“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” No statement could be truer when considering the traffic in Vietnam. Forget bumper to bumper, in a country of 90 million people and 45 million bikes, you’re elbow to elbow with other commuters. After moving to Ho Chi Minh City 7 years ago, this traffic is now a part of daily life, but I didn’t get here easily. I’ve learnt many painful lessons and the city is an unforgiving teacher. If your travel bucket lists mentions adrenaline, then you must add ‘riding in Vietnam’. Here’s a quick intro on how to drive a bike in Vietnam. Make sure to check out that sweet video of the Women’s Day Ride, tagged below, edited by Wiley Jackson.
Thinking about buying a bike? Read this:Practical Tips for Buying a Second Hand Motorbike in Vietnam
Experience in VN
Like many other expats, my driver training consisted of a Vietnamese friend taking me to a dealership, buying a bike, and then the final step; showing me the 3 controls; the gas, the brakes and the most important safety feature in Vietnam; the horn. The other controls of the bike are merely decorative, she said.
With 3 instructions on repeat in my mind, I followed Quynh through Friday evening traffic in District 1, on a 110cc Honda Wave.
Ho Chi Minh traffic has a bark worse than its bite, for sure. It may appear the roads are lawless, but it’s actually not the case. Just don’t blink or you’ll miss it! Riding in Ho Chi Minh is an alternative universe for many Westerners. Roads are like rushing rivers with 20 different currents, so pick one. Considerations for safety and legalities, however? Well, it’s best to leave those standards behind, just like in your unused wingmirrors.
Luckily, you can transfer these standards to all major cities in Vietnam. I have been fortunate enough to travel this country top to bottom and back again, through every nook and cranny, and on rattling rentals or shiny BMWs. Riding attitudes do not discriminate.
Saigon Traffic Culture Shock
So, what did I learn? The roads are busy, because the city is. The average local has a daily to-do list a thousand miles long. Your safety is scribbled somewhere at the bottom. Please don’t take it personally; if you can’t beat them join them.
A lesson in Vietnamese way of life is to leave the past in the past. On the roads, the past is anything behind your peripheral vision.
It’s overwhelming, stressful, panic inducing and claustrophobic all at once. But oh, what fun once you get the hang of it. Perhaps so few expats learn the Vietnamese language as the main communicator here is the horn.
Many expats may exclaim how insane others are to navigate through chaos in this foreign land. These may very well be the same expats to jump on a “xe om” or Grab bike, and don a ‘bucket hat’ (some call them helmets).
I would argue this is the same risk.
This is Where I Come In
After 7 years in Vietnam, you can assume I love this place. You are correct. You can also rightfully assume I have seen and experienced my fair share of chaos. I’ve personally made many poor mistakes due to ‘assumptions; they make an ass out of you and me’. A green light does not always mean go, indicators are an accessory and helmets simply mess up your hair.
Surprisingly, I also found expat riding culture was as careless and facetious as the local culture. Apparently, moving to Vietnam (and perhaps SE Asia in general) gives you a bubble of safety, removing the need for helmets or sobriety. Because no one dies living their best life, drinking 50c beers on the footpath, then riding home…
Stepping off my pedestal from lecturing other expats, I decided to take the route of rider training. And I’ve never looked back (because as stated previously, this is not within VN culture).
It began with manual motorbike lessons in early 2020. There were no options here to ‘step up’ in riding, especially going from an automatic to a manual. All of my riding experience in Vietnam thus far had been ‘if you make a mistake, at least learn from it’. So, I had the idea that others could also learn from my mistakes, instead of their own.
I then decided to expand training for all types of bikes, riders, and goals. Whatever the aim: skills and safety shouldn’t discriminate (because neither does gravity).
Women’s Day Ride 2021
Possibly, one of my proudest achievements in this initiative, was holding a Women’s Day Ride in 2021. With the help of Tigit Motorbikes, I took over 20 riders out to Dong Nai province for ‘Your Introduction to Dirt’. Many riders were past students of mine from manual bike lessons, and enjoyed their very first off-road experience. The day was a huge success, as there’s no greater feeling than being told you helped someone conquer their fears. Often with riding (and especially off-road) we make mountains out of molehills in our minds.
Perhaps I am biased, but off-road riding also gives you a much greater margin of error; no traffic and a softer landing. Smiles shine very bright when through dirt covered faces! I aim to do more group rides for this objective very soon.
Biking Partners and Resources
My initial worry was finding companies daring enough to rent ‘learner bikes’. I have been incredibly lucky in this regard. This venture would have never been possible without the support and backing of top motorbike rental companies here in Ho Chi Minh (and wider Vietnam). I’m so grateful to have the backing of Saigon Motorcycles, The Extra Mile and Tigit Motorbikes to help me achieve this ambition. Each company specializes in bike rentals and bike tours, for both Ho Chi Minh and all over Vietnam. Not only for beginners however, there are plenty of white knuckle rides available to more seasoned riders.
The owners, Trevor, Renzo & Jon, are life-long riders themselves, paved the way for me to educate learners. As with all things in Vietnam, you gotta love the extremes. Amongst the sardine style streets and general death-defying riding culture, we also have the most knowledgeable and experienced bikers I’ve ever met. They have all been invaluable to this venture, and I believe they can see the necessity of rider training here in Vietnam. There’s definitely a feeling of accomplishment having the support of highly regarded and reputable businesses.
Each company provides different bikes for different learners, depending on their goals. Gone are the days of strolling along Bui Vien and seeing a pretty scooter you want to try; I can really see Vietnam is moving towards quality, safety and customer-based service. This is very much the opposite to my early experiences here. I wish I had entered a rental company and discussed my preferences, limitations and needs back in 2015. I now realize how invaluable it is to have knowledgeable bike veterans to talk with.
So, You Want to Learn How to Drive a Bike
Currently, with many new expats arriving to Vietnam; I have many students simply looking for independent transport to and from work. 49cc bikes require no license, meaning students can ride legally and can qualify for insurance (you can only begin to imagine how important covering your own butt and bike is in Vietnam).
I have some students who are aiming to ride the length of the country in the next few months. The training is obviously a lot more involved, however there are no limits, as long as students are aware of their own. I do stand by the belief some people are ‘natural’ riders, whilst others take time. Teaching someone a skill that builds confidence, independence, adventure and overall, how to do things safely is a win-win situation for me.
The lessons are very much catered to each individual goal. Students contact me via WhatsApp or Facebook (where I advertise) and we go from there.
For road riders; I ask the student a few basic questions such as can you ride a bicycle? (can you balance on 2 wheels?), can you drive a car? (do you understand the concept of gas and brakes), do you take Grab bikes? (have you experienced the stop and start motions of traffic?). And, of course, which transmission do you wish to learn?
I never turn a student away, but admittedly some students decide riding is just too stressful. I don’t consider this a failure, but rather one less shaky rider on the road. Not only do I teach bike skills, but the individual nuances of traffic in Vietnam, the differences in riding behaviour, and the golden rule of ‘do unto others before they do unto you’.
Each bike lesson on the road is 60 to 90 minutes, no longer. Believe it or not, but ‘bike fit’ very much exists, as well as the mental energy it takes. Pair this with the Saigon sun and it’s tiring for beginners. I do follow the pace of the student’s progress, but I also believe consistency and repetition is key. You cannot polish all skills in one lesson, and needless to say, some skills are more easily obtained than others. Fun fact: good balance on two feet does not always transfer to balance on two wheels.
With the lifting of lockdown and covid restrictions, business has picked up fast. I see many new expats arriving in Ho Chi Minh looking to get mobile, but safely so. The cost of a lesson with me, is far less than the cost of learning your lesson.
My future goal is to build and grow riding communities here in Ho Chi Minh for all styles, abilities and preferences. This is especially significant to me as a female rider to create safe, supportive and inclusive spaces for everyone. I have been so fortunate within my own riding community, and would love for others to find their riding family as well. However you choose to enjoy motorbikes, there will be a group of like-minded people to welcome you.
So, whatever your current goal, your future goal and your ultimate goal is; drop me an email, or send me a WhatsApp message.
Editor’s Note: If you don’t have a VN driver’s license, your insurance will almost definitely not cover you for driving related injuries. Either get a good international insurance policy, or try to process a VN license before going on a trip. Play it safe, and enjoy the ride!