How I learnt to drive a scooter while teaching in Vietnam

Picture this: We’re dust-caked and sand-blasted, fresh from riding the fabled Red Sand Dunes of Mui Ne, which rise and undulate along the south-central coast of Vietnam, north out of Ho Chi Minh City. We pull up calm and quiet at a local eatery on the edge of town. The proprietors smile and welcome us in the typically Vietnamese way. They bring menus and eagerly start chatting. One says we should move our scooters another meter in from the roadway. A friendly gesture – he doesn’t want them to get clipped by passing cars.

I move my scooter, no problem. Suddenly, my buddy’s ride comes flying past me, purring and screeching like a possessed robot. It hurls straight into the frontispiece of the smiling family’s restaurant. Doors and windows, food cabinets and glass tables smash and explode. Soy sauce drips and noodles are flung high into the sky. My travel buddy is left on the ground, mouth agape in disbelief.

It was an expensive moment on our travels through the country. But it showed me the importance of being uber-careful when riding a scooter here!

Teaching in Vietnam
Crazy Motorbikes, Vietnam | © Mikhail Dubov/Flickr

Scooters in Vietnam

Anyone who’s traveled Vietnam from head to toe, going from the jungle-dressed mountains of Sa Pa to the beautiful beaches of Da Nang and the majesty of the Mekong Delta, will know just how ubiquitous scooters and motorbikes are.

From the quietest country roads weaving between the green mountains of Ba Vi to the inner-city streets of Ho Chi Minh City, two-wheeled modes of transport are everywhere. They come in all shapes and sizes, from rickety vintage bikes to tenor-throated Harley Davidsons (although those are just a tad rarer!). Some whizz and dodge through the steady stream of traffic on the ring-roads of Hanoi, others galumph like Asian elephants with the weight of entire night-time market stalls on their back.

Yep, pretty much all the locals ride scooters here! And folks teaching in Vietnam love them too…

Do I need to ride a scooter while teaching in Vietnam?

Not at all.

Scooters offer a great way for both locals and ex-pats to buzz around their areas. Folk teaching in Vietnam can use them to hop to work and back easily, or to hit waterfalls, local temples, beaches and the like on the weekends. What’s more, they can withstand the choking traffic that congregates in Nam’s major towns (and in many of its smaller ones too!), simply by being small and nifty and agile enough to weave around the likes of hulking VIP buses and taxis.

That said, riding a scooter here is not for the fainthearted. And, thanks to the seemingly flagrant disregard for traffic rules, is never entirely safe either. You just have to weigh up whether you think it’s for you. Are you savvy on the road? Have you ridden before? Can you handle the bustling streets of megalopolises like HCMC (and I mean bustling when I say it!)?

Teaching in Vietnam
Viet Nam, Hà Nội, Hoàn Kiếm – lane | © garycycles8/Flickr

How I learned to ride a scooter while teaching in Vietnam…

When I first came to Vietnam I was at the end of a long tour through all of Southeast Asia. I’d largely followed the much-trodden Banana Pancake Trail, going from the temple towns of northern Thailand through the wilds of Laos, hitting tubing-mad Vang Vieng (back when VV was tubing mad!), and then to the east coast of Indochina. As for most of my fellow travelers, scooters had figured heavily.

That means I was no stranger to the two-wheeled transporters when I arrived in Nam’. I’d navigated the empty routes around Mae Hong Son and explored the empty backroads of central Laos. I’d never seen anything like Hue, or Hoi An before though. And Ho Chi Minh was on another level. I realised I had to learn how to ride all over again!

I have my aforementioned travel buddy to thank for alerting me to the dangers of riding in Vietnam. I started scootering here extremely tentatively. I always respected the flow of traffic (this is super important in Nam’). I soon realised that the streets of Vietnamese cities worked more like rivers than roads. There was a constant flow of metal and engine that needed to be felt rather than checked, trickled into rather than simply joined.

I started easy and small after my friend’s accident. I chose some quiet and laid-back destinations to hone my scooter skills away from the urban fray. Around the backstreets of Mui Ne was perfect. As you head inland to the west of the sparkling coast, the sands take over, punctuated with the occasional burst of jungle. The roads are relatively new and tarmacked evenly, and it’s possible to head all the way to the far-flung White Dunes riding only newly laid paths. That made it easy for me to get my skills and confidence back after witnessing so many a scooter catastrophe – and also offered a chance to explore Mui Ne’s more off-the-beaten-track recesses!

Teaching in Vietnam
Mui Ne Dunes | © JRF

When it comes to city riding, the simple fact is that it’s not for everyone. Ho Chi Minh City (a real hotspot for folk heading for a year’s teaching in Vietnam) is nothing short of pandemonius. Its streets are always jam packed with other riders. And then there are those roundabouts! Still, it’s all a matter of dipping your toe in first, going slow and gaining confidence.

Try to head to some quieter areas of the city before jumping in and riding around the centre. Use it as an excuse to see some more off-beat attractions (I can thoroughly recommend the Dam Sen Water Park just a little to the west of the center). Try to get used to one route around town first, practice it and then use it to gain knowledge of how the HCMC traffic system works. I’m sure the same practice would apply in cities like Hue and Hanoi too.

Remember: scooter riding in Nam’ isn’t for everyone! If you don’t want to add stress to your experience of teaching in Vietnam, then I recommend avoiding it. Rickshaws and local transport are both cheap, and it’s possible to get most anywhere on the tourist trail with ease these days. Finally, if you do chose to ride, I advise low gas and slow movements to begin with. Safety first, right folks?

If you’re interested in teaching in Asia or teaching in Vietnam, then be sure to check out our offer of internships on the continent! Got something to add? We’d love to hear about it in the comments…

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