Biking Around Vientiane City: Surviving the Roads

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Biking around Vientiane traffic
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The most valuable advice we got after moving to Laos was how to safely ride a bike around Vientiane city. We wanted to pay it forward, so this post (and accompanying video) is to help you learn how to bicycle in Vientiane city. In traffic. Without getting run over.

We’ll cover:

  • The (unwritten) road rules for biking around Vientiane city
  • How Vientiane does bicycle turn signals
  • Navigating (and surviving) traffic circles
  • Biking hazards and personal security
  • And finally, some tips for tackling Vientiane by bike

This 5 minute video sums up everything you should know about biking around the capital city of Laos. Watch the video below.

The Road Rules for Biking Around Vientiane City

Road Rules Traffic Police Vientiane

In Laos people drive on the right. So to get around Vientiane by bicycle, you’ll be driving on the right also.

For the most part as bicyclist, you’ll be doing the same as motorcyclists (but not as fast). It’s expected that slower traffic – like you – rides on the far right side of the road.

Not many people ride bicycles in Vientiane city. You will be an oddity. In general, cars will give you as much room as they can. Motorbikes on the other hand (and there are a lot of them), will drive close to you because you’re one of them…kind of.

So far so good. Here’s where it gets interesting…

At stop lights (when traffic starts to build up), motorbikes and bicycles sneak to the front of the line. In Vientiane, all the bikes clump together in a hoard at the front and take off before the cars do. After biking around Vientiane city for a few days you’ll be an expert at weaving to the front of the line, just like the locals.

When you join the motorbike hoard, make sure to leave room for right-turning cars. They will want that outside right lane. That means you need to stop in the middle with the straight- or left-turning traffic.

If you can’t find room to squeeze into the motorbike hoard, cozy up beside a car near the front. Go when the hoard goes – you’ll take off faster than the car beside you.

Smart Tip: if you’re blocking right-turning traffic, or any traffic really – drivers in Vientiane will honk their horns at you.

Indicating Turns When Biking Around Vientiane City

Biking hand signals lang xang road

Hand signals for turning in Vientiane are simple. Stick your arm down in the direction you want to turn and point with your hand. For a little extra attention, point and flutter.

Signal a left turn with your left hand, and a right turn with your right hand.

There’s no signal for stopping.

Motorbikes and tuk-tuks use the same turn signals if their blinkers don’t work.

Smart Tip: just because you signaled, doesn’t mean that traffic saw (or that they care). For your safety, always do a shoulder check when changing trajectory.

In general, most vehicles in Vientiane use their blinkers or (if they don’t have them) use hand signals.

If you’re turning your bicycle left off a straight road, shoulder check and signal yourself into the middle of the lane, then get to the center line. If you have to stop and wait for traffic, keep it clear with your body language that you are going to turn.

Remember to shoulder check before you cross the line, as a motorbike could zip past you on the left, going straight (seriously, these guys are always in a hurry).

If there’s a designated left turn lane, signal into that lane then ride to the front and wait at the stop light with the hoard of motorbikes. Go when they do.

Smart Tip: if you don’t think you can safely turn left, pull over and cross when traffic dies down. Sometimes in rush hour traffic this is the safest option.

How Smart Bicyclists Survive Traffic Circles

Traffic Circles Patuxay

Traffic circles (AKA roundabouts) in Vientiane flow counter-clockwise, and the drivers in the circle have the right-of-way until they exit.

If you’re on a bicycle and need to take a traffic circle, you’ll have to own your lane.

Signal yourself into the middle of your lane as you approach the traffic circle. Stop thinking of yourself as a timid bicycle and start thinking of yourself as a car. A bicycle-sized car that deserves its whole damn lane.

Yield to traffic in the circle, then enter. Bike around the traffic circle counter-clockwise *taking up the whole lane* until your exit. Signal, exit, and then get back to the side of the road where you belong.

Smart Tip: don’t forget to shoulder check as you leave the traffic circle. Cars sometimes sneak along the outside of the traffic circle instead of yielding, essentially cutting you off.

Vientiane Biking Hazards and Personal Safety

Hazards and Safety Monks crossing road in crosswalk

Bicycle shops in Vientiane city sell or rent bicycle helmets, but foreigners often choose not to wear them. Helmet safety is your own choice here.

Biking around Vientiane city involves biking past parked cars, so there’s a risk of getting doored. Luckily most drivers in Vientiane look before they open the driver’s side door. But not all. If you get doored you’ll wish you had a helmet on.

Stray dogs sometimes chase bicycles, and they have bitten people. If you’re planning to be in Vientiane city for a long time, get your rabies vaccination (a series of three shots administered over 30 days).

Bicycles are targets for petty crime in Vientiane city.

  • Don’t put anything valuable in your bike basket, or sling a purse from your shoulder. Chances are a motorbike will snatch it and speed off.
  • Lock your bike to solid pole when possible. It a frequent crime in Vientiane to snatch the entire bicycle if it’s not secured to something solid.
  • If you will be biking at night, purchase an LED headlight and taillight. Elsewise traffic can’t see you. But…
  • Don’t leave your bike’s headlight unattended. It makes a great flashlight, and someone will walk away with it.

More Tips for Biking Around Vientiane City

tips for biking parking
  • Vientiane has MANY motorbike repair shops. To fill a bicycle tire costs 1,000 kip (15 cents). It’s worth every kip as your ride will be 1,000 times smoother (approximately). Alternatively, buy a hand pump for about $15 USD.
  • The streets in Vientiane city sometimes flood during the rainy season. If you want your shoes to stay dry consider biking in waterproof shoes like flip flops or crocs.
  • Having saddlebags on your bike is convenient for groceries, and you’ll avoid sweaty-back (nowhere near as cool as sexy-back). You can buy bicycle saddlebags in Vientiane for around $25 USD.
  • For bikes and motorbikes (and sometimes cars) it’s acceptable to ride on the shoulder going the wrong way. It sounds dangerous, but honestly, sometimes it’s the safest route.

In Summary

With practice (and this advice) you’ll quickly get comfortable biking around Vientiane city.

To safely ride, keep to the right but own your lane when you need to. Traffic circles, for example, are best taken riding in the middle of the lane so that you don’t get squished.

To signal a turn, point and flutter your hand in the direction you are turning.

To prevent theft, never ride with valuables in your basket. And to avoid having your bike stolen, lock it to something solid.

Bicycling is a great way to explore Vientiane at your own pace. This post will help, but remember, you’re responsible for your own safety out there. Good luck.

Do you have a question about biking in Vientiane? Maybe some better advice? Please leave a comment below. We love to hear from our readers.

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