Ask a visitor to Viet Nam to list their first impressions and I will guarantee that ‘the motorcycles’ will be among their top five. The importance of the ‘moto’ to urban or rural living in Viet Nam is unarguable.
Journalist Patti McCracken sums it up perfectly;
‘To the Vietnamese, a motorbike is not just a vehicle, but a bionic limb. A magic carpet. A personal jet pack, able to propel them from their living rooms (where many park their bikes) to any doorstep. Legs and feet are backup forms of transport, used only as a last resort.’
Motos permeate Vietnamese society. It’s estimated that there are over 20 million, or one for every four Vietnamese. Virtually all motos are small-engined, lightweight runabouts that can be easily maneuvered, parked and, most importantly, mended when something breaks. They provide Viet Nam’s disproportionately young population with incredible mobility that helps drive its growing economy and vibrant society.
From the windows of our taxi, I thought the motos seemed to personify the chaos and noise of the big city, as they buzzed round us on Hanoi’s busy roads. But when we took to the streets on foot, I realized that motos were the stitching that helped keep the urban fabric together. Parked safely on every sidewalk, motos become impromptu recliners for their owners, especially at the key intersections where folk love to gather. Food is cooked and eaten on the sidewalk throughout the day, often in front of repair shops and ‘hole-in-the-wall’ moto parking garages. When school’s out, small children don their helmets and leap on their parents’ machine, often squeezing between a younger sibling and several bags of groceries. And who needs a taxi after a pleasant night out when a willing relative with a moto is able to respond to your phone call and collect you from outside the restaurant?
In the country, the patterns are a little different but just as compelling to observe. I was amazed by the endless stream of motos, coming and going, as our car travelled the 30 or so kilometers along the narrow rural road that linked a string of tiny villages. This was not the sleepy country life I was so used to in Europe or America, but a bustling self-contained economy where motos were used for carrying people and every kind of product and produce imaginable from hamlet to hamlet.
It is inevitable that safety is an issue when considering the motorcycle as a form of transport. Traffic accident statistics tell us that Southeast Asia is one of the more dangerous places in the world to ride a motorcycle. Traveling along Viet Nam’s Route 1A, where speeding trucks and buses share the road with motos and bicycles, it is surprising that there aren’t more accidents. In the cities, though, I felt relatively safe once I understood the traffic flow and the avoidance procedures every moto rider must adopt if he or she is to get anywhere in town.
No-one will stop for you as you cross the road but they will avoid you with the minimum of fuss and a good deal of skill. It takes courage to launch oneself off the sidewalk into four lanes of oncoming motos. The technique is to walk calmly and steadily across the road, only stopping in an absolute emergency. The riders flow around you magically, using their horns as a kind of sonar, so that, by the time you’ve reached the other side, you want to turn round and cross again, the nervous observer now transformed into wholehearted participant.