Motorbikes Gave The Vietnamese Middle Class A New Freedom, But A Potential Ban Could Change That

Sep 10, 2019

Motorbike drivers ride down a busy street in downtown Hanoi
Credit Matthew LaPlante

It’s a big day for Nguyen Thu Huong. 

The recent university graduate is one of the dozens of people at a busy motorbike shop in downtown Hanoi, where some customers were waiting for maintenance on the bikes they already own and others walk through the showroom looking for a new one.

Huong is in that latter group. She came to the shop to buy her first bike. 

Although she used the bus when she was in school, her new job is further away from her home. 

“If you are working and you go by bus, it is not convenient. But when you have your own motorbike, it is more convenient to go to work,” Huong said. 

But Huong was nervous. The cost of a new motorbike is anywhere from 7,000,000 to 120,000,000 Vietnamese dong, the equivalent of 300 to 5,200 U.S. dollars — a purchase she is making with money from her parents. She wants to make a good choice. 

When the bike was rolled up — shiny and white, with gleaming chrome — the smile on her face indicates she believes she had chosen wisely.

There are nearly 7.8 million people in Hanoi — and an estimated five to six million motorbikes. The cost of a car alone is out of reach for most Vietnamese. High taxes of automobiles puts the dream of car ownership even further out of reach. 

So, for the booming middle class — which by some estimates is expected to be about a third of the population by 2020 — motorbikes are the preferred form of transportation.

And as that middle class grows, so does the number of motorbikes in the country. 

In large cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, this is followed by a noticeable increase in air pollution, noise and traffic. Not to mention accidents.

To address these issues, government officials are proposing a ban on motorbikes in Hanoi’s downtown by 2030. Officials have said massive improvements in public transportation would accompany the ban. However, that's a promise many locals are skeptical of. 

But access to motorbikes isn’t just about transportation. It’s an issue of social mobility as well. And how the ban, if it is carried out, how it impacts Vietnam may help point the way for other nations considering similar bike bans. 

On the same Saturday when Huong purchased her first bike, Le Thi Hoang Anh was also at the motorbike shop waiting for maintenance to be done on the bike she bought the previous month. 

Like Huong, Anh recently graduated from university. She had been working as a secretary for about six months. Before her motorbike, she took the bus to work. By bus, her commute was about an hour. Driving a motorbike cut the time in half. 

“I can do something for myself more often,” Anh said. “Like make-up, or prepare my meal.”

This isn’t the first time Anh has seen the increase in freedom and flexibility motorbike ownership can bring. A few years ago, her parents bought their first motorbike. 

“In the past, they used to use a bicycle but it limited moving, traveling and visiting relatives,” Anh said. “They were more active after owning a motorbike. They could go anywhere they wanted.”

Motorbike ownership helped her parents see their extended family members more often while also providing them more time to rest. 

About 1,500 miles south of Hanoi in Ho Chi Minh City, Nguyen Thi Hoa has a similar story. When the street vendor started using a motorbike 20 years ago, she experienced a similar increase in time and mobility. Before her motorbike, she used a bicycle. The switch made transportation more convenient and less time-consuming. 

With the time she has gained, Hoa has been able to focus more on her trade and running her household.

The personal conveniences motorbike ownership brings, however, are not without a community cost. In a March interview with Dan Tri Newspaper, Vu Van Vien, the director of Hanoi’s transportation department, said these individual conveniences should not come at the expense of society at large. 

According to Vien, implementation of the ban will happen before 2030 in areas of the city where 80 percent of the population is less than 500 meters, about one third of a mile, away from a public transit stop. Vien said officials also have plans to reduce personal automobile use as well. 

Hanoi isn’t the only place where local officials have considered motorbike bans.

Leaders in Ho Chi Minh City briefly discussed it earlier this year, but instead decided on a plan to restrict motorbikes when public transit develops enough to better meet the needs of travelers. 

In other parts of the world, motorbikes were banned as a way to reduce crime. A ban in the capital of Ethiopia was initiated this summer in hopes of improving safety in the city. 

In January of 2018, men were banned from riding motorbikes in Bogata, Columbia, a concept similar to a 2014 ban in Medellin, Columbia. 

Motorbike bans don’t just occur in developing nations. Both Paris and London have restrictions on when, where and what types of two-wheeled motorized vehicles can be ridden in the city. However, the bans have a deeper impact on emerging economies. 

Ivan Small is an associate professor of anthropology at Central Connecticut State University and has spent extended periods of time in Vietnam throughout the past two decades for various research projects. His first trip to the country was in the late 90s. 

“You really saw the motorcycle starting to emerge as something that was radically transforming Vietnamese society, both from kind of a practical standpoint, but also as a kind of aspiration for material and social mobility,” Small said. 

Now, Small said motorbike fatigue which is leading more people to want cars. Vietnam’s recent entrance into the Association of Southeast Asian Free Trade Area will require the country’s government to eliminate tariffs on cars coming from other nations in that agreement, which Small said will help make the vehicles more accessible. 

As far as a ban goes, he said it may not be as crazy as people think. When the government began requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets, no one thought that would be possible, but now the majority of people follow that rule. 

Despite this possibility, there is a liberation many motorbike drives in Vietnam feel that makes them think banning the bikes will be impossible. 

Tran Quoc Tan has driven a motorbike taxi in Vietnam for a decade. He said Vietnamese people are still poor and the quality of their life will need to improve before they can afford cars.

Nguyen Van Manh agreed. For the past decade, he has worked as both a delivery driver and a motorbike taxi driver in Hanoi. He said if bikes were banned, he could find other work, but he loves the independence he finds in his current job. 

“If you would like to experience this type of job,” Mahn said, “you should take a motorbike one day and you will experience the benefit and the freedom.”