmare.

When I first moved here, I was pretty adamant about never driving a motorbike. I used only taxis for the first few months, then graduated to only taking a xe om (motorbike taxi).Then I bought my own electric bike that was cool to use in Phu My Hung, but completely useless for longer rides. After about 7 months of spending money, waiting around, and wasting time, I finally decided to pull the trigger and rent my own motorbike.

I started off with a Mio Classico, built specifically for short women (I’m barely 5’0 ft). I liked it because it’s super tiny, my feet could touch the ground, and it was lightweight. However, it had basically zero storage, and was really awful to ride with two people. I’ve since upgraded to an Attalia Elizabeth and it’s AMAZING. It’s much bigger, and I like it because it has enough storage space to fit a large bag, so I don’t have to worry about driving with a bag on me (a big NO NO in Ho Chi Minh City).

So say you’ve just moved here, you got a bike, and you’re ready to go…here are my tips for staying safe and not losing your mind.

–¬†My friend Nicole gave me the best advice about motorbikes – only drive when YOU are ready. Don’t let people pressure you into riding if you’re not ready. I honestly believe that being here for 7 months and dealing with the traffic daily before I started to ride made me more confident, and in turn, a much better driver. I wasn’t afraid to ride, whereas I’m about 99.9% sure if I had started driving when I first moved here I would’ve been in many an accident.
– Get used to the fact that there the traffic rules are non-existent here. When I first moved here, I couldn’t believe the shit I was seeing on a daily basis. Red light? Doesn’t matter. Looking before you make a right turn? Doesn’t happen. Yielding to make a left turn? HA! It’s extremely frustrating and at times, super dangerous, but that’s just how it is. At the same time, know that 97% of the time, motorbikes will drive to avoid you. Say you’re trying to make a left and there’s just a mass of motorbikes you’re turning into, they’ll move out of the way. I don’t know how it works but it does.
– While driving, try to move with the group of traffic, and stay in a “pack”. Someone once told me the traffic in HCMC moves like water, and they’re totally right. You want to stay with the “river”. If there’s a giant group of people making a left turn, join the group.
– The pollution and exhaust is a HUGE problem for me. I’ve noticed that if I drive without wearing a face mask, my skin freaks out. I bought a pack of 200 medical face masks for about 5 bucks, and I keep a stash in my bike storage. If you drive long distances during rush hour traffic, it’s probably best to invest in a high quality mask that not only protects your skin, but filters the harsh pollutants.
– On the subject of skin, wearing an SPF is a must. The sun is NO joke. I used to have the worst short tan lines on my legs from wearing shorts without sunscreen. There’s a reason why Vietnamese women are typically covered from head to toe while driving. If you’re particularly sun sensitive, wear a light jacket/cardigan while driving.
– As ridiculous as motorbike drivers are, cars, taxis, and buses are even worse. Taxi and bus drivers drive like maniacs. If you’re driving near buses, be aware that they can, and will pull into different lanes at a moments notice, and generally don’t give a fuck about motorbike drivers.
– Driving in the rain here is one of the worst possible things ever and I HATE it. Rainy season sucks, no way around it. Grab your poncho, buy a pair of shoes that you don’t mind getting¬†wet, and drive slow, homie.
– Look forward at all times, don’t worry about what’s happening behind you. Be aware of your surroundings at all times. Driving in HCMC requires 100% attention at all times.
– I’m not that familiar with the small streets in the city center and other districts, so I always have my GPS on if I’m going somewhere I don’t know. If I get lost, I’ll pull over (somewhere safe!) to look at my map.
– Don’t drive with your valuables on you, if you can help it. Always drive with your purse in your storage. I am absolutely paranoid about being robbed on my motorbike, which is why I don’t drive into D1 with my computer that often. Sadly, my laptop doesn’t fit in my bike storage, so if I go work in D1 it’s a special occasion for me. I’m sure that it’s safe most of the time, but better safe than sorry for me.

Have you ever driven a motorbike? What are your tips for staying safe?

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