Earlier this year, I opted to take a trip down the Ho Chi Minh Road—a 1,000 mile interior highway that nominally links Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
Before departing, a thought occurred: just how likely am I to die on the trip ahead?
Last year, the University of Michigan ranked 193 countries based on road fatalities. Vietnam came up number 25, just below Columbia.
Unfortunately, the study contained no information about how likely I was to die on my road trip.
An informal polling of foreign embassies and consulates yielded the following results:
Four Americans died on Vietnam's roads in 2014 along with a pair of Brits and two Frenchmen.
The Germans kept no such numbers.
“It is very, very dangerous,” an exasperated consular employee told me. “More dangerous than in Germany.”
A Canadian consular flak declined to provide a death toll (if there was one), but directed me to the following proviso on their online travel advisory about Vietnam:
Traffic accidents occur frequently, often causing death or serious injury. Motorcycle riders and pedestrians are common victims. Driving standards are poor, vehicles and roads are often badly maintained, and roads in major cities are congested. Rain can flood potholes and roads, especially those in the north, can become impassable during the rainy season. Traveling after dark is dangerous.
Driving without a Vietnamese driver’s license is illegal. If you are involved in a traffic accident, you may face criminal charges and have to pay compensation if someone is injured. You may be prohibited from leaving the country before paying this compensation.
Last year, the outgoing Russian ambassador asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to stop Vietnamese people from renting bikes to tourists who lacked proper driver's licenses.
“We have a few deaths every year,” a Russian consular staffer told me. “We advise all our citizens and travel companies not to drive in Vietnam without paperwork or a sense of the traffic.”
I had both of those things.
But they hardly seemed necessary.
Every day, loads of unlicensed bright-eyed 23 year-olds arrive eager to “do” the Ho Chi Minh Road.
They come clad in elephant print yoga pants and muscle shirts hoping to fulfill dreams inspired by blog posts, Youtube montages or sweet nothings overheard in Cambodian guest houses. To record every second of this life-altering experience, many strap Go-Pro cameras to their heads and chests.
Whence this desire to cross Vietnam on two-wheels?
“It was Top Gear that did it,” said Chris McBride, a muscular young Englishman working the desk of Flamingo Travel—which has rented motorbikes to tourists for 15 years now. “Now it's become famous to come here and buy a bike.”
The 2010 episode that started it all followed three of England's richest idiots as they set out on busted motorbikes conspiring to prank one another into injury, humiliation or worse. The Vietnamese government banned the episode, but not before it created a whole economy based on bad decisions.
Hanoi's central districts now abound with motorbike rentals, backpacking hostels and English-speaking mechanics all hoping to outfit the flood of young adventurers throwing caution to the wind.
McBride came over in 2012, bought a Honda Win (or one of its many imitations) and drove from North to South. He estimates that ten to fifteen people leave Hanoi, every day, to do the exact same thing.
McBride also hasn't had a customer die on him. Cluelessness, he suggested, prevents many from engaging in behavior that qualified as truly stupid.
“I think, if anything, sometimes the lack of experience can help make you more cautious,” he said while declining to guess how many inches of skin or teeth these travelers leave behind.
“We've never had a client accident in Vietnam,” said James Barbush whose company, Remote Asia leads 60-100 motorbike tours here a year. “We never had a client fatality in Vietnam. It's an urban myth...”
Khuat Viet Hung, the executive vice chairman of the National Traffic Safety Committee also deemed the Ho Chi Minh Road a safe place for tourists.
“Driving [the Ho Chi Minh Road] and seeing the sights along the way is becoming more attractive,” he said over tea at his office at the Ministry of Transportation. “In my understanding, it's quite safe.”
But safety is a relative concept.
Hung was in the process of appealing a World Health Organization announcement that 20,000 Vietnamese had died in road accidents during 2014. By his count, it was closer to 9,000.
A WHO staffer, reached by phone, claimed Hung's figures relied on police reports, which only account for those found dead in the road.
“Those figures don't take into account when, say, someone is injured so badly that doctors send them home to die,” he said.
Hung never responded to an email about that claim and so the dispute fizzled without resolution.
For any Americans reading this, that means that over three 9/11s either do or don't happen on Vietnam's roads every year—depending on whom you ask.
But, hey, it's not Colombia. So I decided to take the trip.
To hedge my bets, I decided to only drive one-way wearing sets of flimsy plastic knee and elbow pads that had become de rigeur among the backpacking set.
Just after Tet, I loaded my bike onto a train and trust fell into Vietnam.
The trip went smoothly except for the 13-hour delay just outside Hue.
A train in Quang Binh smashed into a truck trying to scoot over the tracks.
Everyone survived, save the conductor, who was presumably pulled off the tracks with the wreckage to keep traffic moving.