An initial shock for many Westerners who get off a plane in Southeast Asia? The sheer volume of motorbikes on the roads. As of September 2015, in Vietnam there are about 42 million motorbikes for a population of 90 million. Motorbikes are the way to get around. (If you get a good deal, you can rent one for about $5 a day.)
They also speak to Vietnam's rapid development. Twenty years ago, people mostly rode bikes. A decade ago it was almost all motorbikes and bikes. Now, motorbikes still reign, but more and more cars appear daily. There were reportedly 2.5 million registered in 2015. The Vietnamese government taxes cars at 100%, but that will change soon thanks to the ASEAN trade bloc and TPP. For now though, as my Vietnamese friend told me, "Boys know if they want a girlfriend, they need a motorbike."
Everyone and everything physically possible rides a motorbike, which makes for some impressive, disturbing and hilarious scenes on the streets. I've asked friends who live in the region, crowdsourced from Facebook and recorded my own memories into the following list of things spotted on the streets of Vietnam. Some people have kindly shared their photos with me, which I've combined with some of mine to help make the point. To those who live in the region, this is everyday; for newcomers (like me), it never ceases to amaze.
"One time I saw...on the back of a motorbike."
- Eight people
- Another motorbike
- Another motorbike and a minifridge
- Pig carcasses out for butcher delivery
- Two live pigs
- Six live goats
- Giant panes of glass
- Easily 100 pinatas
- A baby stroller
- Two bicycles
- Six toilets
- (Many times) a lit fire with meat cooking, waiting to be bought
- Two refrigerators
- A porcelain collection
- Bags and bags of fish
- A birdcage with a squirrel inside
- Six dogs
- A live cow
- A shark carcass
...and the list goes on.
P.S. Bikes of Burden is a good photography book that covers just this subject.