Scootering around South-East Asia: advice

Scootering into the Mekong Delta from Ho Chi Minh City

Scootering into the Mekong Delta from Ho Chi Minh City

Observant (or perhaps I should just say ‘persistent’) readers may recall that a while ago, I made fun of the traffic situation in Vietnam.  As you may have noticed from my other blog posts about our time in Vietnam, and in fact from Thailand as well, we actually spent quite a bit of our time riding around on scooters.  So I guess you can conclude from that combination one of two things.  Either (a) we’re just crazy and were happily exposing ourselves to risks we were lucky to survive, or (b) it’s actually not all that bad.  I’ll leave the choice up to you.  Arguing in favour of (a) there’s certainly the fact that as you wander around South-East Asia, you see a lot of blank-faced looking tourists sporting road rash or other evidence of recent scooter-related injuries.  On the other hand, in favour of (b), we didn’t have any problems at all…

Anyway, the decision of whether to scooter or not to scooter is entirely up to you.  All I’ll say is that if you’re game for it, it’s an incredible way to experience the area – and you can go a lot of places you otherwise wouldn’t, as well as going places you otherwise would, but under better circumstances (directly, at your own pace, and without with a whole other busload of people).

If you do decide to scooter around, here’s a random assortment of advice:

  • First and most important:  be aware that what you’re doing is probably not entirely kosher.  Unless you’ve gone to the trouble of getting a local Vietnamese licence, your scooter adventures in Vietnam will be not entirely above board.  That doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to hire a scooter – far from it.  Nor does it mean you’re going to get in trouble with the law – Vietnamese police are not going to pull you over for a licence check, and even if they did, a small handful of local – or better yet, US – currency would solve that problem.  But you need to be aware that if you’re involved in an accident, then (a) it will be your fault, even if it wasn’t, and (b) your travel insurance will not cover you.  Just for the sake of hammering it home:  by hiring a scooter and riding around, you are taking a risk, and it’s a risk that your travel insurance doesn’t cover.  If you’re not OK with that, that’s fine:  don’t do it.  Obviously it’s a risk that we considered carefully and decided we were willing to accept.
  • Next on the must-remember list:  get a decent bike!  There are an absolute metric crapload of bike hire places everywhere you go in Vietnam and Thailand – your hotel/hostel will almost certainly rent bikes, as will the café down the street, etc.  That means you have plenty of choice.  Take advantage of it.  The variety of rental places is matched only by the variety of quality in the bikes that they rent out.  Don’t sweat the little things:  very very few bikes will have a working odometer, for example.  But don’t rent a bike until you’ve checked that the brakes are genuinely useful (front and back – I kid you not, we had one rental place try to explain that it didn’t matter that the front brake didn’t work, at all, because the back brake was just fine, so where’s the problem?) and that the headlights, indicators and horn work.  A working fuel gauge is also a nice-to-have, but you can always look in the tank if you need to.   A working speedo is handy, although in any case you’ll be basing your speed entirely on what you feel comfortable riding at given the road and traffic conditions, not on the number on the dial, so it’s less important than you might think (coming from a driving-in-Western-countries background).
  • On a similar note:  if you are tall, be aware that some bikes will not be big enough for you.  It would be very embarrassing to fall over while turning left out of the rental garage’s driveway because the handlebars got stuck on your leg and you couldn’t turn back nor get your foot down onto the ground.  At least, err, I imagine that would be very embarrassing.
  • Just so you know what to expect from the rental process itself:  you will be asked to leave your passport as surety (normally one passport is fine even if there’s a group of you hiring bikes, although some places will want one per bike).  If that’s a problem (perhaps because you’re expecting to need your passport for your accommodation during the hire period, or perhaps because you’re unnecessarily paranoid about losing your passport), some places will let you leave large amounts of cash instead.  (Obviously if you do that, ask for a receipt so you can be sure to get your money back!)  Some places will have you sign a detailed contract for the bike hire – chances are that indicates that this is a fairly professional outfit, so that’s a good sign.  Other places will just hand you the keys.  No problem.
  • I recommend you take a business card or something else with the hire place’s details on it.  If something goes wrong with the bike, or if you have an accident, you’ll want a phone number to ring.  If nothing else, just take a photo of the store front (assuming that there’s a prominent name and phone number on it), so that you can look it up on your camera if needed.  While you’re at it, probably note down the address, or better yet, put a pin/star on the place on your smartphone’s maps application, so that you can find the damn place to give the bikes back once you’re done.
  • Before you even get on the bike, spend some time just watching how traffic flows.  Notice that when pedestrians cross the road, the traffic flows elegantly around them – you will be expected to do that too.  Notice that despite the initial appearance of complete and utter chaos, everyone is calm and proceeding gently, with deliberate movement and no sudden changes in course.  You will be expected to do that, too.
  • You will quickly observe that the concept of lanes is a relatively ephemeral one in South-East Asia.  The concept of a lane is really only important insofar as you need to realise that the verge is considered one too.  Do not think of a lane as “yours”.  If you are riding along happily as the only person heading in your direction, and there is traffic coming towards you on the other side of the road, don’t be surprised when that traffic pulls out onto your side of the road – on a direct collision course – in order to overtake, or to avoid a pothole, or possibly just coz your side of the road looks prettier.  There is a perfectly good verge to your right, and as a scooter, you are expected to veer onto it to avoid oncoming traffic in your lane.  Deal with it, and move on.  In fact, you will actually spend most of your time riding on the verge anyway.  It’s much safer there, and as an added bonus, it’s a good spot to overtake larger traffic.  (Well, undertake, strictly speaking, but that’s not an important distinction in this part of the world.)
  • Be aware that the road quality is generally terrible.  There will be a lot of potholes, and you will spend a lot of your time looking out for them.  It will be tiring.  Factor this into your planned itinerary – you will be thoroughly and absolutely exhausted after the concentration of a long day’s riding.
  • Speed limits are meaningless.  Ignore them – everybody else does – and ride at a pace that you feel comfortable and safe at.
  • Wear appropriate clothing.  Scooters are less bad than motorbikes if you fall off, since you typically won’t end up with the bike sliding over your ankle as the latter gets ground away into the asphalt.  But nonetheless, it’s a good idea to wear long pants and actual shoes.  Don’t be the dipshit riding around in board shorts, bare feet and no shirt.  Not only do you look like an idiot, but you are one.
  • The hire places will have a range of helmets for you to choose from.  They will all be shit.  Try to choose the least shit one that fits.  And wear the damn helmet on your head, you stupid git.  I don’t care that you don’t think you look cool enough unless the wind is gushing seductively through your hair.  Your helmet is probably not going to perform as admirably as you might wish for in an accident anyway, but it’s definitely not doing you any good on your arm.  If it’s not properly fixed onto your head, it might as well be shoved up your arse.
  • A helmet with a full face visor is a godsend, if you can find one.  You probably can’t, though.  If you don’t normally wear glasses, make sure you have sunglasses.  As the sun goes down, insects will come out.  Having insects flying into your eyes at 60km/h is unpleasant.  Even without the insects, there will be plenty of dust:  we’re not talking about autobahn-quality road surfaces here.  Without glasses, you will be crying.  A lot.  The absolute most difficult and dangerous experiences I had on a scooter in South-East Asia were shortly after sunset, when it was too dark for me to continue wearing sunglasses safely, and I had to keep riding despite all the shit flying into my eyes.  It was fine, but it was unpleasant and it was painful, and we would have to stop every half hour or hour just so that I could wipe the gunk out of my eyes and then sit with them closed for a while.  After a couple of our longer rides, my eyes literally didn’t stop watering for two to three days.  Aside from other safety concerns, this is an excellent reason to ensure that you have returned before sundown.
  • Make sure you know roughly where you’re going, and roughly how long you think it will take you.  When it takes you longer than that, adjust your estimates for the rest of your day’s travels accordingly.  Do not expect that you will be able to get to your destination as quickly as Google Maps tells you you will.
  • Speaking of which, have a local SIM card with data (they are stupidly cheap) and use a decent maps application on your smartphone.  (So, probably not Apple Maps.)  Google Maps is great, and for a lot of the world you can take maps offline.  Nokia Maps (called ‘Here’) is available for non-Nokia phones now too (iOS definitely as I write this, and probably Android too, by the time this post actually gets published), and is even better.  It is unbelievably liberating not to have to worry about getting lost because you have a smartphone and GPS.  “Hey Chris, were we supposed to take that turn about 3km back?”  “Dunno Sam, how about we pull over and check where the hell we are?”  …  “Well bugger me, how the hell did we get over there?”  *shrug*  “About face and take the next left, then?”  “Yeah, sounds about right.”
  • Don’t be scared when you hear honking behind you.  If you’ve watched the Top Gear Vietnam special, you probably have the impression that there are mad bus drivers swerving all over the road honking aggressively at everyone to get out of their way.  Actually, if you hear someone honking their horn behind you, they’re probably just letting you know that they’re there and/or that they’re overtaking – so that you don’t pull out in front and splat yourself under their tyres.  Far from aggression, the honking is actually to make things safer.  If it bothers you, just relax – you’ll get used to it.  Ideally, you’ll start doing it yourself when you’re overtaking someone and you’re not sure they know that you’re there.

Hope that helps.  Any other advice welcome in the comments below.

Safe travels, happy scootering.

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