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Not for the faint-hearted 22 June 2010

Posted by uggclogs in Life, Travelling, Vietnam.
Tags: , , , ,

I have started and re-started a blog post about driving my motorbike in the streets of Hanoi many a time, but have always been foiled by cliches – nothing I could come up with was new, it had all been said before. There are just so many cliches:

– There are the traffic jams – ever present and sometimes infuriating. Ever expanding in their number and size with no respite visible in the near future.

– There are the count-down clocks on the traffic lights – causing drivers to start their engines and drive when there is 3 seconds left on the counter, and make them keep driving 3 seconds after the light has turned red, creating what a friend of my recently coined as “the four second window of death”.

– There are the accidents – including the minor bumps into the bike in front on busy streets, and the many fatalities which happen every day which I count my lucky stars that I have not yet witnessed a single one of.

– There is the pollution.

– There is the impossibility of crossing the road when you first arrive.

– There are the masks and the helmets that make it impossible to recognise anyone, but which often provide you with something to look at on your way home, including the matching “Burberry” helmets on the young, affluent couple, or the pink pooh bear helmet on the guy in front of you, the cowboy helmets and helmets of any other shape and size (except for yours). There are the slightly unsettling masks with the giant kissy lips or the big grin, which make the wearer look like a cross of a clown and creepy skeleton.

– There’s the embarrassing expat burn on your calf – caused by the inexperience of the poor schmuck who did not know that exhaust pipes are hot, and you need to step off on the left hand side of the bike for that very reason.

– And there are the ‘bikes of burden’ – those overladen bikes that transport everything from live buffaloes and other live stock to cases of beer and mattresses, and the occasional fridge that is not secured. I have even seen full-length railway sleepers being transported by motorbike here.

But as I said – nothing new! Any expat in Vietnam with a blog will have mentioned all of the above.

But there is one thing that I can now say for myself – driving a car in Vietnam is a completely different kettle of fish, and is certainly not for the faint-hearted. Much of it is the same as a motorbike – if your car can fit into a space on the road, you fill it. But at the same time, you need to be so much more aware of everything that is happening around you, and you must assume that people will not act the way that you expect them to. Swerving is a national sport, so driving a car means that you might actually kill someone on a motorbike who does not know you are there. You are big compared to all of them.

On the motorbike, I find that I read traffic like water flow – I do not keep an eye on each individual motorbike around me. It would be nearly impossible to do so anyway, but that is also the way that you can avoid most of the obstacles around. If all the bikes swerve at a certain point, you know a pot hole is coming up. If there is a disturbance in the flow, it gives you clues. Someone might be crossing, or driving up the wrong way on a one-way street. There may be a rubbish collector there, or a taxi is picking up a customer. If you see break lights ahead, you break.

But in the car, you have to be so much more vigilant, and keep track of those bikes around you. There were two behind me, one beside the bus in front. If any go missing, they are probably in your blind spot. You must assume that the people around you on bikes do not know how to drive cars, and will never have heard of a blind spot. And most bikes on the road have no mirrors, so if you are not in front of them, you are in their blind spot!

So beeping is the name of the game. You beep when someone is coming down the wrong way on the high way (and that includes trucks) and you beep when you overtake a bus, so it won’t swerve into your lane. You flash your lights at oncoming traffic to make them move out of the way, or they might not budge. You get stuck behind buses and trucks that think nothing of driving in the middle of the road all the time, only getting into their own lane to let the oncoming traffic pass. Which means you are stuck behind them.

Buses swish past with minimal clearance, with the drivers leaning on their horns. Cars will overtake with no space to do so, ending up with traffic three wide on a two-lane country road. No courtesy is expected, and none is extended.

Strangely, driving was an incredible amount of fun. Another extreme sport to tick off my list. And we both did incredibly well, mainly due to being used to the motorbike in this traffic.

I miss having a car.