I've been riding a motorbike in Vietnam for nine days now, but I've done more than a few hours on the bike total. The language center we were assigned to is about 30 minutes away with no traffic, so it's a bit longer than that in rush hour traffic. Yesterday, it took us over 45 minutes to get to work. Unfortunately, that's not quietly riding in the middle lane listening to talk radio minutes either. It's constantly swerving, dodging, planning ahead, trying not to look back, braking-for-dear-life minutes.
The motorbike is still the main form of transportation in Vietnam, and it's easy to see why: high taxes on cars and traffic does not favor getting anywhere in a car. Most people in private cars seem to have drivers to help deal with the traffic. You have to be pretty high up the economic chain to have a car, so the vehicle of choice for most middle class Vietnamese people is a 150cc Honda Sho, a big cushy cruising scooter.
We rented a rented a Yamaha Nouvo (pronounced nouveau) 125cc with a constantly variable transmission. It's the "Black Knight" Edition, which means it comes with some sweet graphics and I get to quote Monty Python endlessly while riding it. It has a little over 67,000 km, so it definitely has it's problems (it will stall out if you have the lights and/or turn signals on, which can be concerning when you're trying to edge across an intersection). Overall, it's a solid bike and it's been great for getting me and Hope to work and everywhere else in HCMC.
Riding a motorbike in Vietnam is a harrowing experience to say the least, but it's also been one of the most enjoyable experiences I've had so far. It is insane amounts of fun to gun the little 125cc engine to grab a spot in traffic or to pass the guy carrying 19 cases of beer/three mattresses/12-foot tall flower arrangements/25 gallons of gas/their whole extended family on a 70cc Honda Cub scooter. I wish I could say it's been completely smooth, but we did have a tumble the other day in the rain when we bumped a lady who was sitting in the middle of the intersection, in the rain, in the dark, with no lights on. I was so focused on panic stopping that I forgot to put my feet down. Hope and I just slowly tipped over as she calmly drove away. I still have no idea what she was doing. We've had a couple of bumps besides that (some our fault, some from other people) but nothing serious, and it is a lot of fun.
Nine days later and I'm able to see traffic better, to know which way people will go, and what I can do safely and reasonably. It doesn't always make sense because manuevers that would be dangerous in the United States are actually the safest way to get where you need to go here, especially when turning left across oncoming traffic. You can't stop and wait for a break that will never come, so sometimes it's better to just cross the street ahead of time while they're stopped at a light and ride in the left lane. When I'm at a loss of what to do, I just follow anyone else going my way. Buses and taxis can drive you crazy with erratic movements, but they do help block traffic when you need them to help you get through.
It's not always easy and it's not enjoyable in the rain and during rush hour, but riding a motorbike is a necessary experience while you're in Vietnam. Even riding on the back of one will help you understand how the traffic works and add to your understanding of daily life here.