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Vietnam eats, sleeps, and dreams on motorbikes

Evidence of “moto” madness: A family of four on a speeding cycle sharing a bucket of fried chicken as they go.

By Patti McCrackenContributor / October 1, 2008

Going with the flow: The river of motorbikes flows through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City.

Patti McCracken


Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

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I stood just outside the storefront, leaning against the door frame waiting for a delivery. On the fractured sidewalk in front of me, a man napped on the seat of his motorbike, his arms folded across his chest, his legs draped over the handlebars. Settled into his daytime slumber, he was cocooned from the mad cacophony of the street, where masses of motorbikes tipping with payload, sped about in all directions, dismissive of signs, signals, or even an iota of order.

Looking at him, so unaffected he could nap amid the free-for-all, I was once again stunned by the fantastic bedlam of Vietnam’s “moto” culture; a bedlam that is simply white noise to locals.

I watched as several motorbikes bumped up onto the sidewalk, nimbly dodging the droves of pedestrians and turning this city sidewalk into a traffic feeder lane. Out of the stream emerged a “moto” driver laden with boxes of computer equipment, who wove his way around the napper and the other sidewalk sideshows. He appeared to be driving toward the doorway I was standing in. I was curious, wondering when this driver would stop, or if he would stop. I quickly sidestepped to make room for him as he eased the bike over the threshold, only arriving at a full stop once inside the store. For a foreigner, this was breathtaking. For the Vietnamese, it was a plain-vanilla-ordinary thing to do.

To the Vietnamese, a motorbike is not just a vehicle, but a bionic limb. A magic carpet. A personal jet pack, able to propel them from their living rooms (where many park their bikes) to any doorstep. Legs and feet are backup forms of transport, used only as a last resort.

And packs of motos swarm through the streets and onto the sidewalks, weaving and honking, dodging and turning, often hulking with the likes of plate glass, doors, household appliances, and even amusement park props in tow.

The number of motorbikes continues to rise in Vietnam and there are now nearly 20 million of them, according to the World Bank. Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) has 3 million – about one motorbike for every two people in the city. By far, the largest portion of vehicles on the roads of Vietnam are “motos,” which are small engine – 50cc to 400cc – motorcycles.

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I had my first extended stay in Vietnam more than three years ago. Day after day, I’d watch – through taxi windows – the dizzying theater of street traffic. From my backseat perch, I’d jot notes to myself about the two- and three-wheeled vehicles minnowing around me, heaving with cargo – coconut-laden rickshaws; old bicycles bulging with baskets of raw meat; cyclo drivers pedaling oversized spools of cable wiring; and motorbike after motorbike weighted down with six-foot bookcases, stereos, refrigerators, extension ladders, TVs, bushels of skinned chickens, plastic barrels of live fish, and rings of rubber tires.

These superheroes of delivery would transport items the size of small buildings on nothing bigger than a Vespa. Cars can barely crawl along the clogged city streets, but the river of motos and makeshift vehicles flow speedily around them. From my view inside the taxi, I felt like an onlooker who’d been plopped down into the middle of a parade.

A US State Department warning reads like an all points bulletin, cautioning Americans against murderous motorcycles on the loose: “The traffic moves on the right, although drivers often travel against the flow. Horns are used constantly, often for no apparent reason. Outside the cities, livestock compete with vehicles for road space. Drivers do not follow basic traffic principles and there is little adherence to traffic laws ... most Vietnamese ride motorcycles; often an entire family rides on one motorcycle.”