The Zen of Traffic

I’ve been here two months now and I’ve just had an epiphany about Saigon traffic. There are three simple rules: Go Slow. Do No Harm. Don’t Hit Anyone.

Traffic 2
There are other “guidelines” such as automobiles stay to the left of the flow and everything else, bikes, cyclos, motorbikes and pushcarts keeps to the right. There are also traffic lights, but they are for the most part advisory. These are the two structural guidelines that help ensure that rules #2 and #3 are achieved.

There is one and only one safety device – the horn. Both taxis and motorbikes use them constantly, but they too are advisory – “I’m behind you, please ease over to the side.” And, your area of concern as a driver is always in front of you. Most vehicles have mirrors, but it’s dangerous to look back. Your job is to avoid running into someone ahead of you. If you look in the mirror you will.

In Vietnam motorbikes go anywhere and everywhere that it is possible to squeeze in – between cars, to the left of the cars if there’s a space, on the sidewalk if there’s not and the wrong way on a one-way street if that’s where they need to go. Bicycles roll along in the middle of it all. At first I thought they would stay to the far right, but that was faulty Western thinking. They ride right down the center of the motorbike side. That’s possible because of Rule #1: no one goes fast. Even when the road looks open, which it seldom is, no one dares to go fast. There is always someone entering the road from the sidewalk or an alley or a side street. Almost all motorbike parking is in organized clusters on the sidewalk, and there’s only one way to get into traffic and that’s off the curb.

Cars obey the “go slow” rule diligently. They can do serious harm if anything goes amiss. So they go slow. Most of the cars are taxis and I haven’t been in one yet that had an automatic transmission. I don’t get that at all. In a world where everything operates in slow motion and forward progress is often inches at a time, why don’t the cars have automatic transmissions? I’ve asked the question of lots of people and no one seems to know. The best guess is that cars with manual transmissions are cheaper. I’m not buying it, but it could be true. Cars are very expensive – there’s a serious tax levied on any car that’s sold in Vietnam. Still, taxis rarely get out of first or second gear and often they stall because the driver is in the wrong gear and it lugs down. I can’t believe that an automatic transmission wouldn’t save money in the long run with all the transmission and clutch repair on the manuals.

Anyway, cars go slowly and because they travel on the left when they need to turn right they do a very slow maneuver through the motorbikes and everyone makes room or weaves around as the taxi eases across. Not only do they make this seemingly impossible maneuver in a sea of motorbikes, but they also think nothing of making a U-turn. In the US if someone tried that he would end up in the slammer or the hospital.

But that brings up the most interesting thing about Saigon traffic: road rage is unheard of. I don’t know if it is the Buddhist influence or something more basic in the make up of the people, but millions of people travel the roads every day and I have never seen anyone scowl or shake a fist at anyone else no matter how egregious the offense. It is very Zen-like to be in the flow.

Nothing is perfect; I’ve seen motorbikes down in the street, but to me it’s a miracle that there isn’t a pile up at every corner. Next time I’ll tell you about crossing the street… It’s best characterized as risk management.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *