A guide on traffic signals in Vietnam

An article about traffic signals in Vietnam? Yes, we do have one! Whenever you Google Vietnam, it is inevitable that the aspects of traffic will pop up – along with videos and photos of rows and rows of motorbikes, all vying for tiny spaces in the never-ending snake of traffic. Whether you are driving or walking it is vital to know what the norms are so that you feel confident when out in the street as although the traffic rules and signals seem obvious to local Vietnamese, to a foreigner who is more used to strict traffic rules and signals it is easy to go wrong!


In many Western countries, it is illegal to use the horn- a type of traffic signals- without good reason. One good reason to use horns is when there’s a real emergency. Thus, for many ex-pats, there is a heightened reaction to the continual beeping that goes on in Vietnam. After a while, it will simply become a background noise but it will be a shock when you first arrive in Vietnam.

In general, there are three main reasons why there is beeping:

1/. To indicate to the motorbike in front / or the pedestrian that they are going to pass by so move out of the way

2/. That you have made a mistake – e.g. you have tried to cross the road when the lights have just changed

3/. That they are there – this sounds very strange but it is very common in Vietnam for motorbikes to travel up a one-way road the wrong way – to let you know that they are there will be a long continual beep

After a while, you will be able to distinguish between a bus horn and a car or motorbike horn. The reason why you need to know the sound of a bus horn is due to the fact that buses do not tend to notice or care about other traffic/pedestrians and simply go where they want as they are the largest thing on the road.

The power of the bus horn is so great that some cars even invest in having their own horn changed so that it sounds like a bus horn so that other vehicles in front will automatically move out of the way!

Traffic signals on motorbikes

Signalling is much hit and miss in Vietnam. In the West, vehicles always signal and you learn to trust the signalling at all times. This is not the case in Vietnam.

Many vehicles do not signal at all – and simply dive across the road in front of you without warning. In addition, many vehicles signal the wrong way e.g. indicating that they are turning left when in fact they are going to turn right – or have forgotten to turn off their signal from the previous turn meaning that you think they are going to turn but never do!

As a general rule, always assume that someone will dive in front at turns and never step out into the street as you think a vehicle is going to turn in another direction

Flashing lights

In the West traffic is super polite – people wait for each other and give way continuously. In Vietnam, it is extremely rare for any vehicle to give way to you and instead will be fighting to edge a couple of centimetres in front of you!

One of the major differences between traffic signals in the West and Vietnam is the use of flashing lights. Yes, this is also one of the most-used traffic signals in Vietnam. In the West when someone flashes their lights at you this means that they are inviting you to come and they will wait for you. However, in Vietnam this means the opposite – it means stay where you are as I am coming through  – this is both for vehicles on the road as well as pedestrians – whatever happens, do not try to cross the road when someone is flashing their lights as they will assume you know what their traffic signal means.

Hand gestures- is it considered traffic signals though?

As motorbikes are very tightly packed together on roads, it can be very hard for traffic to see a pedestrian trying to cross the road. As a result, when trying to cross the road there is often a need to tell the drivers you are crossing, In the South of Vietnam pedestrians typically put their hand straight up ( as if answering a question whilst at school ) – in this way they can easily be seen from a distance. In the North of Vietnam although people put their hand up it is in front (more like showing people your hand to say “stop “  )

Please note that although there are lots of zebra crossings, these are not adhered to at all – so even though you are trying to cross at a crossing assume that traffic will carry on zooming by!

Most of the time you cannot wait until there is no traffic – you simply have to cross!

Most of the time you cannot wait until there is no traffic – you simply have to cross!

Overall, although the traffic rules are very different to the West, with knowledge and confidence you will slowly get used to these new rules of using traffic signals. By then, you will be able to navigate the roads like a local pro!


To have good luck is a skill Not knowing how to seize opportunities is also a form of incompetence.

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To have good luck is a skill Not knowing how to seize opportunities is also a form of incompetence.