Motorbikes and Urban Transportation in Vietnam
By Casey Brandon
One of the first things I was told before I traveled to Vietnam was to be careful crossing the streets. In Southeast Asia, traffic is not the same as we are accustomed to in America. The taxi ride from the airport to the hotel made it clear to me that I was very far from home. The sound of horns honking filled the air, motorbikes whizzed by, and multiple times we came so close to hitting others on the road that I had to close my eyes and take a few deep breaths. Having been in Vietnam for a few days now, I feel much more comfortable crossing and navigating the city streets, so much so that I worry American traffic laws will annoy me. The best way I could think to describe traffic and urban transportation here in Vietnam would be organized chaos. To us Westerners, it appears to be pure madness, but after a few days one will come to recognize that it works quite well. One of the reasons for this is the lack of cars, and to fill in for these cars the country drives motorbikes.
When a typical American family has their second kid, a common inclination is to purchase a good ol’ minivan (stereotype). Here in Vietnam, however, families of four will drive around town on a single motorbike, child in front, father driving, mom holding a baby in the back. There are pros and cons to this stark difference from urban transportation in America. If everybody in Vietnam drove a car like most Americans do, the traffic would be unbearable and the air would be unbreathable. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the two biggest cities in Vietnam, already struggle with air pollution. Most citizens wear face masks to protect themselves from the exhaust pollution that already fills the air. As of 2016, Ho Chi Minh City alone has over 7 million motorbikes; the population of the city is just over 8 million. This is putting serious pressure on Vietnam’s transportation infrastructure. Replacing motorbikes with cars simply cannot happen.
Not too long ago, boats were the primary form of transportation for many Vietnamese, especially in the Mekong Delta. However, just like the country as a whole, this is rapidly changing and developing. Dr. Duong Van Ni, a professor from Can Tho University, says that this is because Vietnam is following the track of other developing countries. As Vietnam attempts to compete in the world market, they are increasingly forced to adhere to the wishes of big foreign investors and countries. Japan, for example, would love to see Vietnam build more roads, so that they can sell more of their cars, such as Toyota, Honda and Mazda, to name a few. Currently, car sales come with an extremely hefty tax, whereas motorbikes have none, but this could always change.
As of 2001, helmets are now mandatory for all bikers. However, according to the World Health Organization, approximately 14,000 road traffic deaths occur each year in Vietnam, with the majority being motorcyclists. This is the result of high population mixed with poor enforcement of traffic laws. However, having ridden a motorbike for the first time during this trip, I must say it is quite fun. I see both the negatives and the positives to transportation in Vietnam. As the country continues to develop and citizens become more affluent, it will be interesting to see how their transportation infrastructure changes. One can only hope it remains primarily motorbikes in lieu of cars.