POSTCARD FROM SAIGON
I THOUGHT MELBOURNE HAD PROBLEMS WITH TRAFFIC CONJESTION UNTIL I ARRIVED IN VIETNAM
'They swerve at the last possible moment,
giving scant inches to spare.'
- Andrew X. Pham -
'You must walk across the road like a ... like a ...cow.'
The tour guide's words, like a mantra, resonate in my head 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 squadron of motorcycles whizz past. Just as a bus belches by, I see a small break in the interminable tidal wave of noisy, smelly, vehicles and I step off the kerb. I almost feel like closing my eyes like a child; if I can't see the risk, it doesn't exist, right? Wrong.
Without panicking, I plod, and with each step, one word of my new mantra is playing over in my head.
Step - walk
Step - like
Step - a
Step - cow
'Beep, beep'. I physically jump as a motorcycle toots as it swerves around me.
By now, I'm halfway across the road. Eyes roll right and left, plod, check, plod, think, plod, listen.
I arrive at the opposite kerb, unscathed. Slowly inflating my screaming lungs, I realise I have held my breath throughout this ordeal.
I made it!
Not only have I successfully and safely crossed the road, I wish that I could thank the tour guide who gave me such sage advice.
I'm outside the Ben Thanh Market, where a number of eye-catching t-shirts are prominently displayed. Each one featuring a tongue-in-cheek view of Vietnamese traffic. I'm sure these are strategically placed on this side of the zebra crossing as a marketing ploy, and I know they are best-sellers as souvenirs, as I've seen many tourists wearing them. One of my favourite T-shirts displays a large scribble on the front, spiralling at the bottom with the words, Saigon Traffic. It is how I feel!
There is an obvious 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. Despite many people crossing roads anywhere and at any time there is a break in the traffic, for insurance purposes, it is necessary for me to use designated crossings, few and far between as they may be.
Just in case...
The first time I encountered Vietnamese traffic was in Hanoi ten years ago. There, I had been glued to a footpath, absolutely rooted to the spot as I had tried to get myself across a road several times, chickening out and returning to the kerb. Each time the green man appeared on the traffic lights, his little animated body showing the walking action, a new wave of motorcycles or scooters 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, with a flourish, gallantly escorted me across the road. My saviour had made a big production of helping the 'poor' tourist, as he swept and bowed and shouted to an 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. I have never forgotten the experience, and although I do reflect upon the scene with mirth, I vowed that it would not happen again. The following day, our tour guide had given me the 'cow-advice', which I have had to fall back upon many times since. After all, good advice can be applied to parts of the world where populations are high and road-crossings are few.
There are other ways of crossing a road in any 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 very well, most of the time. In the more touristy places, the 'Shadow-Method' is not always possible, so the 'Cow Principle' is used.
There is a madness to the method of the 'Cow Principle, and it's quite simple. By developing a steady pace and without varying your speed, the traffic will swirl around you like water that flows around a large boulder in a river. You cannot go back. You cannot run. The motorist has already seen you and has mentally registered your speed, thus avoiding making contact as long as you do not alter your pace.
Changing your mind mid-crossing will inevitably end in disaster.
One day I watched with mixed amazement and horror, a street food vendor push her trolley diagonally across a busy five-ways. Traffic swirling around and almost completely enveloping her tiny form, she emerges at the opposite side of the road untouched. Although I sigh with relief at her victory, this is probably a daily occurrence for her and she doesn't think it's any great feat, like I do.
Due to poor infrastructure, the high taxes on motor cars, few 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 are laws that enforce the wearing of helmets, but none that state how much stuff or how many people can be carried on a motorcycle. I have seen entire families travelling along the road, tiny children squeezed between their parents.
Then there is the noise! Everyone uses their horn. From what we are led to understand, drivers use a type of 'morse code' to not only indicate their intentions, but to give instructions.
'Beep-beep...beep-beep...beeeep' means 'get out of my way'
'Beeeeeep' means 'move ahead, and so on.
I cannot discern one beep from another, but I am not driving, nor am I 'tuned' into the individual sounds. This, I believe, is a learned skill and it's completely out of my experience.
I haven't mentioned the footpaths yet.
Negotiating a footpath is almost as daunting as crossing a road. Initially I thought that some of the footpaths were quite wide in comparison to most major cities in the world. I quickly realise that pedestrians are not really a high priority in Ho Chi Minh City, as footpaths are a shared space. Pedestrians have to share with parked motorcycles, street vendors, popup-up cafes, trees, not to mention the motorcyclists, who regularly use the paths as shortcuts before joining the throng of traffic on the roads.
I am in a taxi and heading for the airport before my return flight to Melbourne. As we go around a roundabout, I am completely disorientated, as despite the arrows pointing in the direction of the intended flow of the traffic, many have completely ignored those directions and there is utter chaos as cars, bicycles, motorbikes, scooters and all manner of other road vehicles enter without giving way, but more distressingly, they are moving in any direction they wish to go.
I gasp as one motorcyclist is staring at me through the side passenger window. I am literally eyeballing this character and whilst I expect to be hit, disaster is averted by mere millimetres.
Despite the high number of reported road accidents in Vietnam that do occur on a daily basis, we do not see any over the past ten days. I honestly believe that is a case of good luck, not good management.
I may fascinated by the traffic in Ho Chi Minh City, but equally ecstatic that I've survived. I'm sure that when I arrive home and join the increasingly congested Melbourne streets, I will be less impatient and more thankful that the road rules in my home town are generally observed.
Highlights: Any walk in Ho Chi Minh City highlights the amazing Vietnamese culture!
Accommodation: A & E M Art Hotel. 33-35 Le Anh Xuan St, Ben Thanh Ward, District 1 Ho Chi Minh City
Photos: Janette Frawley, except for T-shirt photos. 'Scribble' design from Gingko, traffic light design in public domain.