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

Vietnam: A Country On Two Wheels by Aileen Funk

Before arriving in Ho Chi Minh City I was told of the unbelievable number of motorbikes I would see zipping though the city streets. I accepted the information, not thinking much further about it until I awoke in my sun warmed hotel room on the morning of my first day in Vietnam. Motorbikes_Congested_HCMC_130I lay in bed for a moment listening to the continuous sound of beeping horns and the rumble of small engines. I walked to the balcony door and stepped out into the already sticky and sun warmed air. I looked down to the street a couple stories below and stared in amazement at the clogged street, which somehow managed to hold the swarms of motorbikes weaving amongst one another as they sped along. Every driver and passenger that passed wore a thick, patterned facemasks similar to those worn by medical professionals. Although motorbikes are a mode of transportation that allows for the greatest number of drivers on the road as well as increase affordability, it has negative impacts on the environment.

I stared in scared amazement as one motor bike FamilyOnMotorbike_669buzzed by holding a family of four. The father drove while his young son stood in front of him holding onto the dashboard. The mother sat behind, holding a new baby in her lap. No seat belts, no car seats, no protective metal walls. The element of danger was screaming in my face. I was stunned that parents were so comfortable to transport their families in such an unsafe way. There seemed to be few rules of the road, drivers seeming to ignore the yellow line dividing the lanes if they had no room to drive as well as utilizing the sidewalk as a drivable zone. But similar to any unfamiliar custom or practice, it came to make sense once I learned the historical and cultural significance.

According to Dr. Duong Van Ni from Can Tho Univesity, following the American-Vietnam war, large numbers of people migrated from rural areas to MotorbikeVendorSocTrang_333cities at much higher rates than the government had anticipated. FamilyMotorbike_671City planning in infrastructure was unable to keep up. With no time to widen the narrow roads to support the influx of people, cars were simply not an option for transportation. A realistic alternative was to utilize motorbikes. Motorbikes allow numerous drivers to fit on the small roads while still allowing quick transportation of entire families. With the country trying to lift the majority of its population out of poverty, motorbikes, unlike cars were far more affordable, even allowing for multiple motorbikes per family.

Despite the small size and lack of storage space, the people of Vietnam have become very skillful at loading their motorbikes. FamilyOnMotorbike_382The careful arrangement of numerous friendsMotorbikeWithBaskets_714 and family members on a single bike seemed like such an impressive feat until I witnessed the hauling of goods and other belongings. Both men and women ride by; their bikes piled high with heavy bags of rice or carefully arranged boxes of mysterious goods. Bags and boxes are stacked between feet while hundreds of pounds are strapped onto the bike behind the driver.  Often one hand is used to hold onto one of the many items being transported. I have struggled riding my bike while holding coffee, so I am completely unable to imagine how it is people are able to drive while hauling such extreme amounts of goods and possessions.


Although tailpipe emissions of motorbikes are less than cars and other larger vehicles, Vietnam’s motorbikes are motorbike_sidewalknot as environmentally friendly as one might assume. The air in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City is far from clean, containing dangerous levels of benzene, sulfur dioxide, and PM10. Motorbikes_Child_685Although considered only moderately high, levels of PM10, microscopic dust, are likely to increase in the coming years. Decreasing these emission levels in the near future does not look very promising because along with using lower quality dirty fuel as a way to save money, 30% of Vietnamese vehicles do not pass nation wide emissions tests.

The problem of vehicle pollution is not unique to Vietnam but no other vehicle equally as fast while also staying compact has yet to be developed. Change doesn’t happen overnight as we all very well know. A solution to the issues stemming from the widespread use of motorbikes will not be seen for many years, not until another viable option is available. As of now there is no projected time line for change. My hope is that in the coming years Vietnam is able to find a cleaner transportation option that is also able to increase the safety of the passengers.









3 responses

  1. Hi Aileen! I was thrilled to see that your blog had been posted and I must say it was well worth the wait. I really enjoyed reading it. I found it to be both insightful and informative. It was also entertaining when reading of your reaction to witnessing some truly death defying balance riding. Good work! Love, Mom xxoo

    January 13, 2016 at 4:06 am

  2. What a great story Aileen! And what a fantastic adventure of a lifetime! Enjoy everyday to the fullest. We are all very envious and proud of you!

    Stephen, Ilene, Eliana, and Solomon

    January 13, 2016 at 6:58 am

  3. Is there such a thing as a nation-wide vehicle emissions test? From what I’ve seen, many motorbikes don’t have any lights, working speedometer, front-wheel brake… and many riders don’t have any license or insurance.

    Could you please write an entry on the topic of littering in Vietnam?

    Thank you!



    June 1, 2016 at 9:34 am

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