So, I took my life in my hands today and took my first ride out of District 1 solo, all the way to District 7, which sounds farther than it is. It is actually only a few miles — about 5 or 6 kilometers, according to my cyclo driver friend Den. But the only option I had for a route was on major thoroughfares — imagine 3 or 4 lanes of road clogged with motorbikes and the occasional smog belching bus or truck, and the odd cab (and taxi drivers here drive like they do all over the world). Then consider the fact that this is Southeast Asia, where the rules of the road are different and largely unwritten.
Oh, and I forget the odd pedestrian and street vendor pushing their cart along the road.
In fact, you see people doing things all the time that would get them killed in a place like the U.S. But here, everyone does it and everyone expects it, and it works. The trouble for someone like me is, understanding is one thing, putting it into practice is another. For example, you’ll often see people running lights here, and turning left into oncoming traffic — but sussing out when you can do such things and when I can’t is where things get tricky. I suspect it’s just that I’ve been conditioned for years not to do such things; my instincts are the exact opposite of the locals. Furthermore, often times when I react to a situation and ride defensively, it’s usually the wrong thing to do — it’s much better to placidly ride on like the Vietnamese do, and let the other guy doing something crazy just do it.
Here’s an example. I was returning back from my destination — Golden Rose, a Western-style bike shop owned by an Aussie — and cruising down a side street; I was to the far right of the road with a few other cyclists while around us swarmed the omnipresent xe oms (motorbikes/mopeds, Vespas, etc.). It isn’t uncommon to see someone turn left from a side street off to one’s right, and rather than cut off all the traffic, they will just hug the left side of the road, riding into oncoming traffic. This happened right in front of me — a guy on a bicycle with a kid on the back. I reacted without thinking, trying to get out of his way, riding up on the curb — he did the same thing and we both had to come to a screeching halt (fortunately neither one of us was going that fast. And unlike back home, instead of insults and threats, we parted with nods and smiles).
But if I had just kept cruising along, maybe flowing just to the left around him — which is what Vietnamese people do in this situation seemingly without even thinking about it, perhaps with a horn honk thrown in — there wouldn’t have been a problem. I kept telling myself to relax and approach it with Buddha-like calm, accepting, observing and going with the flow whenever possible, maintaining my lane when someone does something unexpected (to me) — which seems to be the best course of action 99 times out of 100 here — but it’s easier said than done.
Don’t get me wrong though; I’m not knocking the Vietnamese; this kind of traffic is seemingly endemic to much of Asia (with Japan being a notable exception, where even the traffic jams are conducted in a calm, orderly fashion). This is their country and their roads, and the indigenous population understands the rules of the road, and it works for them. The problems arise when you drop in a foreigner who is used to a different set of rules — or doesn’t understand how traffic works seemingly with few rules. It’s not “western” traffic, and I’m sure there was more than one Vietnamese person today looking at me, shaking their head, and thinking “Aw jeez, DWA — Driving While American.”
And if you’ve ever lived in the Bay Area of Northern California, you can appreciate the irony here. As I’ve observed before, having first witnessed and blogged about traffic in China, it’s not that foreigners — in this case, Asians — can’t drive, as so many Americans might believe. They can and are perfectly competent — it’s just that driving is that different between the two cultures, and if you don’t realize that, this is when the chaos ensues. If you took an American chef and dropped in a Vietnamese kitchen, she might recognize certain utensils and ingredients, and some of the finished dishes going out the door to the dining room might look familiar — but that doesn’t mean she can cook Vietnamese food. The same goes for driving, or riding a bicycle, motorbike, etc.
But I will persevere. If I can learn to cross the street here — and there is an art to it; just watch how the locals do it — I can ride here. I’m encouraged by the fact that I came back in one piece today, and only had two close calls. I arrived in front of my hotel and threw up my arms and shouted “I’m alive! I did it!” which illicited several uncomprehending stares and unsure smiles. Pretty soon I will become one with the Vietnamese Traffic Absolute, losing my individual soul in the collective unconscious flow of traffic down Nguyễn Thái Học.