The Traffic in Saigon

Where the motorbikes rule the streets.

There are reportedly 4 million motorbikes or “scooters” in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam. But that is just the official figure. I suspect as things go in this chaotic and altogether charming metropolis that they got tired of counting and made a not-altogether-unlikely guess. The motorbikes “share” the road with a far smaller number of bicycles, cyclos (bicycle taxis), automobiles, buses, panel vans, freight trucks, push-carts, and pedestrians. But by weight of numbers, the motorbikes rule the road, and the other vehicles — much less those on foot — get along as best they can.

Photo by Flickr user TuOf course buses and freight-trucks can bully their way through traffic (descending all of the time to an ever lower rung of hell, as I prefer to think), but the taxis and passenger cars have to grin and bear it, inching along between the motorbikes, honking feebly, as if to say, “Excuse me, pardon me, sorry, sorry, sorry, if I could just …” At the next red stoplight, the swarming motorbikes — those that the car had finally managed to inch past through sheer size and persistence — all crowd in on it and race ahead as the light turns green, whereupon the hampered, four-wheeled creature begins to nudge itself forward again in its pitiful progress.

But I have gotten ahead of myself. Let me begin at the beginning, with buying and owning your very own motorbike. As a foreigner, this would seem to be impossible, although I am assured that it is perfectly legal. But no foreigner I have met ever actually has done it, so it remains a mythical goal, like time travel or eternal youth. For practicality’s sake, you will need to find a native-born citizen to stand in for you. Using a representative like this is legal only in the sense that out of the generosity of your heart you have bought your Vietnamese friend or acquaintance a motorbike.

Once you have purchased the motorbike for your Vietnamese friend or acquaintance, it is imperative that you arrange the rear-view mirrors so that they do not impede your forward-facing and peripheral vision. These mirrors, although no doubt well-intentioned in theory, are nothing but an impediment in practice. You will have neither the time nor inclination to look behind you as you navigate your way through Saigonese traffic. Looking from side to side is another indulgence you can scarcely afford, and you are certain to hurt yourself and to inflict damage on others if you persist in such risky behavior. Like sharks, motorbikes in Saigon must always face and move forward in order to keep moving at all.

A note about the Saigonese motorbike’s horn: It is not to be used in either anger or good humor, as a criticism or salutation. The horn in Saigon is, rather, a warning note, like the bark of a dog. It is only to be used in earnest. It is employed most often as one enters a busy intersection where there are no traffic signals (a decreasing but still large number of them) and where one feels oneself, by either precedence or inclination, to have the right-of-way. In such a situation, the sounding of the horn means that one is intent upon traveling straight through, regardless of impediment or of contrary inclinations on the part of another. It is entirely possible to contradict such a statement of intent by the sounding of your own horn, but in practice this rarely happens. To do so would create an open confrontation and someone would be bound to “lose face” — an awful thing for the Vietnamese motorist, akin to losing a limb.

Here is a question that should be on every Vietnamese motorist’s driving test. You are riding your motorbike down a busy two-way street, when suddenly you see a motorbike coming straight at you at full speed. You should:

  1. Move left, toward the land of oncoming traffic, and allow the dangerous and perhaps deranged driver to pass you on the wrong side of the road, as seems his wont.
  2. Attempt by all means possible to stop the wrong-way driver before he causes a serious accident.
  3. Pull off of the road and vow never to leave your house (or country, for that matter) again.
  4. Veer toward your right, directly into what appears to be the oncoming motorbike’s path, allowing it a route into the correct lane of traffic.

In actuality, given the endless flow of traffic and the entire absence of directional traffic signals, a motorbike driver who finds himself on the wrong side of the street has no choice but to thread his way diagonally through the opposing traffic until he is among drivers of his own predilection. Of course you could sit with your left blinker on and wait for a break in the traffic. Saigon being Saigon, however, it may be more expedient to turn right and travel around the world. And in any case you would have already broken the cardinal rule of Saigonese traffic, which is to keep moving forward in order to keep moving at all.

So the correct answer is “d.,” although such behavior goes against all of one’s self-protective instincts formed in a world where traffic laws are as operative in fact (more or less) as in theory. But in an improvisational, rule-fluid environment such as the streets of Saigon, the Western motorist intent upon following the rules of the road as he knows them will have little chance of survival. One must go with the flow, wherever it goes.

When entering traffic from a side-street or parking lot, motorbikes shoot themselves like arrows into the flow of vehicles, and by no means wait to be let in. In fact, it is wisest not to look back toward the oncoming traffic at all, but trust it to make way for you, like a rock in water. There is, indeed, a certain ripple effect continually at work in the interminable traffic flow, which is so subtle, beautiful and efficient in its workings as to seem an argument for intelligent design. (The skeptic would no doubt point out that occasionally someone gets caught in the gears of the divine traffic machine — mangled, that is, by the amoral traffic animal.)

The sidewalks and curb-ways throughout Saigon have been transformed into parking lots for motorbikes. One wonders what the city would do with a comparable number of automobiles. There are “bike boys” at every business and public facility whose primary responsibility is to make certain that people leave on the bike they rode in on. Most often this is done by giving a numbered ticket to each motorbike driver, and chalking that number conspicuously on the seat of the parked motorbike. The parked motorbikes are often sorted into groups of similar make and model in order to expedite retrieval. This spectacle led me, upon first arrival, to think that the entire city was one vast motorbike dealership.

The fact that the pedestrian walkways have been given over almost entirely to parking for motorbikes means that the put-upon pedestrian is forced into the road to make his way among the moving motorbikes and other wheeled vehicles, which makes going for a walk in this carnivalesque city an intimidating, but also invigorating enterprise — as though one were in the middle of a fast-paced action movie car chase scene that never stops filming.

An American diplomat I knew when I first lived here 10 years ago was so intimidated by the traffic that she used to hail a taxi to take her from one side of the street to the other. That was before they had installed any traffic lights in the city and when a pedestrian crossing the busy streets had to brazen one’s way across the moving stream of vehicles, an endeavor requiring a complex mixture of assertiveness and trust understandably hard for the unfamiliar to muster.

Not long after I first arrived in Saigon, I received a visit from my old college roommate, known in his day as a speed-demon on a motorcycle. And yet when he first ventured out on the motorbike in Saigon, riding behind me on our way to the university where I was teaching, he was nothing less than catatonic in the press of traffic. My motorbike handling was admittedly in its nascent stage, but he later told me that it was the general environment more than the immediate conveyance that had turned him into a vibrating sack of potatoes behind me.

I tried to explain to him the manner in which I had made my relative peace with the traffic in Saigon. Eventually, I told him, you stop imagining what could happen — the endless side-swipes, head-ons, and pile-ups — and begin to see only what might happen. And then that too fades into the background, and you realize that, on the whole, your fellow travelers are so accustomed to the practical ingenuities of maneuvering around the theoretical rules of the road, as they vigorously negotiate and renegotiate the amorphous space between them, that they are rendered almost incapable of causing an accident, the sight of which is really remarkably rare. I mean, why run into someone when you can swerve around them, with the relative assurance that your alert fellow drivers, entirely accustomed to such yin-yang topsy-turvyness, will adjust in response as needed?

It may look crazy, but it seems to work — and, of course, craziness is relative.

Article © 2013 by Don Adams