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The transformation of mobility in post-đổi mới Vietnam

La transformation de la mobilité dans le Vietnam après la politique d’ouverture (đỏi mới)
Nguyen Van Minh
p. 129-148


This paper explores how mobility has changed in late-socialist Vietnam in the context of increasingly entangled intersections between private aspirations and state policies, economic development, and urbanisation. Based on “motorbike ethnography” in Ho Chi Minh City, the paper focuses on traffic as a major site where social actors negotiate dominant discourses on modernity, access to public spaces and citizenship. Traffic is also a marker of social inequalities and uneven distribution of motility. Traditional means of transport such as the bicycle and the cyclo, usually associated with lower social classes, must yield to more powerful means, in particular the car. Indeed, although motorbikes still dominate city traffic, the car plays a central role in contemporary notions of modernity and has become a symbol of conspicuous consumption for urban middle classes. In this paper I seek to understand the persistence of motorbikes, the increasing popularity of cars, and the relations between the two means of transportation in present-day Ho Chi Minh City from a mobilities perspective.

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Mobility in post-đổi mới urban Vietnam
Motorbike ethnography : Sensing traffic through a motorbike
Gendered mobility : Motorbikes as a mobile infrastructure of intimacy
Final reflections

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Traffic is the most visible marker of Vietnam’s transition towards a “socialist-oriented market economy”, a shift which initiated in the mid-1980s with the macroeconomic reforms known as đổi mới (renovation) (Fforde 1996; Masina 2006). The favoured positional goods in post-war Vietnam have centred on technology, while other aspirational goods have lost popularity as they became outdated. Bicycles dominated Vietnamese streets until the late 1980s but have gradually been replaced by motorbikes (Truitt 2008; Freire 2009; Gillen 2015; Hansen 2017a). Starting from the 2010s, the value of motorbikes as status-producing goods decreased as car ownership became a symbol of social and economic achievement (Hansen 2015, 2017b). In this context, where a person’s mode of transportation and social status are often conflated, mobility intermingles with the aspirations, desires, and practices of the modern city dweller (Jensen 2011).

The foundational role of automobility in contemporar...

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Bibliographical reference

Nguyen Van Minh, The transformation of mobility in post-đổi mới VietnamCivilisations, 69 | 2020, 129-148.

Electronic reference

Nguyen Van Minh, The transformation of mobility in post-đổi mới VietnamCivilisations [Online], 69 | 2020, Online since 01 January 2024, connection on 17 January 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Nguyen Van Minh

Nguyen Van Minh is a Ph.D. candidate and Aspirant FNRS at the Université libre de Bruxelles (LAMC; EASt). His research focusses on how processes of urbanisation and transition to a market economy are shaping practices of mobility and intimacy amongst youths in Ho Chi Minh City. In particular, it investigates how the motorbike allows urbanites to negotiate their presence in, and right to, the city by providing a mobile platform for the performance of urban identities, gender negotiations and social distinction. [Laboratoire d’anthropologie des mondes contemporains (LAMC), Université libre de Bruxelles, avenue Franklin Roosevelt 50, CP124, 1050 Brussels, Belgium | van.minh.nguyen[at]].

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