'They swerve at the last possible moment, giving scant inches to spare.'
April 11, 2018
'You must walk across the road like a ... like a ...cow.' The tour guide's words resonate round and round my brain as I try to negotiate my way across a road. It is not a particularly wide road, but each time I attempt to step off the kerb at the zebra crossing, a bus or a car or a taxi or a motorbike whizzes past. Just as a bus passes, I step off the footpath, mumbling the mantra out loud.
'Beep, beep'. A motorbike toots as it swerves around me. I'm halfway across the road. I check the opposite direction, draw in a deep breath and keep walking, eventually making it to the opposite kerb unscathed. As I slowly deflate my lungs, I realise that I have held my breath during this entire ordeal.
I enter the Ben Thanh Market, catching sight of a t-shirt, which has a large scribble on the front as a motif. Above the scribble are the words, 'Vietnamese Traffic'. I want that shirt!
There is a distinct lack of traffic lights in Ho Chi Minh City, which is the largest city in Vietnam. With a population of over 15 million people, most of whom ride motorbikes or motor scooters, traffic lights are not really necessary. After all, nobody obeys them. The green man means nothing to the drivers, nor do red lights or pedestrian crossings. I make up my mind to only use designated crossings, for insurance purposes. Just in case.....
The first time I encountered Vietnamese traffic was ten years ago. I had been glued to a footpath, absolutely rooted to the spot as I had tried to get myself across a road. I was standing at one of the few sets of traffic lights in the city, but each time the green man appeared, a new wave of motorbikes sped around the corner. I was terrified. Eventually, and to my utmost embarrassment, one of the local young men parked his bike on the footpath and gallantly escorted me across the road. My saviour made a big production of helping the tourist, bowing and shouting to the audience of seemingly hundreds of onlookers, much to their amusement. I had taken it all in good humour and thanked him profusely as he deposited me on the opposite corner.
There are a number of ways of crossing a road in any one of the bustling cities of Vietnam. My favourite one is to wait for a local person to step off the kerb and shadow them. This is an effective method, and works well. In the more touristy places, this is not always an option, so the 'Cow Principle' can be used. When you start crossing the road, you cannot go back, you cannot run, instead, slowly walk ahead, allowing the flow of the traffic to move around you, like a river that flows around a large boulder. The rider or motorist has already developed a sixth sense, knowing how to avoid you, so changing your mind mid-crossing will inevitably end in disaster.
Due to poor infrastructure, the high taxes on motor cars, no suburban trains, and the lack of space for parking cars, most people ride motorbikes and scooters. I am amazed by the amount and size of things that can be moved by these tiny vehicles. Sometimes they tow trailers filled with goods, such as building materials, food, animals, and household items. There appear to be laws that enforce the wearing of helmets, but none that state how much stuff or how many people can be carried by motorcycle. I have seen entire families travelling along the road, tiny children squeezed between their parents. Then there is the street vendor who pushes their trolley into the centre of traffic, seemingly oblivious to the vehicles whizzing around them.
Then there is the noise! Everyone uses their horn. We had hired a car and a driver for a day trip whilst we were in Hoi An. He had explained how the drivers use a type of 'morse code' to indicate their intentions.
'Beep-beep...beep-beep...beeeep' means 'get out of my way'
'Beeeeeep' means 'move ahead, and so on. You cannot discern one from the other when you are in the middle of a road, but it is likely that you will be tooted at some stage. It's all part of the traffic experience.
Negotiating footpaths is almost as daunting as crossing a road. They may be quite wide in comparison to many major cities in the world. However, pedestrians are not really a high priority as they weave around parked motorcycles, street vendors, popup-up cafes, trees, uneven pavers, and often, the motorcyclist, who decides to use the path as a shortcut.
I pass a roundabout. Despite driving on the right side of the road (sort of), and arrows pointing in the direction of the intended traffic flow, it is chaos; cars, bikes, and motorcycles enter without giving way. I gasp as one bike misses the taxi I'm travelling in by millimetres. Despite the number of accidents that do occur on a daily basis, we don't see one in the ten days we spend in Vietnam. I am fascinated by the traffic, but equally ecstatic that I've survived.
A brand new underground train system is currently being constructed in the centre of Ho Chi Minh City. I wonder whether the traffic will be reduced when it is completed. Perhaps I will return in a few years' time to see.
Title Quote: Andrew X. Pham, Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam
Accommodation: A&EM Art Hotel, 33-35 Le Anh Xuan St, Ben Thanh Ward, District 1 Ho Chi Minh City.