HCMC Dining Guide

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Revised Motorcycle Diaries

Now that I've been driving here for almost a month, I decided to reread my post about the rules of the road from a few weeks ago and realized it was as idiotic and mistaken as Sarah Palin's worldview. I made the traffic sound far too docile and orderly, so this post will rectify my previous ignorance. I've been noticing many problems with the traffic here, and I now regularly curse various drivers to every level of Dante's Inferno. Perhaps that is because my driving has improved so dramatically: my agility and manouverability are much better, I can drive with one hand if I feel like it (although definitely not when I'm in traffic), and I'm now pretty good at picking my openings and finding holes and gunning it to get around traffic or make a turn. Despite my improved skills rush hour, especially when it's raining, is still an indescribable nightmare, so there are certainly times when I still hate driving.

I think this post will be somewhat cathartic, since this afternoon I went on a helter-skelter ride across the city from my school's main campus in District 1 to its annex in District 5. This trip normally takes about 25 minutes, and I made it in just over 15 - at the start of rush hour. Why was I in such a  hurry? I had to pick up my paycheck - well, when I say paycheck, I mean huge wad of cash - at the main campus at 5, and then make it to the other school for my 5:30 class. After nearly killing myself numerous times I made it to the annex in plenty of time. I honestly thought my brakes would have caught fire on the way there, considering how many red lights I hit. At least no one can say I'm not dedicated to my job. Anyway, that drive left me a little frazzled, especially after something flew into my right eye, causing it to water so badly that I could barely see out of it, at a moment when I really needed everything my eyes could give me. So for this post, I will present the various vehicles that traverse the roads here in ascending order of how many times a minute I say "Holy shit!," "Jesus Christ!," or some similar exclamation when navigating around them.

1) Cars - It must be noted that this category does NOT include taxis. They will come later. Personal cars are actually pretty easy to deal with. Most drivers aren't horribly aggressive, so you can usually weave your way around them. Like I said in my previous post, they do generally stay to the left of a lane, you just have to watch out for their turns. Sometimes they will even give a moto the right of way! All in all, definitely the least scary of the vehicular beasts roaming the wild roads of Saigon.

2) Trucks - Luckily, 18-wheelers are extremely rare on most of the streets here. Small trucks are pretty common, but they behave similarly to cars, although their size makes them more dangerous. Also, it seems that none of them have functioning turn signals, since the driver or passenger simply waves their arm out the window of whatever direction they wish to turn. Still, they can be managed, especially if you drive more aggressively than them.

3) Bicycles - Yes, bikes are scarier than cars or trucks here, but that is entirely thanks to the cyclists here. Actually, I don't want to tarnish the good name of cyclists around the world, so I'll call the ones here by a more appropriate name - wobblers. Apparently no one on a bike here is capable of keeping anything resembling balance, so they simply wobble down the street, often crossing lanes or turning whenever they want to without giving any warning, blissfully unaware that hundreds of vehicls that could kill them in an instant are constantly whizzing by. I've almost clipped several cycl...er, wobblers while passing them, thanks to their random changes in direction. I honestly think I could ride in a straighter line than them after chugging a 6-pack. There also seems to be one speed that all wobblers travel at - slow. All of them pedal at what looks like the same RPM, and they refuse to change their speed no matter what is going on around them. You might as well put horse blinders on them, since they never look around, unless they suddenly decide to turn across four lanes of traffic. Considering how much I enjoy biking and how much I hate car culture, the wobblers here must be truly awful for me to complain this much. They are.

4) Motobikes - By far the most popular vehicle in Saigon, the omnipresent motos force you to be constantly vigilant, since the traffic ahead of you can change drastically within seconds. They can literally come from any direction at any time, and intersections can be especially scary. The moments right before and right after a light changes are an absolute cluster...you know what. The people who had the green squeeze every last second out of the yellow, nearly careening into the people coming from the other way who take off as soon as the timer for the red light hits 2 seconds. Therefore, it takes about 10 seconds for everyone who had the green to finally stop at the red, and everything eventually gets sorted out, just in time for the light to change again. Of course, there are some people who cavalierly flaunt every traffic rule in the book and run every red light or drive the wrong way down a 1-way street or use angled curbs to jump over cars. I may have made that last one up.

Anyway, the point is that if you don't keep your head on a swivel you will hit someone. There are always motos turning onto streets and coming across your lanes. If you have road rage in the U.S. you wouldn't stand a chance here (cough, Matt Chornick, cough). My guess is that within your first few hours of driving you would have shot about half the population of the city. Vicously cutting people off is completely acceptable, and often the only thing between you continuing on or having a big crash is your horn. Again, we come back to the turn signal thing. I use mine, as do some other people, but they mean little. Some drivers will signal with their hand, but this isn't guaranteed to get everyone's attention either. Therefore, people just gradually move over as they approach their turn, causing a ripple effect as they move over, forcing the person next to them to move over and so on until multiple motos are jockeying for shrinking space. If you drive here you have to accept that you will regularly come within mere inches of hitting or clipping other motos and even cars. It's just a part of life. Actually bumping into people is common as well, as I've learned in the past few days. I still maintain that a moto is a rewarding way to get around, but if you aren't smart and careful it can be extremely dangerous. I'm forgetting some aspects of dealing with other motos but that's all I can think of right now.

4) Buses - Buses are the biggest and heaviest vehicles around, and they know it. Even the most aggressive moto driver knows to get the hell out of the way of a bus if it is turning or stopping. I will give props to bus drivers for their enthusiastic use of horns, since you will always know if there is a bus behind you. Another signal of an approaching bus is a group of people at a bus stop with their arms up - that means there is probably a bus right behind you, and it will be stopping, and if you don't move you will be run over. It can be rather terrifying to deal with buses at times. An especially tricky situation is when you approach a bus that is stopped to pick up fares - it may sit there long enough for you to safely pass it, or it may suddenly pull out as the last person boards. You can't see any of this though, since the bus blocks the view of the stop. If it starts pulling out, you have to decide to either brake and get to the right of it, or gun it and hope you can pass on the left before the driver moves back to that side of the road. Driving around buses results in some scary moments, but they are nothing compared to the terror caused by the most dangerous thing on the road: taxis.

5) Taxis - I've already determined that, if I get in a serious crash here, it will be the fault of a taxi. The drivers honestly put less value on other human life than Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, or Pol Pot ever did, and they make taxi drivers in other cities I've visited look like Franciscan nuns in comparison. They simply do not care about traffic rules at all. Sure, they stop at lights, but they will make u-turns in the middle of a street, forcing motos on both sides into all sorts of dangerous manouvers. I've had several close calls with taxis on Vo Van Tan, a major street near my house. There is a side street connecting to VVT that taxis seem to use regularly, and when they turn from it onto the main drag they do not even pretend to look or slow down, they simply pull out into the middle of the lane at full speed. Amazingly I haven't seen anyone get hit here, but it's only a matter of time. They also honk like their life depends on it, even if there is nowhere to go. I'm sure I've already suffered some hearing loss, considering how many times I've had a horn blasted within a few feet of my ears. If a driver sees a fare standing on the sidewalk, they will dart across all lanes of traffic to pick it up without any concern for what may be coming down the street behind them. All they care about is either picking people up or dropping people off, other drivers be damned. I haven't given their recklessness even close to enough credit here, for it is nearly impossible to describe how dangerous taxis are.

OK, I think that was a bit more accurate than my last post on driving. I hope I didn't sound too negative - if you're planning on coming here, don't avoid driving a moto simply because of this. My point is that you have to be careful. There are times and stretches of road and views that make driving a motobike a great experience, and there are times when it will make you want to pull out a machine gun and start firing. Many things in life are like that, though, and I will definitely continue to drive for the rest of my time here - especially when gas costs about $2.50 a week. Now, time to rest my weary mind and be thankful that I don't have to listen to all of the post-midterm elections "analysis".

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