The buzz of motorcycles on the city streets is one of the first things you notice about Saigon. Here, the nimble motorcycles expertly weave their way between hulking buses and hapless cars stuck in traffic.
From retro vespas in candy shades to rusty skeletons strapped down with market goods, you could say that the motorcycle cuts across all social classes in the country.
Scooters are the vehicle of choice in transporting items like water jugs, sacks of rice, bags of chickens or families of five. Vendors use them to hawk goods as well, selling everything from music CDs (with built in speakers at the back of the bike), street food (with glass cases displaying food), or even live puppies in a cage. You have to admire their incredible balance.
Motorcycles aren’t just a “guy thing” either. While you don’t see a lot of female riders in Manila, in Vietnam, businesswomen ride on their way to work, and heels and miniskirts don’t seem to be a hindrance to getting around.
I spotted a very pregnant woman driving a motorcycle with one hand while talking on a mobile phone, and mothers and grandmothers taking toddlers for rides on board their own customized seats (with seatbelts).
To truly appreciate the motorcycle culture, you have to experience riding one, preferably during rush hour. Most tourists get a taste of this via a xe om (motorcycle taxi). But it’s way better if you rent one for yourself and navigate the beehive of activity that is Saigon.
Unlike in the Philippines, where riders speed away like there’s no tomorrow, a drive around Saigon’s city streets could be described as leisurely because of the speed limit and numerous stoplights on every intersection.
I think it takes more skill to drive a car than a motorcycle in Saigon. When scooters swarm every available space in the streets, other vehicles have no choice but to give way. Riders have perfected the art of swerving and are seemingly oblivious to oncoming vehicles. There’s strength in numbers, and the army of motorcycles really rule the road.
Since so many people use motorcycles, accidents are bound to happen. According to Hung, a local tour guide, an average of 40 people die a day due to traffic accidents (many of whom were listening to music on their headphones while driving). In 2010 alone, they lost an entire city. We witnessed one near accident when our tour bus grazed a motorcycle whose driver didn’t slow down when the bus was backing up. The driver swore angrily at the bus driver, who just apologized. A tourist on our bus commented that in the Philippines, the issue would have probably been settled with guns. :p
Though it may seem almost suicidal to drive here, you’ll soon find out that it’s the best and cheapest way to get around. For roughly P400 a day (for 2 people), we were able to ride around town and visit the Reunification Palace, the Notre Dame Cathedral, Central Post Office, War Remnants Museum and Ben Thanh Market. (more on these spots in a separate post)
Trivia about Motorcycles in Vietnam:
- There are over 20 million motorbikes in Vietnam, more than 3.5 million of which can be found on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, which averages at nearly one motorbike for every two persons. (Source: SEA Backpacker)
- Motorcycle taxis are known as xe om (which literally means “bike hug”) because a rider needs to hold on tightly to the driver as they zip through the crowded streets. (Source: VietValueTravel)
- According to tip sharing site TravBuddy.com, it’s best to negotiate rates before riding a xe om. Usually, a 5-10 minute ride (1-2 km) should cost 10,000 VND ($0.5) & a ride of 30 minutes (5-8 km) should cost about 30,000 VND ($1.5).
- Anybody can become a xe om driver – all they need is a motorbike and driving capabilities. They aren’t even required to have a license. You can spot xe om drivers on any corner, any street and at any time.
- Many travel agencies on Pham Ngu Lao street, the backpackers district, rent out motorbikes for as little as $3-5 a day. Hotels/inns can also arrange for bike rentals.
- The urban speed limit ranges from 30-40 km/hour while the rural speed limit ranges from 40-70 km/hour. Both speed limits are said to be routinely ignored.
- A brand new Vespa in Vietnam costs roughly 110 million VND (or about P230,000).
- The “Easy Riders of Vietnam” tour was rated as one of the 7 epic journeys in Southeast Asia by South East Asia Backpacker Magazine. The two-day tour from Dalat to Nha Trang costs $75 and can take you on a journey to see the “real Vietnam.”
- Motorcycle culture has become a fashion statement in the country, with customized helmets catering to women, teens and children. Check out this cool denim “Dolce and Gabbana” helmet I got to wear when we rented a motorcycle to tour the city.