HCMC Dining Guide

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Motorcycle Diaries

Unlike the movie referenced in the title, this post doesn't recount a spectacular two-wheeled journey across South America, but the more mundane topic of me learning the rules of the road in Saigon. A week ago I rented a black Honda Wave motorbike for a month, since I was getting tired of having to pay for cabs every day and I plan on buying a bike eventually, so I may as well get used to driving one.

The bike is a manual, which has taken some getting used to. I still can't keep it from stalling almost everytime I stop for a light. I guess it just takes some more practice. Anyways, on to the driving. Although the traffic here looks terrifying from the vantage point of a pedestrian, it's actually pretty manageable once you're in the thick of it on the street. For the most part, motos stay to the right, while cars and buses stay to the left. Of course, if a car feels like turning, you should probably get out of the way. But if you are making the same turn as a car that can be very helpful. If you stay on the sidewalk side of the car it will shield you from any rogue motos coming from the other direction. All of the moto drivers normally seem to find their own little slot within the flow of traffic and stick with it. Traffic is usually fairly dense, so the speeds aren't high enough to get really scary. Drivers also lack the maliciousness that many American drivers love to show. If someone gets cut off they might honk, but they certainly won't go after the person with a tire iron or follow them home. Although turn signals mean even less to people than they do in New Orleans. Oddly enough, traffic circles are some of the easiest things to navigate here. It looks like chaos, but everyone sort of moves like a school of fish, and it all turns out well in the end.

Of course, this isn't to say that driving a moto here is a walk in the park. Buses terrify me just as much as they did when I was cycling in Pittsburgh. Speaking of bicycles, there are a fair number of them on the streets here, and they are very difficult to navigate around, since some people simply ride them down the middle of the street. Wierdly, no one on bikes wears a helmet, whereas everyone on a moto does. Although I have seen some moto drivers wearing bike helmets. Despite my two years of urban cycling experience in Pittsburgh, I think I would piss my pants if I had to ride a bike around here. It just looks awful.

Rush-hour traffic can be pretty scary, especially because I'm still learning how to balance correctly when coming to a stop or starting to move away from a light. You also have to be constantly vigilant for people coming the wrong way: say you are trying to turn left onto a street, but the traffic going right is heavy. A common practice (one that, I must admit, I've participated in) is to turn left into the oncoming lane and hug the sidewalk until there is an opening to bolt over to the correct lane. This can be a little harrowing, but I think it's better than just sitting there, waiting to turn, because openings can be few and far between.

Some people from back home have asked me about stoplights. They are everywhere, and compliance is usually pretty good, with one exception. Siagonese have taken the "right turn on red" rule to heart, and will gleefully turn right at almost any intersection without stopping or looking at what's coming. The way people here turn onto streets is actually pretty terrible. At intersections without lights they simply keep going the same speed and turn into their desired lane, almost always without looking. This makes for plenty of close calls, and you really have to be careful when coming to an unlighted intersection.

Despite these occasional dangers, the moto is actually a fantastic way to get around. You don't get stuck in huge traffic jams like cars, and you get a much better view of the city. One of my favorite new pasttimes may be getting myself lost and trying to find my way back, since it's a good way to learn new areas and see new things. I spent over two hours in the saddle today, on two separate rides into the suburban District 7, and got lost both times. I was a little worried the first time, until a well-placed sign got me going the right way and my natural sense of direction took over. Tonight I went to a different part of D7, before ending up in District 8, an area I've really never been before. Instead of finding a new way back I chickened out and simply turned around, taking the same road back into the city centre. Despite having no idea where I was, I had fun, and it does help that the skyscraper in District 1 can be seen from almost anywhere in the city, so it acts like a giant reference point. So, after initially being shocked by the traffic here, I'm becoming more and more comfortable in it every day. In a year I'll be a grizzled veteran of the motorbike experience, and most likely will have a hard time driving a car whenever I go back home.

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