Vietnam's motorbike ban imprudent, bound to fail

By Jan Rybnik   April 22, 2019 | 04:37 pm PT
A ban on motorbikes in Vietnam would be an abandoning of common sense and a low blow against economically weaker sections.
Jan Rybnik

Jan Rybnik

I don’t even know where to begin.

I have traveled through the entire length of Vietnam on a motorbike. It was 2012 and the trip took me a month. Unlike buses, trains or planes, riding a motorbike allowed me to explore more of the lesser-known places, meet more people from all walks of life and discover so many things I would have never been able to without my trusty two-wheeled steed. 

Not to mention how it was super cheap: that one-month trip only cost me $500. So with a motorbike, not only do you get the freedom to go wherever you want, whenever you want, it’s also much easier on your wallet.

Needless to say, motorbikes have become my go-to vehicle each time I want to take a break from the quotidian rat-race and go somewhere far away. I’m sure many others share the same sentiment.

For foreigners like me, motorbikes are as Vietnamese as fragrant bowls of pho or scrumptious loaves of banh mi. They are practically a part of Vietnamese culture. Meet any new tourist in Vietnam and you will see the excitement, the suspense, even a hint of cautious fear, all melded together and reflected in their child-like gazes as they watch the flow of vehicles coursing through the streets in this country. Just ask my sister. One of the items on her must-do-list when she came to visit me in Vietnam was to "ride a motorbike on Vietnamese streets."

But Hanoi has wanted to ban this vehicle for a while now. Just last month, the Ministry of Transport also announced its support for the capital’s plan.

They say motorbikes are the source of several urban issues, including air pollution, traffic jams, too much noise and too many accidents.


First, traffic jams. A simple observation would reveal that motorbikes aren’t the only vehicles out there on the road. What about cars? They take up much more space, yet more often than not, there’s just the driver or the driver and another person in each of them. Not to mention how often they invade motorbike lanes, disrupting the vehicle flow and bringing traffic to a standstill. For reference, just look to some Saigon streets like Nam Ky Khoi Nghia or Nguyen Van Troi during rush.

Second, the air pollution. Once again, singling out motorbikes does not make sense. They are not the only things with emissions. Cars, industrial factories, the burning of trash in the open – all of these contribute to harmful emissions. China has banned motorbikes in some of its major cities, but it has perennially been among the most air-polluted countries in the world.

Third, traffic accidents. We all know that it’s not the vehicle we use, but how we behave on the road that keep us safe. Obeying the law, showing responsibility and discipline are the things that will help you get back home in one piece after a long day at work, not boycotting motorbikes.

A woman drives her son to school on Hanois Nguyen Trai Street in the morning of April 16, 2019. Banning motorbikes in Vietnam can prevent the not-so-rich community from job and other opportunities. Photo by VnExpress/Gia Chinh

A woman drives her son to school on Hanoi's Nguyen Trai Street in the morning of April 16, 2019. Banning motorbikes in Vietnam can prevent the not-so-rich community from job and other opportunities. Photo by VnExpress/Gia Chinh

While authorities are still debating if the ban on motorbikes would work, its consequences are unfortunately, painfully obvious.

How people move from one place to another could determine their movement on the social ladder, especially when it comes to wealth, according to a 2015 study by Harvard University. 

In developed nations, a person who lives near a subway station stands more chance of landing a better job and a higher salary than others who live further away. The poor may dwell in slums and neighborhoods with subpar infrastructure and little job opportunities, but if they could travel freely, for example through good public transportation systems, they could go anywhere they want for work.

Now look at Vietnam. It’s hard enough to find a place in central city areas where most job opportunities are, given sky high real estate prices. On top of this, banning motorbikes? That’s no less than a nail in the coffin for so many workers, with millions depending on them for work. 

And let’s be honest, Vietnam’s public transportation isn’t anywhere close to meeting real needs. As long as there exists no viable alternative to motorbikes, banning them would place so many under considerable stress, reducing their productivity, leading to mass unemployment, dragging back economic growth, and finally, engendering a social breakdown. That’s a bit of a stretch, but you get the point.

Another glaringly obvious problem is that the majority of people in Vietnam would not be able to afford a car, at least in the short term. 

In a country where the per capita income only amounted to $2,587 last year, where car import and fuel taxes rise regularly, to ban motorbikes without sufficient infrastructural foundation to cushion its impacts would only widen the already gaping wealth gap in Vietnam

Is this so difficult to foresee? Or so easy to ignore?

A developed country is not where the poor can buy cars, but where the rich actually use public transport. A good government solves problems for all its people, not confer privileges on certain groups.

If Vietnam is to kiss its motorbikes goodbye, it would first have to ramp up its public transportation system to much higher levels.

The ones who do use public transportation, however, had had enough. Zebra crossings are just for show. Sidewalks are almost non-existent, infested with parking spaces and billboards and whatnot. Bus stops are in the open, and commuters have to wait under a scorching sun, smothered by dust, ears subjected to deafening noise. No wonder people prefer motorbikes.

Alongside astronomical improvements to public transportation, Vietnam needs to de-clutter its public spaces, enforce traffic rules better, educate people in proper traffic etiquettes... The to-do list is long for Vietnam to solve its numerous urban problems. Banning motorbikes should not be on the list, ever.

But maybe, just maybe, one fine day when all buses run on time, when metro stations are packed and crowded, when people stop honking at each other every time there’s 10 seconds left until the red lights change - maybe, just maybe, Vietnamese citizens will finally be ready to take off their helmets, stash them away and release their motorized horses back into the wild, shedding a few tears, perhaps.

But until that day, those thinking of banning motorbikes should take a hike.

*Jan Rybnik is a Master of Modern Diplomacy at the University of Warsaw, Poland. He studied Vietnamese culture at Vietnam National University in Hanoi. The opinions expressed are his own.

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