Learning to Drive Like a Vietnamese Madwoman

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One of the great surprises about traveling in Asia is discovering that there’s always been a biker chick hiding inside me. Never did I ever dream it could be possible, but it’s true.

From the first moment I got on my motorbike in Pai, I was in my element.  Through Laos and Cambodia, I continued my newfound hobby, letting the wind rush through my hair as I sped down highways.

But in Vietnam, I would meet my greatest challenge yet.

After riding to the white sand dunes the day before, my friends and I decided to ride to Ta Cu, a mountain 45 km south of Mui Ne.  The route would take us through the city of Phan Thiet and along the highway.

Now, that doesn’t sound too bad until you consider this:

Vietnamese drivers are totally f*cking insane.

It’s not like complaining about Boston drivers.  Boston drivers are practically Amish compared to the Vietnamese, who are outrageous even by Asian standards.

Buses think nothing of passing each other while swerving into oncoming traffic.  Sometimes buses will pass buses that are already passing others, nearly causing accidents on a regular basis.  And they do it all while honking more or less constantly.

I was going to drive in the middle of all that.

Surprisingly, the drive there wasn’t that difficult.  I loved driving in Phan Thiet – after weeks of learning how to cross the motorbike-filled streets of different Vietnamese cities, finally, pedestrians had to look out for me!

After that, the highway was nearly empty, echoing my days motorbiking the Bolaven Plateau in Laos.  It seemed like my worries had been exaggerated.  Well, not for long.

We stopped at a gas station and Sander went to ask for directions to the mountain.  He came back moments later, a tight grin stretched across his face.

“Well, he doesn’t speak English and he’s carrying a large knife, so we should probably go now.”

We laughed and took our time getting ready.

“Um, guys?” Sander asked worriedly.  A man was walking toward us with a machete in hand.

Never have I ever pulled away so fast.

Eventually, we made it to lovely Ta Cu.  We took a cable car to the top, enjoying spectacular views.

At the top was an impressive giant reclining Buddha – even bigger than the giant reclining Buddha in Bangkok!

Best of all, we were the only Westerners there. The Vietnamese lined up to shake our hands and gawk at Sander’s height.  All in all, a very worthwhile visit.

By the time we left, the sun had begun to set.

And it hit us –

We had to make it back to Mui Ne before sundown. And in order to do that, we would have to drive fast.  Much faster than we drove there.

And we would be facing rush hour traffic.

So began the most exhilarating hour of my life.

My friends and I drove as fast as we could, passing every motorbike that dared to go slower than us.  We honked our horns constantly, Vietnamese style.  And the whole time, giant buses honked as they passed us, sometimes barely leaving a foot of space in between us.

And the sun continued to set in the background.  If we didn’t keep it up, we’d be in total darkness soon.

My heart beat fast the entire time.  We have to make it, I thought.  There’s no way I can drive like this in darkness.

We dodged teenagers on bicycles.  We dodged people riding in the opposite direction.  We dodged kids who decided to just stop in the middle of the motorbike lane.

And through it all, we were celebrities on the road! Western tourists are rare finds on the highway, and motorbikes kept pulling up alongside us, saying hello.  People even leaned out of bus windows and waved to us!

Phan Thiet was much busier than before as well.  Weaving in and out of urban traffic was both a thrill and a delight, and I sped across a line of motorbikes coming from the opposite direction, barely fitting through the tiny gap I found.

“Wow, Kate.  That was adventurous of you,” Mike said later.  I never get tired of hearing that!

I can’t tell you how much fun it was.  It was one of the most exhilarating days of my life.  And there was a huge sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.

I think that I might actually be ready to drive in Hanoi or Saigon. Those cities are literally swarms of motorbikes, but after learning the rules of city traffic, I think I could handle it.

My love affair with motorbikes won’t be ending anytime soon – and that goes for my mates, too!

We did it.

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32 thoughts on “Learning to Drive Like a Vietnamese Madwoman”

  1. Awesome story! As with most days when a challenge (like darkness) seems scary, it usually pushes us to do something extraordinary or at least get a REALLY good story out of it!

    Good luck in Hanoi and Saigon! 🙂

  2. Though riding a bike is a lot of fun on the open road, riding one in Saigon with as little experience as you have is pretty damn crazy!

    Have fun, but keep safe!

  3. Wow, I was nervous just reading this! I give you credit, girl. I’m not sure I could be so brave! I’d probably be squealing and screaming and freaking out the whole time. Sounds exciting, though!

  4. You go girl! Riding a motorbike is something I’ve always wanted to learn, and your story sounds so exciting. I’m pretty sure I still would’ve had a nervous breakdown at some point though!

  5. Earl Squirrelson

    sheers madness, haha, glad you made it back in time…how much do those little bikes cost to hire?

    1. They vary enormously. We paid around $10 per day in Mui Ne, which is a LOT, but they were gorgeous, brand-new bikes. It’s the cheapest in Pai — I think I paid less than $5 a day for an automatic bike.

  6. Oh Kate, please don’t be adventurous on a motorbike in Ho Chi Minh City. Please drive like a little old lady, at medium pace in the middle of the flow. Because you really need to be in the crazy Vietnamese traffic groove to deal with the madmen that zip in and out and the drunks who swerve unpredictably.
    I rode a motorbike in HCMC for the three and a half years I lived and worked there. When I go back now I can’t believe I ever did it. The craziness seems to get worse every month.
    And if it feels like rain… things get even more insane. I tell Vietnamese people they’re not made of sugar, they don’t have to be so paranoid about getting wet.

  7. Yeah there’s something just amazingly crazily awesome about riding a scooter in Vietnam, especially for long distances. A bunch of newfound mates and I rode from Hoi An to Hue and back over the course of a few days and it was simultaneously one of the most scary and most incredible experiences I’ve ever had while travelling.

    Highly recommended. If you’ve got travel insurance.

  8. While I have taken the very big step from “Motorcycles Will Undoubtedly Kill You” to “Thrill Loving Passenger Screaming FASTER” I have not yet done the driving myself. All the bikes we’ve owned have been far too large for my five foot frame, but one of my goals when I move back to Thailand in August is to get one my size and learn to ride it! I’ll remember this post then 🙂

  9. Congrats on perfecting the art of motorbiking. Your thrill and excitement jumped off the pages. Glad you got back in one piece. The wind in your face and honks at your back, that’s a great way to travel. It’s in the genes.
    Be safe. Miss you.

  10. Kate you’ve been rather close to that one gentleman in a couple of your photos now. Is there a story there? Huh? Huh? 😉

  11. Ooh I can’t to give the motorbikes a go in Vietnam. I may stick to the quiet country roads in daylight though. I’m not quite so adventurous obviously…

  12. Hahaha – I think this is the only place I will ever see Bostonians compared to the Amish. 🙂 And yes, Vietnamese drivers are nuts. I almost got hit by at least 30 of them just this afternoon.

  13. The roads in Phan Thiet seemed extremely quiet compared to other places in Vietnam. I saw a few tourists riding bikes when I was there too. Although, I wouldn’t want to ride a bike in Saigon since our bus hit a lady riding a motorbike. It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen. I thought we ran her over!

  14. Good for you! Hanoi was the most insane place, driving-wise, I’d ever visited (I did not go to Ho Chi Minh) and may still be traumatized by incessant honking. 😉

  15. Are they really that bad when it comes to driving? I keep hearing how horrible they drive over there. Glad to see you found that biker chic in you, just be safe those things can be dangerous.

  16. Ah, I’m in Thailand now and just had to pay over 30,000 baht for two tiny tiny hairline scratches I caused when I misestimated a turn in order to get my passport back. What a huge pain in the ass that was. Did you have any damage?!

  17. I feel you!

    I have traveled to many countries where road signs and lane lines are just optional.

    The worst one was definitely Beyrouth in Lebanon!

    A 3-lanes highway turning inte a 5-lanes with people crossing everywhere and even a poor guy dragging his trash can along the HIGHWAY…. INSANE! 😀

    When I took the plane back from Lebanon, I was quite proud of me to have “Made it!” and promised to myself that never EVER I will be renting a car in Beyrouth.

    I have learned my lesson 🙂

    Cheers from a fellow French globetrotter <3

    Myriam @OffToWanderland

  18. Hey, great story! Although I just came across your blog yesterday, I love your adventures and the way you are telling them. 🙂

    I am here in Saigon for 8 months and neither do I have my driver’s license yet nor did I ever sit on a motorbike before. I had 30 minutes in which my aunt told me how to ride this thing and let me drive around in the little streets (Hems) and the other day we went together to the city center and back- in the late evening after rush-hour. That was all preparation I had before throwing myself just right into the traffic with my 21 years-old bike every day. And I made it! By the way, the first time I went on my own was at rush hour, with a 15 years-old girl on the back of my bike (yes, first time on the road, first time having someone on the back which actually makes driving a lot harder especially in Saigon where balance is everything due to that stop and go traffic, slalom-like traffic) and we were hit by a monsoon-like rain.

    I think I took the fast and reckless path.. 😀

  19. Your story is so great and very real! Motorbike driving in Vietnam is not easy, use a scooter is will be easier than motorbike. Vietnamese people hate buses, too. Driver think they are king with a giant vehicle and everyone must condescend. And many people live at provinces doesn’t know English, maybe they had knife or something like that in their hand but didn’t worry, they were doing something when you asked them.

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