Two of the questions I get asked most frequently from people visiting Hanoi are, “So do you drive a motorbike here?” and when I respond in the affirmative, “How?!”
Hanoi traffic is out of this world. When I first arrived this summer, I remember being absolutely flummoxed as to how anyone could survive on these lawless roads. For an example of Hanoi traffic, check out my boyfriend’s video of him riding his bicycle around the city.
At first glance there are no rules in Hanoi traffic: red lights are mere suggestions, you can drive directly across traffic or even on the wrong side of the road, you don’t need blinkers, and pedestrians cross whenever they please.
But there are some rules to the madness, and here is what I’ve learned.
1st most important rule: Never go more than 40 kmh.
When I first moved here, someone told me that there is never a reason to go more than 40 kmh in Hanoi and they were right. There is just no need when the streets are narrow and a pedestrian could dodge out in front of you at any second. There’s a bit of a myth in Hanoi that people don’t usually get into accidents (ask a Hanoian). This isn’t true. I’ve seen SOO many accidents since arriving in Hanoi; however, I haven’t seen many major accidents. What I think people really mean is that even though accidents do happen, they aren’t usually too devastating because no one is going too fast. Hanoi traffic is slow and trust me, it’s safer that way.
2nd most important rule: Always yield to the person in front of you.
The person in front of you has the right of way ALWAYS. Sure, maybe they weaved across two lanes of traffic to get in front of you. Maybe they’re going the wrong way on a one way and are now coming at you. Maybe they just cut you off by driving on the sidewalk to get around you. Doesn’t matter. If they are in front of you, they have the right of way and YOU yield. If you go into Hanoi traffic thinking, “But he cut me off! I have the right of way. He should move,” you will get into serious trouble. The only person who has the right away is the person in front of you, even if they are only in front of you by a millimeter. Yield to them.
3rd most important rule: Go BEHIND pedestrians.
The safest way to deal with pedestrians is to go behind them. Now, that doesn’t mean swerve dramatically halfway across the road to drive behind them, but if a pedestrian is crossing at the slow and steady Hanoi road-crossing pace and you have the choice of driving behind or in front of them: drive behind.
4th most important rule: Stay out of the way of cars and buses.
This rule applies to pedestrians as well people on motorbikes. Other motorbikes can swerve to get around you and they are more likely to slow down to avoid you. Cars and buses don’t care. People who own cars in Hanoi are rich and couldn’t care less if they were to run you and your piddly little bike off the road. Buses are huge, have bad blind spots, and have got places to be. They won’t stop. Never get in front of a car or a bus and expect them to slow down or stop, because it’s likely they won’t and you will get flattened. I once saw an SUV bump a girl, knock her off her motorbike, and then proceed to honk at her to get out of their way while she was lying on the ground, stunned. Stay out of the way of buses and cars and save yourself the trouble.
5th most important rule: Stop for stoplights.
Other motorbikers won’t. It’s stupid. STOP for red lights.
When I first moved to Hanoi, I had no idea how to handle the traffic…
But it turns out the above five rules apply to pretty much everybody and that’s how things keep moving. Hanoi traffic may seem chaotic, but there are some unwritten rules of the road. Sometimes it’s still terrifying for me to get on my bike, and I have to constantly remind myself to be alert and cautious, but driving here isn’t impossible. If you’re going to drive in Hanoi, use the tips above, and please be alert, be safe, and good luck.
*Note for the wary: I’m a first time motorbiker, and when I first moved here I insisted that I’d never ride a bike, let alone ride one in crazy Hanoi traffic. If you don’t want to ride in Hanoi traffic or feel uncomfortable doing it, you don’t have to. There are other ways of getting around. One alternative are the buses. Yes, they are old and slow, but they’re cheap, safe, and will get you where you need to go (eventually). There are also xe oms (motorbike taxis) and regular taxis. If you don’t want to brave Hanoi traffic, you don’t have to. Despite what some expats say, motorbiking isn’t the end all be all to transportation in Hanoi, and there are ways to avoid it if you really don’t want to have to deal with the headache of Hanoi traffic. And no one will blame you if you want to avoid it.