How to cross the street in Vietnam

For many parts of the world, Vietnam is still known less as a nation but a war that ended over 40 years ago. The better travelled people whom I know have been to my home country all seem to learn 2 other major things: trying the food and the crossing the street. Both appear to be chaotic and frightening to the foreign eyes, especially where road etiquettes are concerned. To cross the street in Vietnam, one simply needs to confidently make a bee line across and be predictable in your movement so that the hundreds of bikers can safely avoid you. It is, of course, easier said than done.

It is interesting that traffic congestion has become equally distinctive and burdensome in Vietnam. Mobility caused some of the largest problems on the city’s residents, either through long commute times, inefficient or expensive transport and/or adverse health effects from transport pollution [1]. For the capital of Hanoi, a city of 10 million people, more than 5 million motorbikes and no followers of traffic laws [2], surely the concept of efficient urban mobility has neither place nor hope in this South East Asian country.

When it comes to the question of sustainability, the emission share of transport in emerging economies such as Vietnam is still rather small but growing very quickly. It is expected that by 2025 transport-related CO2 emissions from developing countries will exceed those from industrialised countries [3]. This is a growth that comes in parallel with the increased of automotive sales in Southeast Asia as their economies expand and citizens’ wealth improves. If the infrastructures cannot keep up with the rate of urbanisation, this future vision only offers a replacement of Vietnam’s motorcycles problem with a cars problem. But estimates for car ownership in the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam are only 6%, 4% and 2% respectively [4]. Therefore, there is incredible room to develop sustainable preventions for congestion before higher emissions automotive vehicles flood the streets of Hanoi and Manila.

In general, a major strategy that can make transportation systems more energy-efficient is reducing transportation needs and promoting a shift to more energy-efficient transport modes [5]. In order to do this, similar to learning how to cross the street, it is important to understand the social practices surrounding daily commute of nations such as Vietnam. As Elizabeth Shove (2014) [6] suggests, from there, transitions to more sustainable practices can be encouraged from both governmental institutions and companies.

For example, a very interesting initiative from the WBCSD is to foster car-sharing communities, whereby specific parking spaces within a community were reserved for shared vehicles, while other spaces were converted into “community spaces”. At the same time, the culture of vehicle sharing has long entrenched in Vietnam. A motorbike can only be registered to 1 person, but the number of registered bikes is only half the total population [2]. With little public transports and low car ownership, this must mean people do engage in the sharing of motorbikes. As the country moves away from bikes, perhaps this can translate to cars, where even more possibility of sharing can take place. This would reduce the need for vehicle purchasing and cut future emission. Additionally, moving from bikes to larger vehicles would prompt stricter laws and punishments that can lead to more orderly traffic conducts.

By Nam Le

Image: Flickr (Creative Commons)




[3] Bongardt, D., Sterk, W., & Rudolph, F. (2009). Achieving sustainable mobility in developing countries: suggestions for a post-2012 agreement. GAIA-Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society, 18(4), 307-314.



[6] Shove, E. (2014). Putting practice into policy: reconfiguring questions of consumption and climate change. Contemporary Social Science, 9(4), 415-429.


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