Personal vehicles in Vietnam

In the US (and elsewhere) we have personal computers. In Vietnam, they have what I think of as personal vehicles. These are every form of two-wheeled, motorized, vehicles. Electric bikes, motor scooters, motor bikes, motorcycles. Two wheeled vehicles are popular throughout Asia, but, in our experience, nowhere is the phenomena as pronounced as in Vietnam. Our guide in Hanoi told us that there was one motorbike for every two people in Hanoi, but I would have guessed it to be at least one-to-one. On the streets of Hanoi, Hue, and Saigon, motorcycles outnumber cars by twenty to one, I would guess. The streets of these cities are rivers of motorbikes well into the night.

I think of them as personal vehicles because they go everywhere the rider does. Are you shopping at a store in Saigon? Then you just pull your motorbike up onto the sidewalk in front of the store and go in. Never mind that pedestrians like us were then forced into the street. Need to take your bull to market in Hanoi? Just  tie up the bull to immobilize him, balance him across the back seat of your motorcycle, and head out. I am not joking here. On the way to and from Halong City, we saw several examples of live cattle being transported in this way. We saw many cargo loads being hauled by motorbike: rice, cement, bricks, chickens, hay, you name it.

And, like cars in the US, every young male wants his motorbike to be a chick magnet. Our guide ruefully told us that some motorbikes cost $10,000. Rueful, presumably, because guides do not pull down the money to spend $10,000 on a motorcycle.

Vietnam, of course, has a script that is adopted from a Roman alphabet, like English. Thus, my brain was constantly trying to make sense of the signs I saw, unlike in China (with their ideographs) or Cambodia (with their Sanskrit-derived alphabet) that my brain could not (mis)interpret so easily.  One of the more humorous misinterpretations I made was seeing “Uc” in the context of a list of nations. I asked our guide if that was the abbreviation for the United States. Oh, no, says the guide, in Vietnamese, Uc (pronounced approximately “Uck”) is the (full) name of Australia!

Vietnamese is derived from Chinese and so have lots of two-syllable names. Ha Noi, Viet Nam, Sai Gon, etc.One of the two syllable combinations that I saw a whole lot of was Hon Da. There seemed to be an association between these signs and motorbikes. Well, I knew that Honda made motorbikes, but the occurrence of Hon Da was so frequent that it could not be just a single brand name. So I finally asked my guide what it meant. Sure enough, Hon Da was the Japanese brand name that we are all familiar with. But at one time, Hon Da was the only brand of motorbikes available in Vietnam. So, now, in Vietnamese, Hon Da is synonymous with motorbike, kind of like Xerox in the US is synonymous with a copy made using xerography. In Vietnam, you can take buy a Suzuki Hon Da or any number of other brands of Hon Da and take it to a Hon Da repair shop where they fix all brands of Hon Das.

The personal vehicle is the revolution that Dean Kamen had in mind for the US when he created the Segway. Of course, the Segway has not become as popular as Kamen thought it might. I wonder if he has examined the motorbike phenomena in Vietnam for clues on what the Segway lacks? Has he tried transporting a live bull on a Segway?




  1. November 10, 2008 at 5:06 pm

    […] After that, Kris and I  went for a “cyclo” ride through the streets of downtown Hanoi. A cyclo is a tricycle with a bench mounted on front that seats one American or two (or three or four) Vietnamese passengers. The passengers are pedaled through the streets by a man with strong legs. The cyclo drivers spoke a little English, gave us fresh lychee to peal and eat, and were remarkably opinionated on what one should take pictures of. Our two drivers stopped from time to time and pointed out sights they thought were interesting and would not continue until we took a picture of same. All in all, this was a pretty nice way to see Hanoi. The cyclos were quieter than a tuk-tuk, very slow moving to enable photography, and presented us with pretty nice view views of the street life. Hanoi is an old city, not as busy and crowded as Saigon, and many of the streets are pleasantly shaded by old, broad-leafed trees. Of course, cyclos are strictly for tourists. Residents are in more of a hurry (see also Personal Vehicles). […]

  2. December 10, 2008 at 11:45 am

    […] of the last photos illustrates what I was trying to describe in my “Personal Vehicles” post. Can you imagine carrying three German shepherds on the back of a motorbike? And it looks like […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: