Sunday, June 17, 2007

Vietnam driving

Today I wanted to take a look at the old Ho Chi Minh Trail, so a buddy and I took a scooter ride out to see some of it. No, we didn't drive ourselves, we rode on the back of scooters while some locals drove them. I realize how weak that sounds, but I have my reasons for not renting my own, namely the absolutely chaotic nature of the traffic out here and the fact that I would have had no idea where I was going.

Anyway, we got a bit more than we bargained for though as we ended up riding over 300km on the back of 100cc scooters - a painful experience given the cramped conditions, hard seat, and blistering weather. Gave me plenty of opportunity to continue my study of Vietnamese driving though....

I'll start by mentioning that everyone out here has a scooter. Hanoi apparently has 2 million scooters for 3.5 million residents. You do see some cars but not many. And nobody walks anywhere, except for the old ladies carrying bucketfuls of rice hanging from the bar across their shoulders. Incidentally, can I digress and mention how tough these people are? You see 75 lb 80-year old women covered head to toe in denim using the aforementioned apparatus to carry huge rice bags around in the middle of the day. And they're not getting bowed down by it, hell, they're doing like a trot-shuffle with it, and I don't think I've seen a one of our tour guides break a sweat yet, including the old man that took me for a hike on back trails in his flip flops. I could hardly keep up with him.

Anyway, walking in the towns is a risky proposition as you're apt to get runover since crosswalks hardly even exist and where you do find one it certainly will be ignored just like the street lights. You could stay on the sidewalk to get where you're going, but the sidewalks aren't really meant for pedestrians - sidewalks are used as parking lots for the scooters and by street vendors selling everything under the sun.

And as for motorcycles, yes, there are a few, but not many. I think the reason for this is a motorcycle requires you to use that left hand to work the clutch; the scooters you shift by easing off the gas and kicking the pedal - no clutch. Give a Vietnamese person a free hand and he or she is going to use it, generally for holding something like a cell phone, cigarette, strips of rebar, 2x4s, infants, jerry cans, a window pane, a television set, small tree, or driveshaft, never mind all the other crap they've got bungee corded to the frame.

If the Vietnamese are not using their left hand to hold something while their driving, then their left thumb is on the horn button. I'm not exaggerating when I say the average Vietnamese driver uses the horn more in one day than I have in my life. I mean, at home when I hear a horn go off while I'm driving, I'm usually surprised and try to look around to figure out what's going on. I almost consider it rude to use the horn except in an emergency. But here the horns are used constantly as a warning saying, "I'm coming thru, move out of the way!". Driving around a blind curve and want to warn people to get out of the way? Just blast the horn and hope for the best. Trucks will come down the main drag in the towns and lay on the horn the entire time - 15 second long bursts. Anyone comes near the roadside when you're going by, blast the horn. Dog, cat, pig, water buffalo in the vicinity of the road? They know what the hom means, give it to them. Want to drive on the wrong side of the road and force the oncoming traffic onto the shoulder while you pass that slow bicycle gang clogging up your lane? No problem, just stay on the horn and you're good. Old lady riding two-up with her daughter on a bicycle (they'll both pedal on the same pedals at the same time) swerves a bit in front of you, then blast the horn to wake her up. After today I'm pretty good at distinguishing between horn sounds. The bigger the noise, the bigger the vehicle. The buses and trucks certainly have a way hammering you back into reality as you try to enjoy the views.

And as for the actual driving itself - chaos. Everywhere I've been in SE Asia is a lot crazier than what we're used to as far as traffic goes, but Vietnam is over the top. If there's an opening you take it. There is no concept of right-of-way, at least not the way we would look at it, like the law says I can go now so I'll go; the bigger vehicle has the right-of-way and that's it. And if you want to turn right onto a highway or city street, then just turn onto the road, don't bother stopping and definitely don't bother looking to see if there's anyone coming; no worries, it's the job of the oncoming traffic to swerve out of the way to accommodate you into the flow. Traffic generally flows on the right side of the road, but I've seen this switch as a large group of motorists decided to turn left in front of the oncoming traffic, so the oncoming switched to the left side of the road for awhile, and this was in Hanoi not a village. It's not uncommon for the shoulders of the road to have another lane going the opposite direction of the traffic on that side. And, of course, everyone drives about a foot or less away from you. I've only seen one accident though and it looked pretty minor.

It's no wonder the Vietnamese are fearless though as every kid is perched right behind the handlebars while Mom drives from the first time they're out of their crib, near as I can determine. Mom will doll them up with sunglasses, a hat, and mini-facemask (most of the women also wear something to cover their face while driving) so the kids look like little bandit hood ornaments coming at you. I've seen a mother and 6 kids on a scooter stacked up like a cheerleading pyramid, and a family of four on one is standard practice.

Anyway, I think I've beaten that subject to death. As for the Ho Chi Minh Trail, it's mostly paved over and was nothing to write home about. The mountains and greenery were impressive though. And as for the other sights in Vietnam, well, they've been pretty good I guess. The museums have the sort of propaganda you would expect from one of the 5 remaining Communist countries, i.e, 'American imperialists' and 'S. Vietnamese American puppet government', etc. From what I can gather from the museums, the Vietnamese hold more of a grudge against the French than the US though. But then the French were here about 100 years longer than we were so I suppose that explains how they were able to actually make an impact, negative or otherwise. And you do still see the big signs around the countryside with smiling workers and I'm sure some platitude written about a bumper harvest being produced by hard work of the socialistic masses or whatever.

I'll be ready to get back home soon. The food here doesn't always agree with my system and the weather can really kick your ass. The late nights at the bar and early wake-up calls don't help either.


Anonymous said...

Glad to see the former Blogs on this more updated and easier Blog. Love reading all your inputs. Keep up the good writing. Love it!

Rickidikk said...

You are a great writer, it made an impression on me. Your writing describes your travels and experiences in great detail. I started with your Afghani story, and now I'm reading your HO CHI MIN experience, thanks!