Believe it or Not: Laws of the Road
It’s not difficult to recognise the anarchy of Vietnam’s road system - it pretty much slaps you in the face as soon as you walk outside! What is an issue is recognising the rules in all this chaos. What regulations should we all know and follow when riding the roads? Apart from the general rule of “don’t do anything unexpected”, there are quite a few laws and formalities that, believe it or not, are applied and enforced every day.
1. Crossing the street
According to Article 32 of the Vietnamese Law on Road Traffic, pedestrians may cross the road at a traffic light, a specific road marking, or otherwise when it is “safe” to cross. You can’t walk over a median strip, and if you are a child under seven you can only cross traffic if you’re with an adult. It’s also interesting to note that if you are walking your dog you are obliged, by law, to be careful with it and to watch it closely when crossing the street. Also by law, as a pedestrian you have every right to move from one side of a street to another, albeit as last in the traffic hierarchy, but you must never ever “cling to a moving vehicle” or deliberately walk in front of one. As if you would ever want to...
2. You can stop in the middle of the road
According to Article 18 of Vietnam’s Law on Road Traffic, you can be stationary in a road for the time needed to unload or load your vehicle, or “do other things”. Lovely and vague, this law tends to be interpreted as “stop whenever you like, with little warning, and move on whenever you fancy”.
Officially, drivers are obliged to signal when stopping and to stop in an appropriate place. You cannot leave your vehicle unless you’re sure you’re not being dangerous or inconvenient, and you can’t open the door of your vehicle unless you are sure you won’t hit someone. You can’t park or stand your vehicle on a road bend, the crest of a slope, where there is no space, under a bridge, on pedestrian crossings or inside intersections… but in reality? The only real rule is to accept the consequences of whatever you choose to do.
3. No riding tandem
You can’t hang onto another vehicle. Actually I see this quite a lot - someone has run out of petrol and a friendly uncle comes along, sticks his foot on their exhaust and propels them to the nearest petrol station. Nice, right? Well yes but also illegal.
It is also illegal to ride your motorbike right next to your friend and shout to each other as you drive abreast, to ride in those bits of the road that are not for your vehicle (ahem taxi drivers who drive in the motorbike lanes), using an umbrella whilst driving, driving with no hands or standing on your vehicle whilst it moves. I guess this last one is not exclusive to motorbikes - I wouldn’t advise clinging to a car or standing on top of your truck either.
4. You can’t carry your entire extended family
We’ve all seen those impossible piles of people riding the roads on a flimsy two-wheel disaster, and as you would expect this is illegal. According to Article 30 of Vietnam’s Law on Road Traffic, only one passenger is allowed behind the driver of a motorbike, unless a second is required because they are sick, have just done something very wrong and are being escorted to the police or are under 14 years old.
5. Honk Before Overtaking
Though the roads here look like chaos, there is in fact a lot of organisation involved according to Article 12 of the Law on Road Traffic. In small, densely populated areas the expected speed is 20-30km/hr, while the limit for other roads is 40km/hr and on the highway you can let loose to a daunting 60km/hr. In reality, I am yet to see anyone driving at any kind of limit and have begun to very much enjoy the concept of driving as fast as you can in the given space. The speed limit seems unofficially set by the number and nature of the vehicles in front of you.
Road etiquette is also officially set here, and in this case is followed by most drivers with pleasure: overtaking is only to be done after the honk of a horn and a light signal. You cannot, although evidence suggests the opposite, randomly change direction and expect the entire road to react in time. You cannot make a U-turn unless a sign permits it, you can’t drive the wrong way on a road and you must signal and be very obvious if you want to reverse.
If you do something wrong on Vietnam’s roads, then you may find yourself landed with a nasty fine. The list below is set by the government - although many of the fines we’ve seen administered are not so official.