Hallucinogenic Streets

Transportation - Saigon/HCMC: Feb. 16, 2016

Someone once said if you are irritated by every rub, how will you ever be polished?

When you hear a Vietnamese colleague say, once again, “I’ve been unlucky…had an accident yesterday”, as they hobble displaying a bit of agony, almost gone is the sympathy, instead you’re bursting to say: IT’S NOT THAT YOU’RE UNLUCKY! PEOPLE DRIVE LIKE THEY ARE COMPLETELY INSANE AND NO ONE CARES ABOUT ANYONE ON THE ROAD! Uhm… I can assure you that luck has absolutely nothing to do with your misfortunes my dear friend.

We must admit that many expats, including myself, have assimilated and do drive like idiots from time to time as well.

I’ve been pondering how to convey the insanity of driving in Saigon to people who have never driven here. Driving in Saigon for eight years has truly inspired me to write on such a merging topic exploring social values, economic development and the Vietnamese psyche.

The glorious hallucinogenic episodes of daily driving in our lovely city. Why hallucinogenic you may ask? Well because many driving scenarios on these roads are simply unbelievable!

As you cruise along one of the many fine intertwining networks of roads in this chaotic urban maze, you see yet another couple with their baby in front heading straight towards you at full speed (opposite direction of course)… eyes locked in unconditional disbelief. Both you and they speculate… what a moron! Unfortunately this is the norm.

Anyone who drives in Saigon will be more than familiar with the signal light conundrum… signal left (in any other place people will pass you on the right) and get an onslaught of bikers passing you on the left missing you by millimeters. Don’t try and figure out why, it leads to nowhere.

According to Tuoi Tre News (January 2016), on average, road accidents kill around 9,000 people in Vietnam every year – and leave tens of thousands of others with injuries. Vietnam is one of the countries with the highest death rate from road accidents in the world following closely behind India and China. The local driving style claims about 30 lives per day usually from severe head trauma. Hmmm, you may want to consider spending a bit more than VND50,000 on a helmet guys.

Jonathan Passmore of the World Health Organization in Hanoi has worked for years on traffic safety issues in Vietnam. He estimates that 80 percent of helmets fail to meet national quality standards.

Shockingly, the months leading to Tet (the proverbial joyous time of year) sees the death rate climb steeply. Some may attribute this to the term “Tet-ness”, the time when people become possessed with images of the new year that carries a free pass to drive invincibly.

Many locals lament that Tet just isn’t what it used to be, lacking the emotional happiness with family and loved ones. Often it’s said that within the past 5-10 years the lead up to Tet includes numerous thefts and negative experiences and increased reckless driving.

So why do people drive so insane? Upon asking some random Vietnamese of a ranging demographic why, here are some opinions:

“Everyone follows everyone, so when we see people drive wrong we follow”

“Destiny, some believe if they are meant to get in an accident today then they will, regardless of how we drive”

“Traffic rules are not enforced enough. Education should also focus on rules of the road. In school we don’t learn enough about traffic laws”

“We can pay for a driving license without taking a proper test”

“Vietnamese want to do everything quickly and always arriving late so drive fast to get there on time, not caring about safety.”

Some say it’s the education that is the problem… sorry but I don’t understand that one guys, I mean in other Asian countries where driving is safer, they don’t teach in schools to not drive the opposite direction into oncoming traffic at full speed, or that it’s not a good idea to wave your baby in the air while driving your scooter, right? It is just common sense.

There are a few refreshing examples of people helping to make things better. Some university students have grouped together with long ropes coercing drivers to go only the right direction on the roads, holding signs saying don’t drive the opposite direction on one-way streets (cam di nguoc chieu).

A few years back there was an expat in Hanoi, holding the rear of motorbikes when drivers went the opposite direction. Many locals agreed with his actions in hopes of creating a safer place to drive. Obviously lack of proper law enforcement to shape a society that fosters safe driving skills is paramount.

Ok guys, solutions… ? How about whispering in your neighbor's ear: ban oi, slow down, relax, you only get one life, cherish it, pass it on.