Flowing in Vietnam – but not the yoga kind!

by | Sep 18, 2018 | TRAVELING WITH KIDS, Vietnam

One of the biggest adjustments to living in Vietnam for a few months has been getting around. We have learned from experience that we don’t thrive nearly as well in places where we don’t have our own transportation.

We have stayed in places where we had to rely on walking or using taxis or the Grab system, and it just does not work as well for us. Now, using Grab is fantastic to avoid being ripped off and deal with the language barrier, so I do highly recommend it when you need it!

And we usually love to walk, but in 36 degree sunny weather, it actually gets dangerous – Jonathan got severely dehydrated and needed an IV to recover from too much walking in the sun! Ironically enough, he was trying to save the 30 pesos on a taxi… and ended up costing us 750 pesos for the house call and IV drip! Thank goodness for travel medical insurance… you can read more about that story in my post on our medical issues in Mexico.

But I digress.

As we continue on this adventure around the world, we learn more and more about what works for us as a family, and what doesn’t. Sometimes we try too hard to do what we think we “should” do, or what works for other people, rather than trusting what we are learning.

And, for us, being able to hop onto our own mode of transportation and get around quickly and easily is a big part of what makes our daily life flow easily and feel fun, with less stress. If we lived somewhere where walking and public transportation could provide this, we would be all for it. But currently, in South East Asia, that’s just not the case.

So, I have continued to stretch my comfort zone in terms of what kind of transportation I can handle for myself, and the two girls.

Walking and Taxis in Mexico: giving a much-needed pep talk during a 30 minute walk home from the pool. We also ate far too many popsicles while waiting for taxis to stop!

My comfort zone expansion all started in Koh Tao, Thailand, last June.

When we arrived on the island and got a taxi to our lovely villa (Chalisa Villas, we still miss you! Pro tip: if you’re ever going to Koh Tao, I highly recommend staying here), it quickly became apparently that:

  • EVERYONE was getting around via scooter (or motorbike to some of you – to us Canadians, a motorbike means more of a motorcycle, and we’re talking about smaller, lighter machines, which we have taken to calling scooters)
  • Our villa was JUST far enough away from the closest beach and town area that it would get difficult to always walk (plus the beach wasn’t great for swimming)
  • There were no cars to rent, only scooters
  • Most of the really good beaches were going to be either an expensive taxi ride or a scooter drive away.

I had sworn up one side and down the other that I would NEVER allow my children or myself to ride on a scooter. Having grown up with a father whose profession is rooted in vehicle safety, I had always planned on never riding a motorized two-wheel vehicle in my life. I loved commuting by bicycle in Toronto, and that prompted enough (sometimes) friendly disagreements between my Dad and I about the safety of it all.

Getting on something even faster and more dangerous than a bicycle seemed like a step that I would NEVER take! I am cautious by nature, trained to watch for danger by nurture, and was always taught that motorcycles are just too dangerous to be worth the risk.

However, there is a lot of truth to the phrase “when in Rome”!

After only two days on Koh Tao, Jonathan came home one morning with a rented scooter – which we’d agreed was necessary for HIM ONLY so he could get groceries and such – and a little pink helmet – which was definitely NOT part of the plan! As soon as I saw the pink helmet, I knew I’d lost one part of my argument, and could only watch with love and trepidation in my heart as Charlotte raced to the bike to go for a ride with her Dad.

Now, luckily, Jonathan is just about one of the best scooter drivers I’ve ever seen (best driver of any vehicle, really), and he went REALLY slow.

We ended up loving being a scooter family, and had so much fun – and freedom – exploring the island this way

Also, on Koh Tao, the only vehicles bigger than a scooter were the local taxis and the scuba dive trucks, both of which were driven by experienced – and careful – locals. So, it felt a lot safer than if you were driving a motorbike while surrounded by much larger – and faster – cars and trucks.

We lasted another day before we were heading off for dinner and it was getting late. It would have taken 20 minutes to walk or 2 minutes to ride the scooter… so, next thing I know, I’m strapping Aria into the Boba Air baby carrier and climbing onto the back of the scooter to head into town! Of course, I swore that THAT was as far as I would go… until the next beautiful morning dawned (which was the very next day because… Thailand), and we wanted to go to one of the further-flung beaches. So, on we piled, and honestly, had such a blast getting there that I started shedding my nerves and learned to just enjoy the ride.

We ended up loving being a scooter family, and had so much fun – and freedom – exploring the island this way.

After getting used to it, I actually feel more nervous now driving on the 8-lane highway from the airport to my parents’ place than I do be-bopping around town on a scooter!

This is how we did it! And don’t worry, we were out on the hunt for helmets for all of us right after this was taken.
Thanks to Nikki from Chalisa Villas for snapping this great shot outside her fabulous clothing shop in Sairee Beach.

So, fast forward to our full-time travel adventures.

In San Pedro, Belize, we had absolutely the best form of transportation for me: a golf cart! Open air, small, simple to get in and out, but without the inherent dangers of a two-wheel vehicle. We LOVED it, and wish they had them in South East Asia!

On Isla Mujeres, Mexico, it was prohibitively expensive to rent a golf cart, and very difficult – and still expensive – to buy one. We could have bought a motorbike/scooter for cheap, but I can’t drive one, so it wouldn’t have been useful when Jonathan was working and I had the kids. The traffic was also a lot faster and scarier than in either San Pedro or Koh Tao. We could also have used a 4-wheeler (ATV type vehicle), but couldn’t fit the whole family on it, so we would have needed both a scooter and a 4-wheeler.

Since we didn’t know how long we were staying, we weren’t willing to invest in any of these options right away – and, to be honest, this decision really affected our experience of the place and our impression of how much we liked Mexico, which therefore meant we didn’t stay as long as we had planned.

Relying on taxis and walking meant a lot of waiting around for taxis in the heat, negotiating with taxi drivers (something I didn’t mind so much, but was an annoyance for Jonathan), and walking in the heat (something Jonathan didn’t mind so much, but I found an annoyance – and then Jonathan got heat stroke from it, so that further hampered our style!).

It also meant that we didn’t get to do the activities we wanted to be doing because it was either not worth paying the taxi fare for an hour at the pool, or it felt like too much struggle for whatever it was we wanted to do.

It might sound wimpy and like silly complaining, I know – but this is just how it worked out for us.

Bouncing around on our golf cart in San Pedro, Belize.

We were parked, if anyone is thinking I’m taking dashcam photos while driving these two precious angels around!

When we got to Vietnam, we used the Grab system and walking to get around Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) for the 4 days we were there, and we were very happy to rely on that. The traffic there was crazy!

I’ll never forget the time we crossed a busy street, with Charlotte in the stroller (asleep) and Aria in my arms, and we were literally weaving between scooters and cars and bicycles – it was insane and petrifying and exhilarating and is hard to put into words! But it was amazing how well everyone… well… flowed.

Once we got to Hoi An, the traffic was much less intense and scary, since it’s a smaller place. BUT, it’s still crazy in its own way!

I saw a t-shirt in a tourist shop that explained it perfectly:

Driving in Vietnam:

  • Green Light: Go
  • Yellow Light: Go
  • Red Light: Still Go

Seriously. There are no stop signs. Red lights are definitely a suggestion, so you have to cross carefully at less-busy intersections when you have the green, because anyone could just blithely sail on through!

People pull out in front of you ALL the time, or stop suddenly. Merging is a matter of will and size.

Oh, and since it’s currently rice harvesting time, most of the side streets (and even some of what I would call main streets) are half taken up with huge tarps with rice on them, drying out in the sun. Right on the road. With old Vietnamese ladies (and men, but the women do a lot of the work) raking them out – or even, in one instance I saw (but unfortunately didn’t get a photo of), an old woman walking through the rice in bare feet to spread it around and turn it over, a-la grape crushing in Greece.

The one time we drove on our scooter on the bigger, main highway (heading to Vin Pearl Land, the most amazing amusement/water park I’ve ever seen!), we had one moment where we were being overtaken by another scooter, which was being overtaken by a mini-bus, which was being overtaken by a taxi. On a two-lane highway. A narrow one. I would have given anything to have been able to film that moment! We just kept riding along, kind of in shock, grateful to still be alive.

Oh, and turning left. My god, turning left. So, if you want to turn left at an intersection, and you’re waiting for the light to turn green, you are basically supposed to anticipate the light changing, and be turning left before the traffic gets to your side from the other traffic light. I really should draw a diagram to show you, since it’s too hard to explain.

But it means turning in front of oncoming traffic, basically, and hoping you timed it right so that the traffic going perpendicular to you has stopped for their red light but the traffic coming your way hasn’t gotten started yet. But people love to anticipate the green, and will get started across early. It’s totally nerve-wracking! I will plan my route to avoid left turns whenever possible.

Having said that, it was an incredible feeling, with my heart pumping full of adrenaline and pride, the first time I successfully executed a Vietnamese left turn! I’m now pretty proficient at them – I probably hang back and am more cautious than most drivers, but I’ve had my fair share of cutting-it-close-by-Canadian-standards but going-with-the-Vietnamese-flow moments.

Oh, and THE HONKING! Everyone honks. Constantly. Just to let you know they’re there. Almost NEVER because they’re mad or frustrated or warning you! It’s just a friendly “coming from behind”, “on the left” kind of communication. I’m still getting used to it, since in Canada, we pretty much only honk when we’re angry or scared someone is going to hit us! Aria has gotten right into it, and loves to honk the horn from her baby seat while we’re driving along.

The amazing thing is, though: no one gets mad at each other. Like, NO ONE. If you pulled this kind of shit in Canada or the US, the road rage incidents would be legendary and constant.

Here? Everyone just smiles and keeps on their merry way. Seriously.

One time, right around the corner from our house, there was an SUV trying to go one direction, a taxi trying to go the other, a car parked at the side of the road on one side (therefore blocking half of the lane) and a pile of building materials on the other (blocking part of the road – this is a very common occurrence), and about 20 scooters and bicycles going in either direction, trying to get around the cars that were almost immobile as they attempted to squeeze past each other while not hitting any scooters.

When the SUV finally got alongside me, and I could see the driver, I was amazing to see a smile on his face! The whole car was kind of laughing! And the only people who seemed at all perturbed by the whole thing were the two other Westerners who were stuck in the jam.

Jonathan, who lived in Japan for 3.5 years, credits this kind of laid back good will to a general difference in cultural and social philosophy. In Asia, in general, the whole is more important than the individual parts. The harmony of the group is valued above the comfort or needs of any one person. And you really see it here in Vietnam, in many aspects, but definitely in terms of the driving!

As you may have figured out by now, I have taken another step on my journey out of my comfort zone. I now ride around Hoi An on an electric bicycle, with a baby seat in the front for Aria and Charlotte riding on the little seat on the back.

We couldn’t find helmets small enough for the two babies in the front, but luckily we found one for Aria!
Thanks to Max at The Hub Hoi An for snapping this great shot for me!

I went about a month with only a bicycle, which I LOVED when I was on my own and gliding through the rice fields on the way to The Hub co-working space to work, but I couldn’t transport both girls at once, so it got difficult and complicated on my days with them. Plans with friends had to be carefully figured out in advance (which is not how things really roll here), or Jonathan had to chauffeur us around (which really cut into his productivity), or we had to get a Grab (which rarely felt worth it).

I knew I was never going to drive a scooter – I have expanded my comfort zone a LOT, but I can pretty much guarantee that is one line I will never feel comfortable crossing! Especially with my two precious babies in tow.

However, this middle ground of an electric bicycle intrigued me. A few of our friends here use them, and they are smaller, lighter, lower to the ground, and slower than a scooter. They have peddles, and feel much more like a bicycle than a motorcycle.

After 4 trips to the bike shop to sit on them, and eventually rent one for a day to see if I was comfortable with it, I decided I could give it a try.

Quick story about my adorable kids: on the day that Jonathan dropped me off to rent the e-bike for a day, I was getting on it and feeling incredibly nervous. I’m really working on showing my girls my emotions more than I witnessed growing up (love you, Mom and Dad, and all your repressed British emotions!), and so I said out loud, but kind of quietly, “oh god, I feel like I’m going to throw up.” And Charlotte came right over to my side, with this kind/concerned look on her face, and said “it’s okay, Mummy, you can do it! Just take a few deep breaths – in, out. In, out.” Those are the moments I live for…

Anyway, as luck would have it, some friends of ours were planning to sell their e-bike, but offered to rent it to me instead. It came with the baby seat already installed, and it has been PERFECT! The girls love riding around with me – Charlotte LIVES for the moments when Jonathan is home and Aria is napping and she gets to ride in the baby seat (because yes, those almost-6-year-old Kenzie hips still fit in a baby seat!)

I’ve gradually expanded my comfort zone on it, and can now confidently get the girls into Old Town (a UNESCO World Heritage site that is gorgeous but chock-full off tourists walking everywhere and a lot more traffic than our area of town) and to the beach.

I also have a better understanding of how the traffic works. When I’m on the back of the scooter, sometimes I’m just enjoying the ride, sometimes I’m zoning out so I don’t backseat drive too much, and sometimes I’m feeling nervous and worried about the traffic around us.

The best way I can describe it is: flowing. Everyone just flows. There is no jockeying for position, or trying to keep someone from merging so you can keep your spot, or getting upset when someone pulls out in front of you (which can be done safely if you’re flowing, but is dangerous if you were to try to maintain your speed or keep your spot on the road). There’s no getting mad when someone runs the red light and almost plows into you. Everyone just keeps on flowing.

I’ve decided that it’s the ultimate expression of the defensive driving approach that my Dad taught us all. You are always, at all times, responsible for your own safety. You have to be constantly vigilant and expect everyone else to do the wrong thing (although here it wouldn’t be considered the wrong thing…), and always have a path of escape or a plan B.

I’ve had a few close calls simply because I pulled in behind someone and followed just a little too closely for a few seconds as I adjusted to their speed, and they stopped or turned suddenly with no warning. Or someone came out of an alleyway unexpectedly right beside me. Or a car came up suddenly out of nowhere when I was about to turn left. In Canada, all of these situations would have been “not my fault” but, using defensive driving, I could have potentially avoided a car crash. Here, they just are. And you’re expected to be prepared for them, and drive safely through them.

I wish I had video of how this all works, because it’s hard to put into writing. It’s really quite amazing to watch the flow of traffic here.

And no, just because everyone flows doesn’t mean it’s always safe. We have witnessed two scooter crashes (neither one serious, luckily – everyone walked away relatively unscathed), and a friend was in a pretty bad crash a few weeks ago (likely from going too fast), and will be in the hospital for a few more weeks as he recovers (which he will, but not everyone is so lucky).

We regularly remind ourselves to not get overconfident, and keep in the healthy-dose-of-fear zone you need in order to be constantly paying attention and driving 100% defensively.

It’s quite a departure from our Canadian mindset of car seats and seat belts! But people die every day on the 401 (a huge highway in Southern Ontario that we drive weekly if not daily when we’re home), so you’re really not safe anywhere. All we can do is make smart decisions in the context of where we are – we wouldn’t ride a scooter in Bangkok, for example.

It’s a bit of a debate among some traveling families, whether to go with the flow of the local form of transportation, or keep the same safety standards as you had back home. I find that, in general, families who are traveling more for vacation or shorter trips will try to keep up their same standards, but families who are living here or traveling full time and spending extended periods in other countries start to loosen up their standards the longer they’re away from home. It’s hard to avoid when you’re living every day life in a place like this!

So, I’m pretty sure I’ve reached the limits of my comfort zone. It feels like it’s been expanded as far as it’s going to go. But I said that after Koh Tao, and here I am, riding around like a local, and loving it! So never say never…

In case you’re a detail person like me, and notice that my helmet doesn’t fit properly, rest assured that I was just borrowing it, and we bought one that fits me securely!
About Meredith Kenzie
I am a full-time traveling Mum of two adorably blond and mischevious little girls (isn’t it a good thing nature makes babies so damn cute?). I love to explore new places, finding the fun little places for my littles to play, and getting immersed in different cultures. I like to write and share about our travel adventures while keeping it minimalist and vegan as much as possible! Oh, and I love yoga, ballet, reading, baking, and time with friends.

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1 Comment

  1. Kendra

    I totally get this post! We’re a full-time traveling family of 5, and our comfort level with regard to transportation has been stretched almost until it broke! It started with a no-seatbelt minibus in Guatemala, moved on to cramming 4 adults and 3 kids into a tuk-tuk made for 4, 6 people into Uber compact cars in Antigua, and the list goes on… We haven’t “graduated” to scooters yet, mostly because we can’t all 5 fit on one, and the one time I drove one outside of our old neighborhood back in the States (with smoothly paved roads and clearly marked traffic rules), I nearly crashed! My current stretch is the kids riding everywhere here in Costa Rica on bikes with no helmets. The youngest one is loco on his bike and terrifies me, but we have searched and searched for helmets to no avail. But that’s our transportation here, so what do we do? I just hold my breath and watch him like a hawk. ??‍♀️


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