HCMC Dining Guide

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Vietnam's #1 Killer

One of Vietnam's most famous tourist attractions won't be found on any lists of beautiful natural landscapes or historical buildings. In fact, it isn't even in a set location. I'm talking about the country's traffic. Travel guides advise you to set up shop in any cafe overlooking a busy intersection and simply observe. Everyone who visits or lives in the country talks about it. When you arrive it is one of the first things you notice (unless you show up late at night). Especially in the cities, traffic is dense, intense, and relentless. And, of course, the majority of it is motorbikes.

There's no doubt this is a bewildering sight for anyone coming from a developed country...or pretty much any country, for that matter. The variety of what you see on the roads is incredible, and I remember walking around slack-jawed for several days when I first moved here - "There's five people on that bike!", "How did they fit that bookcase on there?", "Is that a freaking pig slung across the back of that one?!" The list of things you will see on bikes here is nearly endless.

Then you start noticing the traffic pattern, or the lack thereof. You laugh as people blow through red lights, drive the wrong way down one-way streets, rumble down the sidewalk and juggle a baby and a cell phone in one hand while trying to steer with the other. You learn how to cross the street, and then you start driving. Your Vietnamese friends are impressed, but they remind you that "traffic is very dangerous here!", as they text with one hand and nearly hit an old woman crossing the street.

And they are right. Traffic is extremely dangerous here, but no one actually seems to take that fact very seriously. Traffic accidents are Vietnam's #1 killer, and this is one of the most dangerous countries in the world in terms of collision statistics. In 2011 the Ministry of Health estimated that almost 15,500 people died in traffic-related incidents, but some experts think that number is extremely conservative. The truth is that no one knows how many die in accidents every year here, but everyone agrees that it is a frighteningly high figure.

So why do so many die in crashes? Yes, the huge number of vehicles and often low-quality roads play their parts, but in my opinion the blame for this huge death toll rests squarely on the sheer, unadulterated idiocy that the majority of drivers here display on a daily basis. If that sounds condescending, so be it...but it's true. Once you get beyond the "holy shit this is amazing!" phase of watching traffic, you begin to realize that people seem to drive as if life has no value. This is best exhibited by the aftermath of many accidents here - if two bikes collide and only one falls over, the driver of the one that stayed upright will simply take off almost every time. No checking to see if the other person is alright, no calling for help. Peace out, sucker.

People tear through intersections, nearly causing multiple accidents, while laying on the horn, as if that gives them the right of way. People blast down wrong lanes and wrong streets, forcing everyone else to get out of there way. People pull sudden u-turns without looking and blame the person who runs into them. People sit on the far right side of a road at a long red light, only to decide that they have to turn left once the light goes green and proceed to cut off the entire flow of traffic. People drink 10 beers, fall onto the sidewalk as they walk to their bike, get up and drive home. People pull out of alleys into major streets without even thinking of checking if there's traffic coming. I've never understood any of this. Are people so wrapped up in their own hustle and bustle that they can't be bothered to see if they're about to kill someone? Do they just not care?

Of course, motorbike drivers aren't the only retards out there. Car drivers are complete assholes, blasting their ocean-liner caliber horns while pulling up to a red light, swerving into oncoming lanes when they run out of room, nearly running over bikes as they hurry to the next 40-deep line of cars at a red light, etc.

The worst offenders are bus and truck drivers, simply since they command the biggest beasts on the road. They are especially awful in the countryside, where massive accidents occur on a near-weekly basis. A few weeks ago a truck driver steamrolled three motorbikes, killing several people, as he tried to pass someone in the wrong lane on a mountain road outside of Da Lat. The latest horrifying tragedy took place last week in Cam Ranh, which is near the beach resort of Nha Trang. Two night buses travelling in opposite directions slammed into each other head-on, killing 11 passengers and injuring over 60 more. One of the buses was in the wrong lane. I can tell you exactly how this went down - one of the buses was trying to overtake a slower vehicle in front it, hurtling down the wrong lane, horn blaring, and the driver didn't time it right. His inexplicable hurry led to numerous deaths, including his own.

How do I know this happened? I've seen countless near misses just like it. People drive like complete maniacs on Vietnam's two-lane country roads, and huge vehicles regularly pass other huge vehicles in high-speed, high-stake games of chicken. Taking a bus to Da Lat or Mui Ne can be terrifying, as the drivers repeatedly floor it to get past someone and narrowly jerk the vehicle back into the right lane just before we all get blasted to pieces by an oncoming bus. Why is this necessary? Just drive like a decent, intelligent human being. I don't care if it takes an hour longer. I'd rather live.

That's what I don't understand about the traffic problem here: doesn't everyone want to live? Why are people so accepting of driving like a complete moron? Do they think the worst-case scenario just won't happen to them? Why aren't people here organizing campaigns to improve driving methods? Who knows what those tens of thousands of people who die every year in unnecessary collisions could accomplish?

People like to joke about Vietnam's traffic, but it's not funny. If some kind of disease was killing over 15,000 people a year the country would be in lockdown and everyone would be going crazy. Why is this taken with a shrug when it's traffic killing so many? It's insanity. I don't think I'll ever hear a satisfactory answer. I realize writing this here is useless, since if you read this blog I assume you're either an expat or an intelligent enough Vietnamese person to know better than to drive like a...like a...there honestly aren't even adequate English adjectives to describe drivers here.  Still, I wanted to get this off my chest. Maybe I'll get some answers.


  1. I was in VN for the first time last month and I definately know where youre coming from.

    Motorbikes, taxis, and the sleeper bus that I took to Nha Trang all drove like mad men. I dont understand the logic of the people there.

  2. Hmm, I felt like I needed to reply to this post. I lived in Vietnam for 15 Months, riding a scooter every day, and the traffic is definitely a hectic situation. You write some very strong opinions, about the people, which I disagree with. This is the problem with generalising, and writing out of anger. In my entire time, I saw a couple of accidents, but that figure of 15,000 is a complete lie, that is never proven, and I remember doing some research and it sat around 3000 dieing per year, which is still a hell of a lot. You can choose to publish this or not, but I think that if anyone is thinking about going to Vietnam, and reads a post like this, they will think badly about the people there.

    1. How is 15,000 a complete lie? Every agency out there (and not just ones in the Vietnamese government) agrees that the number is enormous. Also, I don't think I'm generalizing. If you drove for 15 months you had to have seen more than a couple accidents, and you surely saw much of the behavior I describe. Anyway, my job isn't to sell Vietnam. My goal is to show what life is like here, and if you drive, this is what it's like.

  3. Oh I remember the traffic! it was even scary to cross by foot....

  4. Let's try some facts:

    1. About 80,000 people died from cancer each year in Vietnam, so 15,000 is a long way from the number 1 spot

    2. The US, which is a developed country, has about 30,000 people died from traffic accident per year. The US has a population of 300 million compared to 90 million in Vietnam. The ratio is better in the US, but is not a whole lot better.

    Those are facts.

    Now let's get anecdotal...

    Your story is right and I agree that sometimes people do seem to value life less with a decision to pass someone on the wrong lane and barely missing the oncoming bus. There's no excuse for that.

    As for the rate of accidents witnessed or experienced by foreigners in Vietnam, I think it seems more often because it just registers to you more...or in cases where it occurs more often, it's because foreigners are as suitable drivers in Vietnam. It sounds contradictory, but Vietnam is a system of chaos, in terms of how traffic currently is, and if you expect it any other way, you'll find yourself wrong..and possibly injured.

    Like every foreign places that we visit, we should learn the ways of those places rather than imposing our ways. Not asking you to be romans in Rome, just asking you to understand romans in rome first...and then you'll be able to navigate better.

    I am a Vietnamese American living in Vietnam. I grew up in the States since I was 10 and now am in my early 30s. I have motorbiked over 10,000 km throughout Vietnam...

    ...not that I really need to justify my argument beyond the argument itself.

    1. Yea I realized after writing this that cancer is far worse than the accident fatality rate. My bad. I'm afraid I don't quite get your argument though...I'm not saying we should buck the system of driving, I just think people shouldn't be such massive idiots while they drive. Also I've probably put in a solid 6-7,000 km on the roads here, so we both obviously have a good idea of what we're talking about.