rented scooter in Hoanoi

The Hanoian Scooter

Settling into expat life can be a challenge, wherever you decide to live. Making new friends, keeping in touch with old ones, adapting to new food (this adaption may take place predominantly in the bathroom…) and getting used to the speed of the city. In Hanoi, that speed is fast paced. It seems everyone has somewhere they need to be, and they need to be there 10 minutes ago. When you mix this pace with a dire lack of public transport and low income, the result is streets filled with, what the Vietnamese like to call, motorbikes. To me, they will forever be called scooters. And the sound will remind me of hair driers and 17 year old boys from the town I grew up in, smoking and trying to get an adult to buy them some cheap booze. Having spent most of my teen years perpetually teasing anyone that ever mentioned in passing the notion of buying a scooter, a little piece of me died when asked for the first time in Hanoi “do you have a scooter yet?”.

This question, this insult, seems to be everywhere in Hanoi. At job interviews I’ve been told they have concerns as I don’t have my own transport – apparently a push bike doesn’t count as transport here. Almost everyone I know has one, and the people that don’t are considering the change. On a night out drinking, people will happily hop on their Honda Win, put a couple of their friends on the back, and head on to the next bar, party, or place to crash – whether that may be on a pillow or a pavement. Those left without a ride form a group of outcasts, left to wander the streets until they can find a taxi and can rejoin the party of much cooler kids. And yet, to date everyone I know with a scooter makes their way around the city, in all types of traffic and levels of sobriety, with very little mishap. It seems I’m asked this question almost daily, or at the very least, by every new person I meet. As the question keeps coming at me, and the accidents I was so sure were a daily part of a motorist’s life in Hanoi remain mythical, I’ve found myself asking “why don’t I have a scooter?!”

Scooters in Hanoi, Old Quarter

Scooters line the pavements of Hanoi’s Old Quarter

My fear of taking the plunge into vehicle ownership is not particularly complex. It starts, quite obviously, with the chaotic streets of Hanoi. There is no order to the roads, which should be dangerous. There should be screeching breaks, ambulance sirens, and crunching metal at every corner. Yet there’s only the sound of beeping horns. From the outside, it looks like the whole system could fall apart at any time, any minor misjudgment could end in disaster. On a scooter, though, everything seems to make sense, like a calm in the eye of a storm. It’s truly bizarre. Yet, I maintain the roads are not safe. And rightly so: just because I don’t see any crashes, doesn’t mean they aren’t happening. According to WHO*, in 2010 Vietnam had an estimated 21,651 fatalities on its roads, that’s 24.7 per 100,000 people. Let’s take a look at some other countries around the world to see just how significant that is.

Country Estimated number of road accident fatalities Number of deaths per 100,000 Percentage of motorized 2/3 wheeled vehicles
Vietnam 21,651 24.7 no data
Lao 1,266 20.4 74.4%
Cambodia 2,431 17.2 66%
Thailand 26,312 38.1 73.5%
Brazil 43,869 22 24.8%
Argentina 5,094 12 20.3%
Chile 2,098 12 5.3%
Columbia 7,225 15 39.1
France 3,992 6 23.9%
Germany 3,830 4 19.4%
Greece 1,385 12 30.6%
Italy 4,379 7 30.3%

Unfortunately, the WHO doesn’t provide the vehicle type for their estimations in Vietnamese accidents, but I would imagine it would follow a similar trend as the other SE Asian countries listed. That is to say, at a guess, a significant percentage are likely to be scooter users. All this is to say, the chances of having a rather unpleasant ending to a motorbike ride in SE Asia are very high.

Slightly lower on my list of “why I shouldn’t own a scooter” is my lack of any real navigation skills. Imagine, if you will, that I’m happily scooting among the throngs of other road users, mainly concentrating on not dying, only to realise I should have turned left 500 metres ago. Now in a panic of staying alive and not getting so irretrievably lost I never find my way home again, passers by lay witness to a hopeless blonde girl in floods of tears, probably screaming at the bombardment of angry beeps whilst travelling at little over 8 km/h on Yen Phu. It’s an ugly sight at best, and whilst I’m sure it would make a hilarious story in many, many years to come, I’m not sure it would be worth the trauma.

Driving a scooter for the first time

My first attempt at driving a scooter, down a very strait and quiet road!

My next worry continues from this. Bring back that image of me crying on a scooter, now add in some torrential rain. Monsoon season is on its way to Hanoi, and I for one can think of about a million other things I would rather do than be on a scooter in a monsoon.

Finally, if owning a car in the UK taught me anything, it’s that mechanical failures are endless. When I think about buying a little Honda, I imagine myself speeding out of the city to explore the surrounding countryside. I’ve got the Beach Boys playing through my iPod, the sun is shining, beautiful countryside is flying past me, but suddenly something unexpected happens. My sweet, little Honda begins to spit and splutter, until its final gasp of life escapes from its engine, and I’m left alone on the side of a road, miles from anywhere in the burning sun, with only a small bottle of LaVie. Mechanical failures, you can always count on them to happen when they would be the most inconvenient.

Slightly less scooter related, is the fact that I rather enjoy taking the bus. Sure, it’s annoying waiting for it, and it can be insanely busy and sweaty, but it’s also fun. I get to meet all sorts of people I never would on a scooter, and watch nice little scenarios play out among locals. Of course, it comes with some worries, like I might arrive late to a lesson, so I give myself considerably more time to commute than someone on a scooter, but I’m ok with that. And the bus is mega cheap, 7,000 Dong one way, and less if you get a bus pass.

Yet, even after considering the dangers of the roads, the weather and my love of public transport, I still have a little voice at the back of my head telling me I should get my little Honda and listen to the Beach Boys. For all my logic, reason and self-preservation I am still drawn to the ease of owning that scooter. And I suppose that is the biggest draw, it’s just so easy. Buying a scooter is easy, riding one is easy, getting around the city is easy, commuting, visiting friends, doing the food shop. Easy, easy, easy. And do you know how I know it’s so darn easy? Everyone is doing it.

This begs the question: If the roads are so unsafe, why is everyone doing it? I think there are a few main reasons, the first being the previously mentioned lack of public transport. There are buses, and a new train line is set to open later this year. It’s not enough, though. Taking the bus across the city is time consuming, and usually there is a change or two involved, which also means waiting two or three times at the bus stop. Why bother, when you could hop on your scooter and be there in 20 minutes?

And it’s cheap. So cheap it’s painful. I can take a taxi the 8km from the Old Quarter to Tay Ho for about 80,000 Dong (about 3 GBP), which is incredibly cheap. Yet here in Hanoi this is considered a huge amount for getting around. People are forever telling me how taking a taxi everywhere gets super expensive, and when compared to the cost of a scooter it’s hard to argue. It would be easy to pick up a second hand scooter for around 250 USD (170 GBP), and you’d probably put 100,000 Dong (4.5 GBP) in the tank per week. Scooters are very cheap.

The biggest reason, I think, is that it just makes the city so much more accessible. As an example, today I’m at home writing. I considered going out to one of the book shops for a little nosy, but then realised it would take at least half an hour to get there. That would be over an hour out of the day, travelling there and back, just to wander around a book store for 15 minutes. If I had a scooter, I could have been there and back in no time.The final nagging question I find myself asking is “am I missing out on some element of Hanoian life by not having a bike?”. It certainly seems so. Whilst getting on a bike drunk with your friends at 2am is undoubtedly stupid and dangerous, it is a part of life here. Heading 100km out of town on a sunny weekend is all part of the experience. It doesn’t matter that you’ll be riding along wearing a cotton t-shirt and a piece of plastic on your head as protection. That’s what life is like here in Vietnam. And isn’t that why we, as expats, come here, to experience life as a local? To throw away our over-protective Western health and safety guides and embrace a less bubble-wrapped life?

Riding through the countryside on the back of a scooter

Perhaps I should stick to riding on the back of the scooter.

Ultimately, for me, I doubt I will get one. Perhaps I’ll hire one for a month, scare myself with a near collision and vow never to drive one again. Or I’ll spend so much time trying to decide if I should get one or not, but the time I finally make a decision it’ll be coming to the end of our time here and, therefore, be a little pointless.

*The figures used are taken from two separate tables on the WHO website. The figures in both WHO tables are projected from a previous study.

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