Are You Insane Enough to Drive in Saigon?
Driving in Saigon requires a high level of skill, yes, but even more than that it requires daring. Bravery. Heck, insanity! Driving a motorbike on the dusty, dense, wild streets of this city is an activity that I would never recommend anyone unless they were stark raving mad, because to join chaos you’ve got to be chaotic. There’s a pulse to the rush of the roads here, and the key to survival is to beat along with it. So what is that beat and how do you play it? Are you insane enough to drive in Saigon? Well that all depends on whether you meet these 12 criteria…
Never drive at a consistent speed
Even if you happen to find the rare patches of un-mottled tarmac that spatter a few roads in this city, you will never drive smoothly in Saigon. This is partly because the roads are like a pimpled teenager, but actually the drivers themselves are far more to blame for that famous stop-start of Saigon traffic!
I don’t know why, but I have never found a driver here who was capable of going in one direction at a fairly constant speed. And because of that, the roads are more like arteries than channels for vehicles. The buzzing mopeds pulse down them like liquid in veins, ebbing and flowing together in a never ending circus of not really knowing what’s going on. At the end of the day it is never point and shoot here - you’ve got to know the beat.
Don’t waste your cash on insurance
Insurance is silly, because...well to be honest I don’t know why and the reality is that no one does, but still everyone I’ve ever spoken to who drives here has told me I’m an idiot for even thinking about insurance. Perhaps the best justification is the wonderfully simple one of “they are insane”, which is why they’re driving here in the first place.
Drive very fast down every alleyway
If there is an alleyway then drive down it. If possible remove your helmet first, and when entering the narrow space ignore all instincts of self-preservation and step hard on that accelerator.
Always chat to someone on the other side of the road while driving
Do not drive with friends without previously establishing a topic of conversation for the drive, and setting yourselves up so that you take up the entire road and have to shout and hoot to be heard. Then drive like a frog, leaping forward with sudden bursts of speed before slowing to wait for your chums, and sway drunkenly so that no-one really knows where you’re going. If possible do this at night, with at least 3 people per motorbike, and pick the busiest possible roads.
Do not wait for traffic lights
Do whatever it takes to avoid waiting for that green light, and if you have to sit and wait make sure you speed off at least four seconds before it finally turns green again. That’s what the countdown is for, right? If you find yourself behind a huge chunk of waiting traffic, simply turn the left hand lane into a proxy-right lane and skip to the front of the queue.
Never EVER qualify for a driving license
Now this is a big no-no. If you are serious about being insane enough to fit in with the majority of drivers on these roads you will not, under any circumstances, invest in a driving license. Those horrible certificates add a level of legitimacy to your situation that no self-respecting lunatic would ever aspire to, and neither shall you.
Most foreigners who come to live in Vietnam either have an invalid license or just don’t have one at all, and to then get one is often considered a waste of time. Not sure what I think since I ride a bicycle (yes, perhaps the most insane choice of them all), but it seems to work for many. Just make sure you can at least turn the thing on before you rev your motor and join the fray.
If it’s clean, fully functional and relatively normal looking, then don’t touch it
Have you ever just stood next to a road in Saigon and tried to count the number of logical looking vehicles that fly past? Ok, so clearly there are some... and the richer you are the more likely you are to be driving something nice, but a lot of the vehicles on Saigon’s roads just make no sense. There is an absolutely fantastic array of miscellaneous moving things peppering this city, from large motorized wheelbarrows to blackened, skeleton-like beasts that might once have been mopeds.
Though this is not really a criteria for joining the Saigon traffic world, if you lack in other requirements and want to make up for it, then driving a bike that looks like something from the dark ages is an excellent way to do so. Ten points if it sounds like a wheezing duck, another five if it has no clear colour and a nice, sparkly 50 if it drops bits as you drive.
Always pile four people onto your motorbike, and then add a baby
Have you ever tried to find out how many people you could fit into your car? Neither have I, which is why I would recommend this excellent exercise of trying to find out how many people you can fit on your motorbike. If you haven’t done one then you might as well do the other, and just like in number six you get extra crazy points for every extra limb you can manage to stuff on.
When drunk, drive anyway
There will be no late night taxi drives, no no...why pay that man to drive you home, when you could be a solo super bee flying home on wings of tequila? Better yet, fly home in a pack. Get your friends together, pile other miscellaneous humans on the back of all available motorbikes, and set off on a night-time thrill ride which may or may not end up in the hospital. Everyone else does it...
Never wear closed shoes and helmets are silly
This extends to clothing too - on no account should you ever wear anything that even vaguely protects your body when driving a moped. Flip-flops are the best motorists’ footwear, and those cheap tacky helmets made of the same packaging your fish came in are ideal for your head. The only appropriate consideration to make when choosing your attire for riding a moped is how much darker will I become if I wear this under the sun, so definitely get yourself a pair of those disgusting salmon coloured socks that everyone covers their feet with. But boots? Pushing it.
Do not be tempted to use your indicator
No indicating please, and in fact no logic at all. There is never any reason to make sense on Saigon’s roads, simply because no one else ever makes sense so the safest policy to have is to assimilate into complete irrationality. Indicating is only permittable if you do it at the absolute last minute, and combine it with a dangerous swerve, rapid acceleration and if possible an illegal run of a red light.
Invest in a large fluffy dog
If you own a large fluffy dog make sure you take it with you everywhere you drive, and if you don’t own one then a particularly still cat will do, or a box of confounded chickens. The idea is that you place this carefully selected animal in the area beside your feet, or drape them over the handlebars, and allow them to loll out their tongues, staring nonchalantly at anyone who drives past and is understandably amused.
So there you have it! Twelve criteria by which you can judge how you will get around in this city. Will you join the rhythmic network of Saigon’s streets? Will you attempt to drive in this city? Are you insane enough to be successful?