I lost my motorbike key yesterday and had to take a motor-taxi to work… needless to say I have a new key now and am guarding it with my life.
You see, its not so much the roads themselves here that are scary, its the capacity of whoever is on the road to rise to whatever difficulties said roads present that’s the thing you have to worry about!
And, being a control freak, I do not trust anyone but me to rise to these difficulties. Arrogant? Maybe. Or maybe just human nature.
There is a marked difference between having your hand on the brake of your own beautiful bike and clinging helplessly to the waste of your driver.
That being said if you watch the roads here you start to appreciate motorists for their art. Every Vietnamese hoon has been driving since he was big enough to get his toes to the floor in a traffic jam, and you can definitely tell. It’s like they’re a part of their bike.
Squatted over the seat at an almost sleezy angle, helmet slapped on their head and a ciggy in one paw they glide at impossible speeds through the traffic, ripping the air with that delicious fat bubbling sound of a healthy exhaust.
Women, girls, tiny boys, seedy blokes, no matter the shell your average Vietnamese local has traffic in their blood and a bike in their bones. They know instinctively where and how to go, and I have to say I can feel myself learning to do the same.
I will never be a local, obviously, but every day that I drive I feel myself more as an extension of the powerful beast beneath me. Traffic jam? No problem, the pavement is empty. Need to turn left? That’s ok, just weave round that taxi and alongside that bus, sloooowly, ok done. Empty road ahead? Well my friend, that is definitely an invitation to raise the speed limit…
I now ride a bicycle to save fuel (and myself…accidents have proven all too easy for me and my hooning tendencies), and exactly the same sentiments apply. I am not a rider on a bicycle, I am a bicycle-human-hybrid. One excellent, death-defying, silent and deadly muscle.
Squatted over the seat at an almost sleezy angle
During my hours of riding to and from work each day I have discovered many things about my body. How far can I push it? How strong am I? And many things about the drivers who pass me.
How does this mess of individual consciousnesses work? How are the roads functional (ish) as thoroughfares down which people actually travel?
In the end, there are 5 rules to the roads here. They ensure functionality, and are so ingrained in the people of Ho Chi Minh City that they probably aren’t ever acknowledged but are just accepted as given.
Normal road rules such as ‘stop at red lights’ and ‘there are speed limits’ do officially apply, and yes if you’re not a complete buffoon you will stick to them, mostly, but what really counts are the unspoken agreements of one motorist to another.
You can run red lights, drive like a lunatic and hold your bike with one hand, a phone in the other, all as long as you bloody well don’t hit anyone. And here, friends, are the 5 ‘rules’ which ensure that you bloody well do not.
1. Cat and Mouse – Cars and buses may be bigger and scarier, but they are slower and more sluggish, and to be honest they’re the underdogs.
The order of preference goes ‘person, 4 wheeler, motorbike, bicycle, miscellaneous other’ in terms of right of way, generally, but the reality is that cars cannot fit where motorbikes can.
They glide along at a walking pace like some majestic, wealthy whale, with blacked windows and a blasting horn…but compared to the whasps zipping around them they are nothing, in the dog-eat-dog world of Vietnamese roads.
If I want to be late I take a taxi. Cats are overrated: mice win every time.
2. If I horn it’s my right of way – despite the above mentioned hierarchy this particular philosophy trumps all. If I want to turn right from a left lain I don’t panic and I don’t plan: I just whack on my indicator and beep ferociously as I swing my bike to the right and plough through the bees around me.
Now that I ride a bicycle a similar principle applies – I stick out my arm and looking insistently over my shoulder as I slowly carve a diagonal across the traffic. No-one hits me. It’s like parting the red sea.
The amount of bikes I see making their way directly across a downstream flow of motorbike traffic, the passenger waving their hand as if scolding all oncoming motorists into braking their rhythm, the horn firing off a constant honk that would frighten the hardiest of hosts from hell!
And every inconvenienced driver simply adjusts their course and goes on with their lives because this is a normal and perfectly acceptable thing to do.
3. Bring some cash – This is very important. If you happen to be caught by one of the confusingly clad policemen of this place then tip-money is imperative.
When I rode a motorbike I was told that 200k VND was more than ample for my particular CC, but to be honest its all about tactics. The one time I was pulled over I ended up parting with 500VND, even though I spoke Spanish to confuse them, and all because I made the mistake of not planning.
Now that I ride a bicycle I can do everything, and they never pull me over. I think they’re confused about what cyclists can and cant do – are they a vehicle? Not sure… ok, so let’s just pretend they don’t exist…
But as a motorist, even if you’ve done nothing wrong they can fine you for something or other, and if you have? Well even more reason to have your decoy wallet ready. If you’re white they often will let you go. Many can’t speak English and can’t be bothered to dance that weird translation dance that happens every time two people who don’t speak the same language try to communicate!
But when they do pull you over…you will be fined double for your skin and the wealth that’d supposedly associated with it. I hate my ethnicity here.
4. Keep the rhythm – There is a rhythm to the roads here. You can’t drive jerkily, swerve, overtake suddenly or brake in a spontaneous fashion.
You can’t stand out at all. The key to safety is to feel the pulse of the bikes around you and match your pace and trajectory to theirs. The key to successful weaving is to do this, while curving in a continuous and beautiful arc through the gaps which yawn intermittently between vehicles, touching your horn every now and again to let passers by know you are there, and feeling like a true craftsman.
Because you are. It’s a craft.
As a cyclist? Sneak up behind everyone and say ‘boo’, but make sure you do it in a smooth and predictable manner for all those behind you watching and laughing.
5. Sides of the road…? – And finally the question of lanes… there are none! Well, there are technically – stick to the right hand side. The outside is supposedly slower and the inside is faster, but to be honest anything goes.
It’s like long distance running in athletics carnivals. I used to HATE the 1500m run, yes because I’m a lazy potato, but also because I hated the fact that for the first 100m everyone trod on everyone else.
And if you can’t find a crevice on your side of the road? No problem! Just use the other side. So many times the lights go red and instead of waiting at the back of the cue a trickle of bikes sidle down the left hand side of the block, taking up half of the oncoming lane, and stubbornly park at the front, ready to beat the traffic a few seconds before the light turns green.
And as a cyclist I seem to have a delightful edge on the rest of the traffic here – I can do most things, and no-one minds. I sneak alongside everyone, skip the cue and steal a spot at the very front? No problem.
My helpless comrades simply think to themselves ‘she’s on a bicycle…its ok’ or maybe ‘smart girl’ or, and this is most likely, ‘look at that funny white woman on a bicycle with a helmet on sweating like a fountain’.
Yes ladies and gentlemen, I am here for your amusement. I take tips…