By Sarah Luth
Transportation in Vietnam has many forms, but by far the main method of travel is by motorbike. City roads are a crowded sea of colorful, honking motorbikes moving in all different directions. There are approximately 42 million registered motorbikes nationwide, with a total population of around 90 million people. Mr. Dat, a young Vietnam National University employee explained that as Vietnamese youth, once you turn 16, “everyone owns a motorbike,” even before getting a drivers license at 18. There is no tax on motorbikes, whereas buying a car requires payment of a large initial tax. Walking around the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and Can Tho, it is easy to spot the cars, buses, and bicycles because they are so few relative to the mass of motorbikes.
Thirty years ago boats were the main mode of travel, particularly in southern Vietnam. With wet soils that frequently changed the ground level, roads made much less sense than river travel. Boats are still widely used, and now fitted with electric motors. However, with rapid development many roads were paved which gave way to the bicycle, followed by an overwhelming shift to the motorbike. Some wonder if there will be a shift from motorbikes to cars, and indeed data suggest increases in car purchasing, but talking to the youth reveals a different future path.
When asked about buying a car, Mr. Dat explained that he doesn’t want one for several reasons. Driving a car would be slower because it is more difficult to maneuver a car through traffic than a motorbike. There is also no space to park cars in the city, and he can use Uber or Grab to go where he likes with friends at a very reasonable price.
I got the chance to ride a motorbike through Ho Chi Minh City with our friend Zenda. Zenda admitted that he hates the traffic. Most of his friends do too.
They all own masks to help protect their lungs from air pollution, and enjoy the more sparse roads of their home towns. On the back of his motorbike, if I had extended my arms I would have touched other people on their motorbikes as we scooted by. Weaving around other drivers and pedestrians, it was impossible to go very fast and many riders used the sidewalks to get through. It’s difficult to say what transportation will look like in Vietnam’s future, but perhaps the densely populated country will avoid following the individually owned car-loving footsteps of America.