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Vietnam eats, sleeps, and dreams on motorbikes

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The number of motorbikes continues to rise in Vietnam and there are now nearly 20 million of them, according to the World Bank. Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) has 3 million – about one motorbike for every two people in the city. By far, the largest portion of vehicles on the roads of Vietnam are “motos,” which are small engine – 50cc to 400cc – motorcycles.

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I had my first extended stay in Vietnam more than three years ago. Day after day, I’d watch – through taxi windows – the dizzying theater of street traffic. From my backseat perch, I’d jot notes to myself about the two- and three-wheeled vehicles minnowing around me, heaving with cargo – coconut-laden rickshaws; old bicycles bulging with baskets of raw meat; cyclo drivers pedaling oversized spools of cable wiring; and motorbike after motorbike weighted down with six-foot bookcases, stereos, refrigerators, extension ladders, TVs, bushels of skinned chickens, plastic barrels of live fish, and rings of rubber tires.

These superheroes of delivery would transport items the size of small buildings on nothing bigger than a Vespa. Cars can barely crawl along the clogged city streets, but the river of motos and makeshift vehicles flow speedily around them. From my view inside the taxi, I felt like an onlooker who’d been plopped down into the middle of a parade.

A US State Department warning reads like an all points bulletin, cautioning Americans against murderous motorcycles on the loose: “The traffic moves on the right, although drivers often travel against the flow. Horns are used constantly, often for no apparent reason. Outside the cities, livestock compete with vehicles for road space. Drivers do not follow basic traffic principles and there is little adherence to traffic laws ... most Vietnamese ride motorcycles; often an entire family rides on one motorcycle.”

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