Rush hour? Not rush hour.
Arrived in Vietnam! Got in a taxi at peak rush hour yesterday. It looks like we drove into a pedestrian zone? No that’s wheel to wheel floods of moped riders trying to get home.
(Actually, I showed this to some Vietnamese people and this is not rush hour at all, somehow it gets even more intense).
Just like a dogs leg goes when you scratch him, my foot was stomping on the imaginary brakes at every twist and turn. Each time there was the slightest gap in traffic my driver put his foot down to get moving, while at the same time mopeds in front would suddenly lurch out at 90-degree cross angles to us and cyclists just seemed to exist carefree in the middle of this. It was gut-wrenching!
It seems that the only responsibility you have as a driver is to make sure it’s clear in front of you. It’s then everyone’s job behind to swerve you, no matter what mad stunt you have just pulled.
There were people riding the wrong way down the street, on the paths, and doing u-turns all around us.
Somehow it works. I saw no one even bump, let alone crash while I was peeking out.
How does a chicken cross the road?
OK, so watching it from the relative safety of a Grab taxi is one thing. However, the next stage of becoming one with the traffic was finding myself at street level, feet on the tarmac, face to face with the bustle and throng.
I’ve been to Bangkok, and I thought I had learned the secrets of crossing traffic. I was fresh off the plane. Everything was an exciting, eye-catching distraction. Now I was stood at the edge of a 6 lane major road in downtown Siam, wondering how anyone got anywhere.
As I prepared to dash out at full speed the first time there was a glimmer of a gap in the traffic, two older ladies arrived at the edge of the road. I’d already been having a hard time imagining how I would make it to the other side, how were a couple of nice old ladies possibly going to fare well?
After barely a pause they just stepped out into the traffic. The thought flashed through my mind that I was about to see two people get run over, but that’s not what happened next. It turned out that their age was the magic sauce for the situation. Their slow pace blended perfectly with the pace of the traffic and they merged together like the teeth on a zipper. As they stepped into the gap between two cars, the drivers slowed slightly and by the time the car would have been worrying about hitting them they were already into the next lane.
It was my only option so I did the same as them. The next few moments were a blur but I found myself on the other side of the road with no scratches and nobody cursing me for this reckless behaviour.
But I digress, I’m not back there in Bangkok any more, I’m stood about 750km away in the tourist district of Ho Chi Minh City and I need to summon the courage to take the same leap of faith.
What’s changed this time to set me back to square one? Well, it was one thing to step out into the mildly progressing Bangkok traffic but Ho Chi Minh City has a very different traffic profile. It’s not 2-3 cars you have to contend with, its 30-50 mopeds, motorbikes, cyclists, taxis and buses that you have hurtling towards you at “that will hurt” speeds.
Like before in Bangkok, the last thing I thought before I stepped off the pavement was “my mum will be so disappointed with me if I get myself taken out in such a stupid way”, but I’d already been told success was for the bold so I started to walk out into traffic. I suppose you have figured out that if I managed to type this up I somehow survived. Maybe you are secretly hoping I’m going to reveal this was typed from a hospital bed? It would have made for a fun post but no, I am fine, the traffic is fine, and despite me going against everything my parents and teachers taught me about crossing the road, the world is still fine.
In Vietnam, when you step out into fast-moving traffic you are not met with anger, you don’t become the target of a honk or fist shake, you are not immediately mowed down causing a 20 moped pile up. No. They want to get to their destination just like you do. You just become part of the contract of the road. As long as you proceed at a casual pace the traffic will adopt you as their own and flow around you.
It’s maybe better to do it the first few times either with a local or just be not really looking. Mad I know, but staring oncoming traffic down inspires the sudden need to dive out of the way and that’s the worst thing you can actually do on these roads.
What the beep?
The sound of beeping horns is the bedrock of Saigon’s background noise. It is an erratic yet consistent sound that will lull you to sleep at night. I could sense there was some kind of pattern to the siren song but I couldn’t crack the code. Luckily I have a babysitter while I am here in Vietnam so I have access to a source of local knowledge when I have these types of questions.
I just couldn’t figure out the tone behind the beeps. It wasn’t conversational – they hadn’t spotted a friend. It wasn’t confrontational – people were not shaking fists. Yet, it didn’t feel functional either. No matter where I looked I couldn’t see what it was that was actually being beeped at.
So obviously I concluded that if it wasn’t obvious to me then they were all insane, erratic honking madmen.
As I’ve written earlier, it appeared like it was every driver for themselves on the roads which had stopped me from thinking laterally about these strange honks. My local guide told me a tale of her father and how he beeps almost constantly when he is driving, so much so that she has to tell him that she can not hear any more honks, please. Why is he doing this? Well, I cannot possibly drag this out any further, despite my obvious attempts to do so.
The reason for many of the honks is that, as I observed before, the riders are only interested in whats in front of them. Often riders will simply come barreling out of a side road without stopping to check if there is any traffic on the street they are joining. So many of the honks are actually not at anyone or anything, they are just to warn the potential side-street traffic that there are other players in the game.
The rest of it seems to form a kind of sonar-location system that gives the drivers in front a bit of information about the traffic behind them. Car wants to get through? Honk. Somebody is trying to merge into a space they don’t want to give up? Honk. You just joined the back of the traffic. Honk.
And yes, once I did see a rage-honk from my taxi driver when somebody didn’t get the message. That was more like honk, honk, Honk, Honk, HONK.