The joys of crossing paths

Explaining the traffic in VietnaThe joys of crossing pathsm is an unreasonable expectation if your audience has never experienced it. After all, how do you explain a skyscraper to a mole?

Instead you must resort to analogies: imagine those videos, half-remembered from science class or nature documentaries, of looking down a microscope at molecules interacting with each other, a thousand tiny particles flowing and rushing en masse while seeming to avoid each other at the last possible second. Now scale this up to a thousand living Vietnamese all sat astride snarling beasts of metal, all in possession of a horn and the will to overuse it. This is rush hour in Vietnam.

From the wide seaside boulevards of Nha Trang to the narrow confines of Hoi An’s street markets, immutable laws of nature trump actual traffic laws nine times out of ten. If you are bigger than those around you, for example, and especially if you are bigger than oncoming traffic, you have right of way. Sides of the road here are relative, and if you have size on your side you should spread to accommodate natural gaps for overtaking. Above all, don’t be afraid to weave in and out of traffic when you’re going fast – just watch out for pedestrians and their careless shuffling progress to the other side.

No doubts a lot has been written about crossing roads in Vietnam, likely using phrases such as ‘a life-changing experience’ and ‘improbably dangerous’. The truth is it’s the purest form of blind faith you can practice without being attached to a bungee rope, and as such takes some getting used to. There will never, you realize after standing by the side of the road for some time, be an appropriate gap in traffic, not the kind that folk from countries with enforced traffic laws will expect to make it to the other side. Instead you must take that leap, the one that involves switching off all rational centres of the brain and trusting in the avoidance skills of several hundred motorbike riders as they flow past in a cacophonous river of sound.

The amazing thing is that – most of the time – it works. You step midstream with a muttered prayer to the God of stupidity and are swallowed whole: imagine the pattern made by a stick being placed into a fast flowing stream and you’re close, if several hundred decibels more tranquil.

The strangely Zen like euphoria this sort of crossing induces must be treated carefully; take too much and a creeping sense of invincibility will appear, and with it the blind ignorance of rogue bikers (and cars, who generally refuse to play the avoidance game at all) to spoil your day and most likely long-term brain activity. The trick is to keep moving, slowly and in a predictable manner, so that the rushing traffic knows where you are and where you will be very soon.

Witnessing this phenomenon from the relative safety of a bus is entirely different from the experience of viewing it at street level, and can roughly be compared to taking a bulldozer through a crowded picnic area. In accordance with rule #1, buses will occupy whatever part of the road seems available at the time while lesser vehicles scatter like so many rabbits from a hungry fox.

Every bus driver also seems tragically afflicted with a rare condition that causes spasms in their arm as it rests comfortably above the horn; either that, or they are viciously attached to the idea of creating as much noise as possible while on the road, even at 4 in the morning on a night bus.

Horns, you must understand, are not an elitist thing in Vietnam. They are a democratic right given to every citizen with a motor (and a few without), and it is a civic duty to exercise this right every time you appear on the road. A friend from Germany recently told me that in her district it was illegal to use your horn unless it was an emergency. Since I haven’t yet completed a journey in Hanoi traffic without at least one minor emergency, I would like to see this German paradise of milk, honey and silence.

There are many ways in which you may use a horn in Vietnam: to make someone aware of your presence (‘excuse me, I may be passing on your left side very soon’); to claim right of way: (‘terribly sorry, but that gap you’re thinking of moving into? That’s mine, and I shall be terribly put out if you occupy it before me.’); to thank someone (a rare one, this, but I have seen it once or twice); to inform fellow road-users you are about to do something stupid or rash (realised your turn is coming up in about 2 metres? Not to worry, simply give a loud toot and swerve wildly across traffic); and to express anger (‘excuse me good fellow, would you mind ****ing off over there and inserting something where the sun doth not shine? Thanks ever so much.’)

There are undoubtedly more, and the last one would make a fairly weighty subcategory in itself, but life is too short to chronicle the world’s driving anger.

It can’t be said that this is a particularly safe method of (self-) organization for a traffic system – there are more accidents than, I suspect, most places you choose to mention in Europe – but the point is that it doesn’t end in cataclysm anywhere near as often as you’d expect. Bikers in cities like Amsterdam have developed more effective instincts for collision avoidance, partly because they cycle everywhere, but mostly because they face the possibility of collision hundreds of times a day. Vietnamese drivers have achieved the same with their motorized bicycles, albeit with a great deal more noise and fewer prospects of an environmental award, and I for one salute them in this. A wary salute, with both hands on the bars and one eye on that lunatic with no helmet swerving around the outside lane, but a salute nonetheless.

Andy Redwood (VOV)