Motorbikes are the lifeblood of Vietnam. With 12.5 million of them in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi of 45 million nationwide, they ensure ample circulation of the cities’ arteries, flooding the labyrinth of streets with a logic that makes more sense from an overhead perspective.
Right of way is a suggestion, which makes sense when one considers that these megacities are made up of a patchwork of neighborhoods surrounding and fueling the ones with the big buildings.
Often people are just traveling from one side of their street to the other — an internationally commonplace action in theory, but one that takes on a bit more regionality when they’re driving a motorbike piled with 100 cartons of eggs to get there (or 40 cases of bottled beer, or a refrigerator).
On the roads, there is basically one rule: don’t hit the person in front of you. To the disbelief of newcomers, this actually works, as long as one goes along slowly enough. It’s a system with some strengths — unlike the right-of-way system practiced in the West, this one doesn’t occupy any more space than what each motorbike is directly filling.
On a tonal level, motorbikes take space. If you ask someone who’s been here long enough, they will tell you that the megacities of Vietnam were far different places before the “China shock” — the flooding of the marketplace with low-cost Chinese scooters. These budget copies of Japanese two-wheelers helped usher back in the nascent motorbike industry, which had gone dormant in the post-war era.
A famous and possibly apocryphal story tells of a café owner in the post-war “Subsidy Era” building up a cache of rusty Harleys by trading them for bicycles, which was only possible because gas was in such short supply. By the 1990s, bicycles ruled the road once again, and one gets a feeling of supreme nostalgia in seeing these quiet central roads in pictures.
Nowadays, the visceral quality of traffic is hard to ignore. Not that people try — looking down the road, you’ll see most of the roadside café sitters and street sellers oriented towards the traffic. It’s a bigger, loudier, messier incarnation of the market scene, just the way Vietnam likes it.