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Published: March 16th 2014
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Riding Motorbikes in South East Asia; Vietnam and Indonesia.
First of all, if you’re googling to see if doing this is a good idea or not, then I can tell you straight away; it isn’t.
Having just come back from a trip to Vietnam, where I rode a bike around the city of Hanoi, I’ve started to reflect on just what it is like riding a bike in countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam.
I’ve heard from many people during my travels, that they want to learn how to ride a motorbike in places such as Vietnam and Indonesia, because they don’t need a license (which is simply not true) and they can rent a bike for a whole day for nothing more than a couple of US $. Having ridden now in two SE Asian countries, I can tell you, with experience, that this is not the case and if you try it, then you’re an idiot.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t ride a motorbike in these countries, but it must be done properly, safely and with the
proper paperwork complete.
Indonesia - roads.
Indonesia is a country which is on the up in South East Asia, with many experts tipping it to become the next dragon of Asia. So naturally they have an excellent road system? Wrong. Indonesia’s roads are among the worst in the world, they aren’t sealed properly and when the rainy season comes, massive potholes open up in the roads which are the size of small craters. They are bad enough in the city, but outside of it, where they aren’t maintained at all, they can be deadly.
Vietnam – roads
In the city (Hanoi at least) the roads are better than in Indonesia, they are fairly comparable to Western roads. However, in the countryside, the roads are completely uneven, full of bumps and lumps, added to this, they are nearly invisible against the road, so you’ll be in for a rocky ride and you won’t be able to do anything about it.
Indonesia – road rules
In my 6 months of motorbike driving in Jakarta, the only concrete rule I can give you is that you drive on the left. There are toll roads, which only cars
and busses can drive on and there are bus lanes which only busses can drive in. However I have seen bikes and cars in bus lanes and bikes on toll roads, so this rule is, as Barbosa says, “more of a guideline” but whatever you do, don’t get caught.
In Indonesia people will undertake and overtake you, so keep a keen eye on your mirrors as cars and bikes will look to pass you by any means necessary. I would suggest you just to stick to the left side of road, but that puts you at risk of being shunted into a left turn that you really didn’t want.
In all reality, road positioning in Indonesia is all through experience, which I why I do not suggest you try riding a bike while you’re on a short holiday. What I will say is that if you end up trailing a car; always stay to the edge of one side of it, so that you’re able to see ahead of the car. Indonesians are known for slamming on the breaks at the last second.
Road rules – Vietnam
Vietnamese are slightly more civilised in their driving than Indonesians, but that’s not saying much. Remember – they drive on the right here, another reason why I don’t recommend any left hand drivers from even trying to learn here, because it is a huge difference and very off putting.
In Vietnam, the smaller your vehicle, the more expendable you are, especially when it comes to overtaking. If a car swings into your path while overtaking a wagon coming towards you, then it’s your fault for being in the way, so it’s up to you to get out of the way.
When turning left, you’re expected to get to the opposite side of the road as soon as possible, even if that means driving up the wrong side of the road for 20 feet before your left turn. But at least they generally only overtake and you won’t see them coming up the wrong side too often.
Horns and lights – both
In both of these countries, then the horn is your best friend. It tells people that you’re over taking them, you’re angry, that you’re not stopping; so they shouldn’t pull out. It’s also advisable to give a quick hoot before each intersection, because people are known to pull out without looking.
First of all, lights in Indonesia are a requirement in both rain and shine. Failure to not have on is punishable by money into a policeman’s back pocket. Secondly, if someone flashes their lights at you, it doesn’t not mean please pull out or continue, it means; I’m going to pull out or not stop, so I seriously suggest that you do – be careful of that one.
Drivers – Indonesia
The drivers in Indonesia, especially those on motorbikes are highly skilled and experienced dare devils. They will go too fast and weave in and about like a GP champion. This is highly intimidating at first, then it becomes fun to imitate – don’t do it, these people were practically born on a motorbike, you’ll never be as good as them, so stay slow, easy and most importantly stay alive.
Oh and beware of car drivers, because almost all licenses in Indonesia are bought not earned, no one has taught them to accelerate out of corners, so it is very easy to face plant into their rear if you expect them to speed up.
Drivers – Vietnam
Drivers in Vietnam are terrible, in the cities they are overly cautious and the bikes are heavily dominated by the no skill or perception car drivers. Outside of the city, they are worse because the car drivers, drive faster and the motorbikes stay the same. Add to the tendency to overtake going 1mph faster than the other car on a blind bend going uphill and, well you get the picture.
So to conclude, driving in these countries with zero driving experience is like learning to race against daredevil GP pros on a potholed ridden race track, with no driving rules. Sound like a good idea? No I didn’t think so.
But what if you really want to ride a bike? That’s fine, after all, I did it and I’m still (if barely at times) alive. My suggestion to you, is only consider this if you’re going to be living there. Spend 4 – 6 months learning how the roads work. Take taxis or go for a walk. See how the people drive. This is the only safe way to really learn how to drive on these roads.
When buying or renting a bike, never take an automatic – they have no power and typically a very small wheel base, which will be a massive problem on the potholed roads. Additionally, I do not recommend a manual either if you do not have any experience with them, because it’s a steep learning curve. Fortunately, most bikes in Asia are “semi-automatic” in which case you change gear simply by easing off the accelerator and kicking down on the left side to change up or down gear. There is no need for a clutch. This combines the simplicity of an automatic, with the power of shifting down a gear to get you out of trouble through acceleration, also they usually have a decent wheel base, which will make potholes easier.
If you have any questions about driving in either of these two countries, please do not hesitate to get into contact.
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