Traversing Vietnam By Motorbike: Day 16 – Epilogue
Bike Condition: SOLD!
Driver Condition: walking
Now that we are safely in Hanoi and the bikes have been sold (yay!), we can let you in on a few things that happened during the trip that we didn’t mention along the way so as to not terrify my mother. (Hi Mom!)
So… I (Kate) crashed. Twice.
My first crash was within about two hours of buying the motorbike in Ho Chi Minh City, and I was seriously wondering if this motorbike trip was a good idea. SO… we were driving through the heavily motorbike-laden streets of HCMC, getting comfortable with the bikes while we roamed around taking care of a few errands and a bit of sightseeing. Having only driven a manual car once, for about a month in a sleepy town in Mexico, many many years ago, I was fairly new to shifting gears. While these were semi-automatic, so didn’t have a clutch, the gear shifting was still requiring a lot of my attention.
Having passed our turn on the way to the War Remnants Museum, we went down the road and made a U-turn to get back on track. From here, we went back up the road to make a right turn. Here, I was paying a lot of attention to turning and not so much attention to signaling this turn.
Lesson #1 in motorbiking in Vietnam – other vehicles can literally be almost anywhere around you. Even if you think you are as far right on the road as you can possibly get, magically another motorbike can appear to your right. Especially in the city, where they are often driving on the sidewalks when the roadways are congested. So this is what happened. Making my right turn, another bike came up on my right, heading straight, so naturally we collided, though he managed to keep on driving while I was sprawled out on the pavement. To his credit, in my infancy with the bike and all its levers and buttons, I had forgotten to put my turn signal on (not that they always do this). To my credit, SERIOUSLY where the F did he come from? I was on the far right side of the road… how is there another bike hitting me on the right?
Fortunately, all was fine. I walked away with little more than some scrapes and bruises and my bike survived with only a broken rearview mirror, which the bike shop we purchased the bikes from was happy to replace for free. We also think this may have been when my horn broke… which we replaced a couple days into the journey in Dalat. (This is a country where horns are necessary).
The only real damage was to my ego, which was already pretty much non-existent in the motorbiking skills department, but was now in serious question. Of all the emotions I could have had, the one that hit me the the most was embarrassment: the white girl on the pavement, clearly exemplifying why it is illegal for foreigners to drive in this country. SO, YEE HAW, let’s get this adventure started!
On a positive note, everyone around me was very helpful. Many motorbikes stopped to see if I was okay and a man on the side of the road ran out to help me and Shawn get our bikes out of the road and insisted on helping me bandage up the scrapes on my leg (with tissue and tape) even long after they’d stopped bleeding and helping to test the working condition of my bike. All of this without any ability to communicate. Good people are everywhere.
Having crashed once in the city, I didn’t want to leave the countryside out of the equation. The second time I crashed was in the mountains. Coming into a steep turn, I braked to slow a bit and felt my brake lever scrape the ground, which was strange and startling and I veered too close to the edge of the road, where thick, rocky gravel caused my bike to slip and me and the bike went down on our left. FUN. What was even more fun was apparently my gas cap hadn’t been on tight enough (these are located under the seats) and gasoline started spilling out of the bike and onto the road (and me) while I struggled to get my foot out from under the bike and pick it up before I lost all of my gas. SOooOOo… yeah, even more fun. Shawn jumped off his bike to help me right myself and the bike.
Luckily, there was still plenty of gas in the tank and there was also a gas station not too far up the road. Even more luckily, there was a mechanic, because while the bike had carried me to the gas station just fine, this is where the gear shifter decided to break, so we quickly found ourselves at the mechanic getting a new one. FUN.
As with my first crash, the incident amounted to only some road rash and bruises, crippled ego, and a few minor bike repairs, so all in all I’d say we had a pretty successful trip to Hanoi. Much worse has happened in Vietnam’s horrendous traffic. Shawn kept himself and his bike upright the entire trip (except for maybe the occasional kickstand fail), so that’s good news. Golf clap…
Now that that we are safely in Hanoi and finished with our motorbike adventure, here are some fun observations, opinions, and stats about motorbiking, traffic accidents, and traffic laws/licensing in Vietnam.
First off, this is merely opinion, but after traversing the country on a motorbike, a really well informed one, I think. The Vietnamese are absolutely terrible drivers. You may say, that’s not fair – you’re judging the system of another country, the same thing does not work for every country, or in every place! Sure, this may be true for education, government, agriculture – other sectors. But there are general safety standards and laws that make sense, particularly when it comes to the roadway. Their traffic culture – a ski-slope mentality of whatever is in front has the right-away, so go ahead and fling yourself into the road ahead of any oncoming traffic – no matter how close to you, because you are now in front of them – is not working for them. Even ski slopes have warning signs at intersections. These guys just throw themselves into the road, from the right or left, typically without looking at all to see what is approaching. They figure that whatever is approaching needs to see them and adjust accordingly. It’s a scary system that requires 100% focus on the road and a bit of a fatalist attitude.
Don’t get me wrong… it’s interesting and even fun to walk or ride the streets and see how the traffic just seems to flow around whatever obstacle is presented. And while I would not say that the Vietnamese generally are very good drivers, I would say that they are phenomenal at obstacles courses… moving obstacle courses. But not so phenomenal that they don’t have a shitload of very very preventable accidents.
This is not too surprising from a country where nearly everyone obtaining a driver’s license pays someone else to help them complete the computer exam portion of their driver’s examination. Basically, according to a foreigner who got his Vietnamese driver’s license, you take the exam portion at a computer, and every computer station has a video camera set up to see that you are actually the one taking the exam. However, everyone – even the Vietnamese – pays someone to sit stage right, juuuuuusssst off camera, so they can read the questions and tell you the answers (all are multiple choice). Hardly anyone does the exam on their own or has any idea what the answers to the questions on traffic laws, right-of-way, safety, etc., etc., might be. Comforting. And definitely noticeable on the roads.
While there are many things the individual drivers could do to make the roads safer, much of the issue is not the fault of the driver, but the insufficient infrastructure and traffic policing, which cannot keep pace with the rapid boom of vehicles – mostly motorbikes – on Vietnam’s roads over the past two decades. And on the note of traffic policing, most officers are readily bribed rather issuing real tickets, as we ourselves experienced during our travels.
Thousands die in traffic accidents in Vietnam every year, one of the country’s top causes of death. Even the statistics for this are quite flawed, as “traffic fatalities” are often only accounting for those that die at the scene of the accident, and not those that die at the hospital, or even on the way to the hospital. Unsurprisingly, in a country dominated by motorbikes, over 60% of the traffic deaths and accidents involve motorbikes. And, while the government has attempted to make the roads safer and decrease the number of fatalities, many of the efforts are nearly useless. While there are laws stipulating that motorbike drivers must wear helmets, many ignore these laws due to poor policing and most only wear the cheapest helmet possible to make themselves road-legal. Over 80% of the helmets worn fall well below regulation, a thin shell of cheap plastic that wouldn’t protect a hair-do, let alone a head.
HOLY SHIT!?! Why did you motorbike through Vietnam??? Do you have a death wish? Ha… valid question. It’s certainly not an adventure for the faint of heart. And… it’s not really legal. As far as traffic accidents go, the adage is “it’s not if, but when”, and I did indeed have a couple of minor hiccups myself. This said, while there are inherent risks in nearly everything you do, motorbiking in Vietnam definitely throws this risk in your face and you need to have 100% focus on the roads to get out alive. But, we didn’t do it because we have a death wish. We did it because we have a life wish. It was exciting and it really is the best way to view this spectacularly beautiful country. Most of the roads you take (or should take) to do this are fairly low traffic. With some common sense, a lot of attention to the road, and a little luck, you can get through unscathed and have the journey of a lifetime! And that is why we motorbiked Vietnam.
Thanks for tuning into our journey!! Next up, Indonesia!