8 Tips To Survive Vietnam’s Notoriously Chaotic Traffic

9 minutes reading time

Tips to navigate traffic in Vietnam

So, you’ve just settled in with your new life in Vietnam. You found a nice apartment for a cheap price. You got a job teaching English at a reputable center. All is well with the world. On your first day at work, you wake up fresh and hop on the second-hand bike you just bought, eager to begin a productive day.

… and you find yourself caught in a traffic jam at the first intersection outside your house. The entire road is packed, cars and bikes alike are desperately trying to fill in the first open space they see with total disregard for traffic laws. You get battered by honking sounds, dust, and the occasional curses from all directions, without any idea what you are supposed to do.

Yes, it can be overwhelming. But allow yours truly – who went through that every day for 25 years – to offer some tips to help you navigate Vietnam’s traffic a little bit easier. Most of these tips will be based on the situation in Hanoi, but trust me, if you can survive Hanoi’s traffic, you’ll do well anywhere in Vietnam.

1. Don’t expect people to follow traffic laws

traffic jam
Traffic in Vietnam is notoriously chaotic
Image credit: VNExpress

So the very first tip I have for you is – simply don’t take anything for granted. Don’t expect people to follow traffic rules. You’re driving past an intersection and you have the green light? Drive slowly and pay attention to both your sides anyway. You never know when someone coming from the other street decides their business is too important to stop at a meager red light.

Yes, it is pretty sad, but it is just a reality we have to live with. If you’re caught in an accident, even if you know it’s entirely not your fault, you may still get hurt. So just be more careful to ensure your own safety.

2. Follow traffic laws yourself

vietnam traffic tips - follow traffic laws
Follow traffic rules to keep a measure of order on the streets
Image credit: Tuổi Trẻ Thủ Đô

Now, this is going to sound like the complete opposite of what I just said, but hear me out here: try your best to follow traffic laws, even when you don’t expect others to.

Yes, the prospect of driving onto that empty space on the sidewalk seems particularly tempting when you know it can get you past that one car in front that’s been blowing smoke in your face for the past 15 minutes as you wait to cross a jam-packed intersection. 

Yes, it is easy to think, “Why should I follow the rules? Nobody does anyway.” But don’t. Don’t be part of the problem. You’re better than that.

I know I sound lofty. Many will probably think that their actions alone won’t make a difference, that if they try to follow the rules when no one does, they’ll just end up being the ones who get left behind. But I believe it does make a difference. I believe that if even a fraction of you who are reading this can try, we’ll see improvements. So please, do try your best. As the saying goes, be the change you want to see in the world. If we want people to start respecting the rules, we need to start with ourselves.

3. Explore small alleys for shortcuts

vietnam traffic tips - small alley shortcuts
Small alleys often provide shortcuts
Image credit: Báo Xây Dựng

Now, this tip will vary depending on which city you’re in, and it’s mostly from my experience driving in Hanoi. But when you find yourself stuck in the middle of a street for half an hour because four buses have somehow managed to entangle themselves into a perfect square at the next intersection, with about a million motorbikes trying to squeeze between them, it’s often a good idea to turn into the next small alley you see along the street. 

More often than not, these small alleys will lead to another street from which you can get past the jammed area.

Now, don’t expect this to be a miracle solution to all your Vietnam traffic problems. The alleys will still be crowded because many people will share this idea. But at least small alleys don’t allow vehicles to enter from multiple directions and get themselves entangled in the middle. The traffic will be a one-directional flow. A slow one, yes, but you will move forward.

4. Know multiple routes to get around town

This tip is an extension of the above, but it pays to spend time exploring your city’s layout and learn multiple routes to get from one place to another, as well as how these routes are connected, so you can switch back and forth between them.

That way, on days when traffic on your usual route to work is particularly bad, you can try another. Of course, in big cities such as Hanoi, all the streets are likely crowded during rush hours. But if instead of having to wait 15 minutes to cross an intersection, you only need to wait 5, it’s already an improvement.

5. Avoid rush hours

rush hour traffic
Traffic is particularly bad during rush hours
Image credit: Tuổi Trẻ

Since we were speaking of rush hours, traffic in Vietnam’s major cities is particularly bad between 7AM-8AM and 5PM-6.30PM. Those are times when everyone leaves home for work and vice versa. So, perhaps you can take some steps to avoid the worst of it.

The most obvious thing to do is simply to leave home early. It needn’t be much. Sometimes, even leaving 10-15 minutes sooner than you usually do can mean you’re on the roads before most people – which means much less crowded streets.

In the same line of thought, if your work allows it, perhaps you can try being extra focused during the day to wrap things up and leave just a little bit early. 

Alternatively, if you don’t have to be home for dinner, consider eating somewhere close to your workplace. By the time you finish your meal, the traffic should begin to dissipate, and once home, you’re just a shower away from having the rest of the evening for yourself.

6. Get a quality face mask

masks against pollution
Masks can help protect you from air pollution
Image credit: aFamily

This applies to motorbike drivers, and no, it doesn’t have anything to do with a certain global pandemic. And by “getting a mask” I don’t mean those surgical masks you buy for USD0.10 apiece. Spend some extra cash on quality dust-filtering masks.

If you’re driving a motorbike, you’ll most likely be spending half an hour or more on the streets every day. All the while, you’ll be inhaling smoke from hundreds of vehicles. A quality face mask can help keep at least some of that out. Your respiratory system and facial complexion will thank you for it. I know mine have.

7. Pay attention to traffic signs

vietnam traffic tips - traffic signs
See that “No bus allowed” sign on the ground? Yeah… it is there for a reason.
Image adapted from An Toàn Giao Thông

I know, I know, “just pay attention to traffic signs” sounds painfully obvious. But you’d be surprised how many people drive around while completely oblivious to traffic signs.

First of all, seeing traffic signs and following them will – not may, not likely to, WILL save you some hefty fines. If you go into a one-way street, or a street where your type of vehicle is banned, the fine can be as high as VND1,000,000-VND2,000,000 (~USD44.15-USD88.30) for motorbikes, and VND3,000,000-VND5,000,000 (~USD132.45-USD220.75) for cars. And how do you know which streets are one-way, and which streets ban your vehicle? That’s right, signs.

Secondly, many streets have signs that ban either cars or motorbikes from entering them during certain times of the day – mostly during rush hours. Most often, this is because those streets are physically ill-equipped to accommodate an influx of that vehicle type. If you enter them, chances are you’ll get stuck somewhere and make the traffic worse.

8. Change your mindset

vietnam traffic tips - change your mindset
(Photo for illustrative purposes only)
Image credit:
Francois Le Nguyen

It’s true the traffic situation in Vietnam, especially in major cities, leaves a lot to be desired, and it will probably be a while before we can see improvements. But while we can’t change how things are in the near future, what we can change is our mindset about it.

Don’t think, “I could’ve covered that distance in 10 minutes, but now it’s taking me 40 minutes due to traffic, therefore I’m losing half an hour of free time.” Factor in the time spent in traffic as part of the journey – a kind of extra chore you need to do each day – and plan your daily routine around that.

Once you come to terms with the fact that it’s just how things are here, maybe you can at least be less frustrated about it.

Don’t let the traffic deter you from enjoying life in Vietnam

If you’ve taken the time to read my ramble this far down, my final words to you are: don’t be intimidated by Vietnam’s traffic.

Yes, it isn’t something anyone is thrilled about, and it can come as quite a shock if you’re not familiar with it. But at the end of the day, the chaotic traffic is just a reflection of the busy city life here.

It is as much a part of Hanoi as the great street food and archaic charms, as much a part of Saigon as the vibrant nightlife and friendly people. If you’ve fallen in love with those things, the traffic is worth putting up with.

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Cover image adapted from Tuổi Trẻ

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