Students and professors from the University of Montana learn about how people are dealing with life and livelihoods under dynamic conditions

Motorbikes, Bicycles, Cars, and Boats: Vietnam Transportation 101

By Lauren Miller

IMG_0712Motorbikes zipping past you, horns honking, and near head on collisions. There are really no words to describe the traffic you encounter in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; it is something you have to experience for yourself. From the moment I got into a taxi to drive us to our first hotel, I was holding my breath. The taxi driver weaved in and out of traffic. The lines on the roads didn’t seem to matter and speed wasn’t a factor. Basically, my first perception of transportation in Vietnam was that there are no rules. Traffic lights exist in bigger cities but are rarely used in rural areas. Motorbikes can drive down the middle of the road and on the sidewalk. To be honest, it was at first absolutely terrifying. However, as I learned to trust our experienced drivers, I saw there were rarely accidents.

HCMC trafic

Check out this short film by Rob Whitworth:

Geography has always been something that has interested me, learning about how people are connected through places, culture, and language.Once I made the decision to study Geography at the University of Montana, I focused on community and environmental planning. With Vietnam’s heavily concentrated population, it is a perfect focus area for seeing how densely populated communities are planned, specifically their roadways and transportation systems. Vietnam is the 13th most populated country in the world, with 92 million people in an area smaller than Montana. Each person has his or her own way of getting around, mostly by motorbike. The roads are crowded, but somehow people are able to communicate with each other in a way that works. In Montana when a traffic light goes out, complete chaos ignites, but not so in Vietnam.

IMG_3298In the Mekong Delta, before roads were built, the rivers formed the first transportation system. Under French colonization a vast canal system was built. The French encouraged travel on these waters, which allowed for easy trade and the export of goods.
Today, the livelihoods of many people still depend on the water for boat travel, and many products are transported this way.
For visitors, traveling by boat on the Delta makes for a fun and exciting experience, if you ever get the chance to travel to Vietnam.

IMG_3430In the United States, as compared to Vietnam, the transportation system was designed for the automobile. The roadways and highway system moves traffic steadily and laws are enforced to keep people safe. Without these laws, more accidents would occur on a daily basis. Roads are also designed so driving doesn’t take much thought: when the light turns green, you go. Driving is designed to extract yourself from the outside world, turn on your favorite tunes, and be alone for your commute. Vietnam, however, has a system completely opposite; and it works. Roads are designed simply, usually two lane roads and four lanes in the bigger cities. People use their horns to communicate with one another, informing the other person they are driving behind them. IMG_0709Eye communication is crucial when crossing busy intersections. Unlike the United States, this system involves a heightened sense of awareness and communication between drivers.

Looking into the future, Vietnam will see a rise in automobile traffic as taxes are lowered (now at 300%) and more people will be able to afford their own vehicle. What will Vietnam look like with more cars than motorbikes on the road? Cities will be even more congested and I believe more accidents will occur. IMG_0637The lack of parking infrastructure is already an issue and the space is very limited as to where more can be added. Cities will become even more polluted and Vietnam’s CO2 emissions will rise significantly.

Vietnam is a beautiful country, full of life, and traveling around is an experience all in its own. If you ever travel to Vietnam, riding on the back of a motorbike is one of the most fun and exhilarating experiences and immerses you in to the hustle and bustle of the cities, something you can not experience anywhere else.

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