In 2008, Top Gear aired an episode featuring Vietnam. Wearing makeshift helmets and loud holiday shirts, the three presenters rode the Hai Van Pass on local motorbikes. Afterwards, Jeremy Clarkson peered at the camera, and in a voice that sounded like he was talking through a very long pipe, declared that the pass was, ‘One of the best coast roads…(pause for effect)…in the world’. In an effort to dissuade like-minded travelers from doing the same, the episode was banned in Vietnam. Most consulates state that the roads are too dangerous to be attempted by people used to travelling Western conditions, and strongly advise against attempts at riding them. Travel information sites such as Tripadvisor, refuse to post any information endorsing motorbike travel for foreigners.
But how risky is it? The statistics, if they can be believed, they are frightening. In 2013, Vietnam had 22,419 road casualties at a rate per capita almost five times higher than Australia. The real numbers may be significantly higher, as the definition of ‘road casualty’ is vague, and may only count fatalities at the scene and not those that occur later. From this, one can only extrapolate the enormous number of non-fatal injuries that are limping around. The University of Michigan ranks Vietnam’s roads the 25th most dangerous of the 193 countries that it surveyed, making it one of the highest in Asia. It’s sobering stuff.
But, despite all of this, riding a motorbike through Vietnam has surged in popularity. It seems to have become a bucket-list item with young travelers in South East Asia, along side snorkelling with whale sharks, or a selfie at Angkor Wat. Visit any hostel in Ho Chi Minh city, and you will surely see a handful of bedraggled, matt-black motos of dubious Chinese heritage, a red star stencilled on the fuel tank, and a backpack bandaged heavily onto the luggage rack. Most of these are ridden by fearless twenty-somethings, sunburnt in muscle shirts and tiger print pants, the go-pro glued proud on top of the half-eggshell helmet. They can be picked up for as little as US $200, with an unknown legacy of mechanical disease and disability, and with no more guarantee than that given by a smooth talking German or Canadian…or Australian
Alongside the hand-me-down backpacker market, a number of slicker motorbike hire and sales operations have sprung up. When pressed for details, these downplay the dangers and the statistics, but still insist that the individual assumes all risk. They proudly declare that they have never had a serious accident on their watch, heaven forbid a death. They estimate that they send 5-10-15 people per day off through Vietnam, leaving from either Hanoi or HCM. Spread over the numerous operators, that is a lot of naïve Westerners clogging Vietnam’s arteries, and surely not all of the blame can be assigned to Top Gear.
So, what are the risks?
- There is a LOT of traffic. In 2013, Vietnam had 37 million registered motorbikes. At any one time, half of them will be parked on the footpath, and half will be on the road. Of the half on the road, half again will be trying to get to the same place that you’re going. The traffic behaviour is volatile at best – it moves in random directions at variable speeds, much like the angry residents of a disturbed anthill. Just crossing the roads on foot can be a hair-raising experience, let alone trying to ‘becoming one’ with the traffic.
- Vietnam doesn’t have road rules so much as vague outlines. Red lights are nothing more than a timid request. Lane markings are a serving suggestion only. Speed limits are arbitrarily observed. Indicators are a discretionary item and not to be trusted even when they are used. Mirrors (if present at all) are more often used for checking hair and make-up, than checking rear vision.
- Right of way is an abstract concept. In general the following algorithm can be applied. The biggest vehicle has right of way. If both vehicles are the same size, the greater number of vehicles has right of way. If both groups are equally numbered, the louder vehicle has right of way. If both are making equal use of the horn, then the most determined vehicle has right of way. In most cases, who dares, wins. Intersections are bedlam and there is no room for hesitation.
- Road conditions are variable. Once the city is left behind, with its six lane motorways and median strips full of faultless topiary, the road quality deteriorates. Mud and rocks from landslides await on blind corners in the hills. Smooth tarmac might vanish down pot-holes or washouts deep enough to swallow a front wheel. Unmarked flood-ways, with water up to the foot pegs, patiently await. Free ranging buffalo, cattle, pigs and goats choose the bitumen to do their best ruminating. Even dogs will dawdle onto the dividing lines to scratch at their fleas.
- The roads are full of dangerously overloaded vehicles. Motorbikes are the cargo ships of Vietnam and there is no limit to the variety and size of their loads; precarious pyramids of boxes, bags of goldfish, glass panels, ladders held sideways, 100kg of rice or ice or cement, an entire nuclear family. Overloading a vehicle that is inherently frail is like begging for a demonstration of Newton’s laws of motion .
- The bigger vehicles have an attitude problem. Spend a few uncomfortable hours getting thrown against the windows on hair-raising bus and minivan ride, and the blatant sadism of some of the drivers becomes obvious. As a passenger, my toes would curl in my shoes as I watched a motorbike get squeezed off the road by an impatient minivan, or lined up head-on by buses racing to overtake on the zig-zags of mountain passes.
- The weather. The searing heat, white-out fog and belting rain create hazardous conditions in themselves. But in response to the weather, the Vietnamese cover up their bodies and their heads, with hats, hoods, helmets, balaklavas, facemasks, oversized glasses, and plastic raincoats. All of these things restrict their peripheral vision, reaction time and spatial awareness.
- The landscape itself is very distracting. It is very difficult to concentrate on the road and ogle the scenery, with just the one set of eyes that point in the same direction.
- The legalities. Vietnam doesn’t recognise international licences, so most Westerners on the road are probably there illegally. It’s therefore difficult to gauge how much sympathy could be expected from the local authorities, or insurance companies back at home, should a traveler be involved in an accident.
So why even consider doing it? There aren’t any facts or statistics in support of this, so at this point the discussion swings to first-person. I have been asking myself this question since I entered the country a week ago. Despite all of my research and soul-searching, I could really only come up with a single dot point.
- The interminable hours I spent travelling amazing roads on buses, made me realise how little I was seeing, and how much more I was missing. Vietnam is renowned for its strikingly beautiful landscapes, and being independently mobile would allow me to experience it properly, and at leisure. I can only imagine having the freedom to stop on an isolated mountain pass, to sit on a rock and breath in the air. Or having the time to rinse my hands and face at a roadside waterfall and eat a smuggled Vietnamese baguette (or three). Or to wade off the road through the undergrowth in a triple canopy forest, looking up at the sky through spider-web of branches, not another soul around. These are the things that I came to Vietnam to do. Maybe the other Westerners on the roads are similarly motivated. A handful of grainy, high-velocity photos taken through grubby bus windows or at overcrowded view-points are poor substitutes when compared with the opportunity to really drink in the country.
As a footnote, I have spent a lot of time debating the pros and cons. There’s been a lot of hours sitting in cafes, breathing in second-hand cigarette smoke, weighing up a very long list against a very short one. I’ve trawled through dozens of blogs written by those that took the plunge and made it to the other end – all acknowledging the dangers, but raving about their experience. I even watched that Top Gear episode. And I came to the decision to join that club. I’ve bought my bike, found my helmet, lightened my load and mapped out my route – 4000km, south to north. As of tomorrow I leave Ho Chi Minh city in search of the coast and cleaner air.