Ho Chi Minh City has a soundtrack: on any corner, one is surrounded by the throbbing din of hundreds of sputtering engines and chatting horns. As rivers of motorbikes sweep down every road, their echoing sounds have become the pulse of the city.
Noise pollution is not the only nuisance caused by motorbikes. They cause more injurious accidents, their two-stroke engines and unfiltered exhaust contribute more to air pollution, and their numbers and ability to fill any gap in the road contribute to constant, hectic congestion. Crossing the street is famously difficult in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). (The best advice to tourists is to “just go” and trust that traffic will adjust around you.) Sidewalks are often blocked by parked motorbikes, and drivers more than occasionally use the sidewalks as a traffic lanes. Pedestrians are smart to look both ways before leaving a doorway.
In 2005, HCMC had a total of three million registered motorbikes, or about 412 vehicles per 1000 people (Duc, Le Anh). As its populations continues to grow — an expected 10m by 2020 — so will the tides of scooters.
Since the late 1980’s, HCMC has gone through a process of rapid urbanization due to industrialization, economic liberalization and foreign investment. The city is booming, but there has been a comparative lack of investment in infrastructure, especially public transportation and alternative traffic networks. The bus systems are fractured (no single lines extend across the city), unreliable, and slow due to traffic congestion. Consequently, motorbikes have become the vehicle of choice: a cheap, fast, flexible, door-to-door option.
Motorbikes are essential for HCMC’s residents. They transport families, animals, and sometimes unimaginable cargo. However, the most interesting urban phenomenon is that the bikes have become a form of social space. At night, parks and open spaces fill with teens and young adults on their scooters. Friends gather in lines and circles, each atop their seats, smoking and eating the city’s famous street food. Some are even fully reclined on the long, padded seats. As new friends join the group, the wheeled seating easily adjusts. The two-person capability of the bike seat is also an ideal perch for young lovers to get (very) close. It is imaginable that a local Saigonese can have a night out without ever getting off his or her perch.
As HCMC follows a trajectory towards becoming a global city, politicians, planners, and policy makers will need to solve the urgent transportation issues. However, the use of motorbikes has become so embedded in Vietnam’s culture that it will take more than transportation improvements and policies to address this problem.