How to Drive a Motorbike in Saigon

Ho Chi Minh City at night by Ramon Boersbroek (cropped)

Driving a motorbike is one of the great joys of living in Saigon. These millions of two-wheeled smog factories are the machinery of this enigmatic city — the blood pulsing through the veins of this smoky organism. But there are some things you need to know if you want to survive. First, let’s start with the elemental building block of Vietnamese driving:

The Cone of Awareness

Every puzzling aspect of Vietnamese driving can be explained by this one simply concept: If you can’t hit it, it doesn’t exist. Seriously, you’ll go crazy trying to keep track of everything that’s going on around you — so stop thinking like a stupid foreigner. All you have to worry about is what’s in front of you. If it’s outside your cone of awareness, then it’s not your problem.

I understand that this will be difficult for you. As a foreigner, you’ll want to know what’s coming up behind you before you go weaving across three lanes of busy traffic — but that is not how we do things in Saigon. Your notions of traffic safety mean nothing here, so you must learn to use the power of your cone.

Okay, now let’s see what it can do.

Thumbnail image for an article written by Matt Pike called How to Drive a Motorbike in Saigon - Photo modified: original by Bin Thieu on Unsplash


This will probably be the most difficult skill for you to learn. You’ll find yourself waiting by yourself at intersections, always looking for that perfect opportunity to open up before you merge into traffic. Stop doing this. Vietnamese people will neither appreciate your diligence, nor understand your reasoning. To them, you’re just another annoying foreigner getting in the way.

To merge like a Vietnamese person, drive wherever you want, whenever you want. Just don’t drive into anything; It’s that easy. Don’t worry about cutting people off, because they won’t hit you. You’re in their cone, after all.

Okay, now let’s see what it can do.

Lane Ettiquette

Again, just don’t drive into anything. As long as you don’t drive into the person in front of you, you’re free to do whatever the hell you want. Need to make a turn but you’re on the wrong side of the street? No problem — simply point your cone where you want to go and drive. Get a phone call when you’re in the middle of a busy intersection? Well, you can’t drive into anything if you’re not moving!

Go ahead, stop and take that call. Let your cone tell you what’s right.

Now, you might hear some people honking at you, but let’s have a look at what those horns actually mean.


It’s no secret that foreigners in Vietnam love to complain. It’s their favorite defence mechanism against all of the weird and wonderful aspects of Vietnamese culture that they simply don’t understand yet — and horns are no exception. One of the most common ones I hear often goes something like this:

“Why the fuck are you honking at me? Where am I supposed to go?”

Now, since you’re a foreigner, let’s assume your Vietnamese language skills are somewhere between “No” and “I can order beer” — but that doesn’t matter, because the drivers here don’t speak in Vietnamese; they speak with their horns.

One toot : “You are in my cone.”

A pair of toots : “You are in my cone, and I don’t want to hit you.”

Three or more toots : “I’m about to try something bold, and I’m sure you’ll be impressed.”

One long blast: “I would've done the same.”

Many long blasts : “I’m so lonely....”

Saigon streets image by Miriam Corcuera on Unsplash (cropped)

Expressing Frustration

Road rage is a bad idea in Vietnam — especially for foreigners — because your opponent has a severe advantage over you: They can rally a mob, and you can’t.

Instead, you must learn to express your rage like a Vietnamese person, with your Cone of Awareness. Think about it, what is the single worst possible thing that you can do with your cone?

Look away from it, of course.

To express your rage — Vietnamese style — just look at the person who offended you. Look away from your cone. Two seconds is all you’ll need, because every Vietnamese person will know you’re fucking pissed. Don’t bother with your foreigner nonsense, things like middle fingers and violence. Vietnamese people don’t fight easily, but they’ll be glad to whoop your foreigner ass — and you’ll deserve it, because you didn’t use your cone.

Turning Left

The main problem with turning left in Saigon is that it suddenly puts you face-to-face with your own mortality — but you must learn to overcome your fear, because hesitation will get you killed on these streets. To turn left like a Vietnamese person, just go for it. Give your throttle a little twist and force your way through oncoming traffic. Don’t worry, they’ll stop. They have to, because you’re in their cone. Listen for the single long horn blast for the validation of your cultured driving.

Advanced Vietnamese Driving

Too many foreigners stop with the cone of awareness, thinking that’s all they’ll need — but if you truly want to assimilate into the local driving culture, here are the advanced techniques you also must learn:

  • Try to weave erratically every time you start moving, and don’t bring your legs up until you’ve reached top speed. [Dangling legs are for women only. Men should replace with a lit cigarette, held out at just the right angle to catch people in the knees as they drive past.]

  • The thinner the helmet, the better.

  • Transport trucks are for foreigners and the disabled. Every true motorbike driver in Saigon knows how to strap furniture and industrial equipment to their ride.

  • Never put a helmet on a child.

  • Your intelligence is inversely proportional to the amount skin you show to the sun.

  • Ambulances are just vans with lights. You don’t need to move for them.

  • If a kid gets in your way, it is always their fault. Never show mercy to them. There’s plenty of space for them to play inside.

  • The outdoor hierarchy is as follows: Dump Trucks > Buses > Taxis > Big SUVs > Small SUVs > Vans > Cars > Loud Motorbikes > Motorbikes With LED Headlights > Motorbikes Driven By Tiny Women > Motorbikes > Electric Bikes > Bicycles > Kids > Dogs > Cockroaches > Pedestrians.

  • Sidewalks are overflow lanes. Never let a lowly pedestrian tell you otherwise.

  • Refusing to drink and drive is a sure sign of weak character.

  • If you’re waiting at a red light, make sure to stop in a place where nobody can turn right. Bonus points if you pretend not to hear them screaming at you.

  • Traffic laws only apply if police are within sight.

  • If you come out of a side street and want to be in the far lane, drive along the shoulder, against traffic, until a gap opens up for you.

  • And, finally: When you come up to an accident, be sure to take a cellphone video. The families will be eternally grateful to have those videos of their dying loved ones on social media.

Time to hit the road

It’s a hell of a lot of fun driving a motorbike in Saigon, but only if you know what you’re doing. Let your Cone of Awareness guide you, and never let fear get in the way of where you want to be — no matter how selfish it feels. Imitation is the best form of flattery, so get out there and start driving like a complete fucking asshole.

Trust me, it’ll feel good.