Boxes on motorbikes

This is How People Use Their Motorbikes in Hanoi

A few years ago, the small coastal town of Portishead in England conducted an experiment to try and fix the traffic congestion at one of their busiest intersections. They went ahead and removed the traffic lights at this intersection, leaving drivers to navigate it by themselves.

What town officials discovered was that even with a constantly increasing amount of traffic in the town, congestion at the intersection improved significantly. Forcing drivers to be acutely aware of potential hazards and to exercise courtesy with other drivers led to a must more efficient flow of traffic.

If you mentioned this study to a resident of Hanoi, they’d probably nod knowingly. After all their streets have been functioning like this for years. Few of the streets in the city have traffic lights, yet dozens of motorbikes, cars, vans and trucks pour through them every minute.

Somehow it just works

What makes this all work is that drivers and pedestrians approach an intersection carefully but assertively. If you’re not careful you’ll have an accident, but if you’re not assertive you’ll never get a chance to cross. Somehow it all just works out dandily. Drivers toot their horns, more in an advisory manner, as they patiently work their way around others and across the intersection. Of course there’s occasionally some self important bozo who will come through with their horn blazing, forcing everyone to stop and give way. But they seem to be the exception.

In Hanoi and the rest of Vietnam, motorbikes (mostly scooters) are the most common form of transport. Hanoi has over five million of them servicing its eight million inhabitants. The main reason for this is  that motorbikes are significantly cheaper than cars. Most families simply cannot afford a car. It’s perhaps just as well; the traffic is crazy enough without a few million extra cars on the road! In fact, recently the government had to start putting metal barriers across footpaths to stop motorbike riders taking short cuts to avoid the traffic. However, we saw quite a few people who still managed to do just that!

Rows of Motorbikes

Moving Your Stuff Around

Motorbikes are pretty useful for getting around town, and particularly handy for whizzing around the narrow streets of Hanoi’s old quarter. But sometimes you need to transport more than just yourself. That’s where things get interesting and where the people of Hanoi get very inventive. They manage to carry pretty much everything you can think of on the backs of their motorbikes.

While in Hanoi, one of our favourite things to do was to spot all the crazy things that people were carrying on their motorbikes. One afternoon we sat for over an hour on small plastic stools outside one of the local bars, drinking cheap beer while watching the traffic flow through the intersection in front of us. It was great fun and a little bit mesmerising.

Of course a picture says much more than words, so without further ado, here’s some great examples of what you can carry on a motorbike. Mind you, it helps a great deal if you have fantastic balance and well developed peripheral vision!


Your Wife

You’ll frequently see husbands carrying their wives to work on the back of their motorbike. Frequently the ladies will be wearing skirts and therefore forced to ride side saddle. Riding like that must take an amazing amount of balance, and we never saw anyone fall off!

Your Children

If you’re out on the streets of Hanoi early enough you’ll often see parents taking their kids to school on the back of their motorbikes. Unfortunately many of them don’t wear helmets and even when they do, I don’t think the typical helmet provides a lot of protection in an accident.

Your Friends

How many fully grown people can you safely fit on a motorbike at once? It appears that the limit is three!

Friends on motorbike

Your Pets

This lady’s two toy poodles happily sat at her feet while she went about her business. While she stopped to shop, they hopped off to explore and then at her command jumped back on board ready to depart!

Dogs on motorbike

Your Entire Family!

We saw plenty of examples of the whole family heading out somewhere. Some even had special stools up front for their youngest to stand on and peer over the handlebars!

Hanoi Family on Motorbike

Your Customers

Uber is quite popular in Vietnam, but Grab is even more commonly used. Not only can you take a Grab car, you can also hop on a Grab bike. Grab bikes are everywhere, and with their drivers’ bright green jackets and helmets, they are easy to spot.

Grab bike

All Sorts of Goods

Food and Drink

From live chickens, to Banh Mi buns, from crates of Coca Cola to bags of vegetables, people in Vietnam use their motorbikes to transport all sorts of food and beverage.

Food and Drink transport

Boxes and Sacks of Stuff

We don’t know quite what is in most of these boxes and sacks but there’s a lot of them! Piles of boxes are normally strapped on to the bike. But large sacks often appeared to be simply balanced on the back of the bike, held steady purely by the skill of the rider.

Boxes on motorbike

Sacks on motorbike


We saw motorbike riders carrying everything from ladders to pieces of furniture, televisions and the days shopping.

Homewares on motorbike

Everything Else

Finally there’s all the odds an ends that don’t quite fit any category, such as scrap metal, three metre long metal rods, weird metal structures, and plastic barrels and clay pots containing who knows what!

Other stuff

So that’s how you transport things Hanoi style. It’s amazing to watch it all happen in front of you without incident. The entire time we were in Vietnam, we only saw one minor accident and that was on a country road in the dark before sunrise. It’s a testament to the patience and skill of the Vietnamese people. I wish we could import some of that back to Melbourne!

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