The hilarity of traffic in Vietnam

Speed signs in Vietnam

Speed signs in Vietnam. Good luck figuring that out as you scoot past at 70-odd kilometres an hour, riding on the verge, avoiding both potholes and other traffic! Personally, my favourite part of this particular sign is that a motorbike is apparently allowed to go 10km/h faster without a rider than with.

A light-hearted interlude from our regularly scheduled programming:  some of the more entertaining aspects of traffic in Vietnam…

  • Use of the indicator is optional in Vietnam.  When used, the indicator may indicate an intention to turn, or it may simply indicate that your headlights aren’t working and that this is your only source of light after sunset.  Quite possibly it might also indicate that the driver has attempted to employ the horn and missed, much as in Australia drivers of unfamiliar imported cars will frequently employ the indicators as their primary defence against the first few splashes of rain falling on the windscreen.
  • Alternatives to the indicator (for indicating an intention to turn) include:  the horn, the driver flapping his arm on the side he intends to turn towards, the passenger flapping his arm on the side he thinks the driver most probably intends to turn towards, or the sudden appearance of an unexplained gap in traffic on the side to which the driver intends to turn (as the remainder of traffic on the somehow divines his intentions in a manner with which I am entirely unfamiliar).
  • Contrary to one’s initial assumptions about the dangers of crossing the road in a large Vietnamese city, traffic is actually expected to avoid pedestrians.  Pedestrians, for their part, are expected to leap-of-faith it off the kerb and proceed in a straight line at constant speed.  Pedestrians who follow that basic instruction will be thrilled to observe a Moses-like parting of the scooters as they bear down towards you, as everyone coolly and calmly rides around you.  (It’s actually a kind of mesmerising effect as the giant oncoming mass of metal opens up and engulfs you as you walk serenely through its midst to the other side.)  Pedestrians who don’t will quickly find themselves standing in the middle of large circle of very confused and disapproving, but stationary, riders.
  • When riding in Vietnam, it is not advisable to take the typical Western driving approach of assuming that everyone else will follow the rules and stay in straight line except in an emergency.  Instead, everyone is expected to react to accommodate everyone else:  you are not driving in a “but I’m in the right, he’s not allowed to do that” sort of environment…  (Actually, there’s the kernel of quite an interesting discussion here.  In Vietnam, traffic works on a much more communal and cooperative basis, with everyone having to work together with everyone else in a very ad hoc fashion;  in the West, we tend to behave in a very isolated fashion – I follow the rules and I expect everybody else to too, and other than that, I don’t have to think about what other people are doing:  it’s a very rights-based approach.  Cue tedious dissertation on socialist versus capitalist/individualist worldviews.  Similarly, there are a lot of interesting parallels between scooter traffic in Vietnam and birds flying in formation:  no individual entity need take account of the whole, but simply by having each pay attention to those immediately around it, the overall flock dynamic appears as an emergent property of the system as a whole.)  Anyhow, drive in Vietnam like you drive in Australia and chances are you’ll quickly come to appreciate that communal aspect as everyone else gangs up on you to get you off the damn road.
  • Also somewhat in contrast to your typical Western driving expectations, accidents and near misses will happen.  (Although actually we only saw two real accidents in our time in Vietnam, which, given the state of the roads, scooters, and drivers, is a testament to how surprisingly well the system works.)  Unlike in many countries, life continues on quickly and normally.  You will cause much more confusion and consternation by fussing about a near-death experience than said near-death experience caused anyone but you when it happened.
  • Both in order to avoid near-death experiences, and for a variety of other reasons, the horn is there to be used.  Its use might indicate any or all of the following:
    • “I’m behind you, just as a friendly heads up, please proceed as normal.”
    • “I’m coming past.  Now would be a bad time to swerve out into the other lane to pull a manoeuvre of your own.”
    • “I’m turning onto the road, and this button with a picture of a trumpet on it means I can concentrate on my turning technique rather than looking at the lane I’m merging into.  You probably want to make way.”
    • “You may have noticed I’m driving on the wrong side of the road.  How about that?”
    • “I’m about to do something really incredibly stupid, check this out.”  (Aka the ‘hold my beer’ manoeuvre.)
    • “Oh, I’ve spotted a Westerner!  Quick, I must attempt to attract his attention!”
  • Writing text messages while piloting a scooter is acceptable, even passé, as is riding with one hand so that the other hand can be carrying something heavy and inconvenient.  Hell, no one else in the vicinity seemed to bat an eyelid when I gaped at a mother driving her scooter with her right hand on the throttle and her left cradling her baby.
Everyday transportation of goods, on a scooter

I’m cheating, because this picture is actually from Cambodia, but we saw similar in Vietnam. Underneath that massive pile of pillows and cushions somewhere is a scooter.

  • The scooter is an all-purpose transportation device, functioning as the equivalent of the family sedan, as the local version of a ute or truck, etc.  Things I’ve seen carried on a scooter:
    • a family of four
    • piglets tied down lying on their backs on a bed of straw in a cage
    • a family of five
    • another motorbike, sans rear wheel
    • a glass door
    • two five-metre (or so) steel cables, dragging on the ground behind the rear wheel as though the bike was a giant squid or a character in some recent Predator versus Terminator versus Transformers movie
    • six large (maybe ten litre?) plastic containers, full of petrol
    • a ten-metre (I kid you not) solid cast iron girder
    • a fully-packaged, brand new full-size refrigerator
The chaos of night-time traffic at one of Saigon's main intersections

The chaos of night-time traffic at one of Saigon’s main intersections

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