The unwritten traffic rules of Vietnam

Vietnam is famous for its delicious cuisine, its beautiful people, and spectacular landscapes. However, Southeast Asia’s popular tourist destination is also rather infamous for its chaotic traffic, flexible traffic law interpretations, and adventurous roads. I’ve been living in Vietnam for more than five years now, and want to give you some quick advice on how to survive the local traffic in this short guide.

When coming to Vietnam the very first time, the traffic can be somewhat intimidating, shocking, and even terrifying for some. However, if you understand the unwritten laws of Vietnam’s streets, it is relatively easy to get through it without a scratch while travelling along the roads. Over five years ago, I struggled crossing the street with my newly rented Super Cub and ended up waiting for more than five minutes until I understood that I just have to cross without hesitation, instead of waiting for the street to clear.

Similarly, I did many small mistakes during my first weeks and expected things to be somehow like in my country. However, that is of course not the case.

Therefore, in this article, I’d like to share some of my experiences about the unwritten rules of the Vietnamese traffic with you. So, without further ado, let’s get started with some essentials.

Honda Super Cub
More than five years ago, I’ve made my first attempts in Vietnam’s traffic on this little (and quite embarrassing) Honda Super Cub

Forget what you’ve learnt!

Seriously, if you are from a country with a more or less orderly traffic system, forget about all those things you have grown accustomed to. Most of these rules simply don’t apply here.

Motorbikes in the middle of the market
Motorbikes in Vietnam can be found everywhere: on the street, the sidewalks or like here in the middle of the market

Expect the unexpected!

Sounds banal, but it really is the most important rule. Vietnamese drivers are well-known for unexpected manoeuvres like changing or crossing lanes whenever they want, rushing out of an alley onto a big street or stopping in the middle of the road just to look at a shop’s window. Also, sidewalks are not safe! When the streets are heavily congested, motorbike drivers often take a shortcut across the sidewalks. So, be wary when walking on them.

Motorbikes in front of Trang Tien Plaza
Most of the time, sidewalks like this one in front of Trang Tien Plaza are not very safe for pedestrians

Be predictable!

No matter if you’re driving a car, riding a scooter or just crossing the street on foot, make it so that others can guess what you’re up to. Especially when crossing the street, it’s most important to let others see that you’re doing it. Most vehicles will try to get around you or stop if there’s really no way around. However, there are some vehicles you should always give way, which brings me to my next point…

Respect the hierarchy!

Simply put, everything that is bigger or louder than you, goes first. Truck, bus, SUV, and other car drivers have a habit of feeling a little too important sometimes. Therefore, give them way and be patient. People who honk a lot want to go first. My advice: Just let them go, even it’s sometimes annoying.

Crossing the street in Vietnam
Crossing the street in Vietnam at such big streets might be intimidating at first, but after you learn the unwritten rules it’s not that big of deal

Be smart and use protection!

Okay, here’s an obvious one. It’s not just against the law to ride a scooter without a helmet, it’s also quite dangerous. So, wear a helmet when riding a scooter or even a bicycle. There’s more though. When crossing the street, it’s a good idea to make use of other people crossing with you. Bigger groups have it easier when crossing together (the hierarchy applies here too). Also, if you are riding a scooter, use buses, cars and other vehicles at your flank when turning or crossing the street. No motorbike driver dares to get in the way of a bus here, so they make an excellent shield.

Follow the traffic rules but don’t rely on them!

You should stop at red lights, mostly at least. Many Vietnamese take a traffic light as a mere suggestion, not as a rule. However, the police’s checkpoints are often not easy to spot before it’s too late and it just saves you a lot of trouble. Of course, you also stay safer when sticking to the rules. However, never ever rely on others doing the same. This could quickly lead to an accident.

Rainy weather in Hanoi
During rain, the behaviour of most people in traffic becomes much worse, so be extra careful

Accident happened? Stay cool!

Should you ever get involved in an accident, try to stay cool and solve the matter without a fuss, even if you did everything right. While there are some unfortunate accidents that end fatal, most accidents are just people bumping into each other. Those small ones are usually solved without any police – and that’s the better way. If you, for example, happen to bump into someone in front of you, it’s always your fault. The easiest way to get out of such a situation is to give the other person some money and try to calm him/her down. Don’t start to yell or get angry, it would just make things worse.

Plan longer trips!

Thinking about when you go somewhere, and under what conditions, is another good advice I can give you. Avoid rush hours (usually 7-9 am and 4-6 pm, depending on the road). Especially if you’re travelling by car or taxi, rush hours can easily double or triple the amount of time you need to get from A to B. Also, try to keep an eye out for the weather. Heavy rain means danger and being under the burningly hot sun for too long can give you more than just a nice tan.

So, now that you know what to look out for when travelling across the streets, I hope you can stay safe and enjoy your stay in Vietnam. Despite its rather chaotic traffic, the country is still the place to be for me personally and, let’s be honest, Vietnam wouldn’t be Vietnam with an orderly traffic system, right?

This article was first published in the print issue of Timeout magazine in November 2019. Timeout is the lifestyle and travel magazine of Vietnam Investment Review under the Ministry of Planning and Investment.

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