You wouldn’t know this (unless you do), but whenever ex-pats in ‘Nam get together they inevitably bitch about traffic. Bitch, bitch, bitch. Seriously, it’s like idiots back home talking about the weather or football scores or some shit like this. I’d never engage in that sort of mindless, bullshit chit-chat.
|I am not a beautiful and unique snowflake|
5) They’ll Let Any Jawa Operate A Motor-Vehicle Out Here.
Marketing has everybody chasing unachievable ideals. You can’t sell shit to people that are satisfied. Light-skinned people gotta be darker and dark-skinned people gotta be lighter. To work on that unachievable lightness of being, Vietnamese women don’t let any skin show when they’re out in the sun. They also spend millions of Đồng every year on bleaching and whitening tinctures, salves, balms and poltices.
|Fortunately, Westerners are far too clever to fall prey to such primitive marketing schemes|
They also swaddle themselves in some pretty heinous clothing. If fashion were a religion, Veitnamese women’s driving outfits would be hate crimes. The rub is that most (if not all) skin-protecting clothing doubles on sax as blinders. Seriously, they wear these embarassingly floppy hats, Jackie-O sunnies and these weird, Michael Jackson face mask/ear and neck-covering things. When you strap a helmet down over that shit, the hat’s floppitude creates this weird tunnel, effectively obliterating one’s peripheral vision.
|This dude knows what I’m jibber-jabbering about|
“So, what?” you might say. “Other than being surrounded by half-blind Jawas, what’s the big dealio?” Well, when you’re riding a motorbike and totally surrounded on all sides by- and I’m qualified to make this judgment- the world’s worst fucking drivers, you try to control your fists of fury idignant rage when some self-handicapped, window-licking, mouth-breather runs into you and apologizes by way of accusing you of being a shitty driver. I mean it. Come out here and try it (some of you are more welcome than others).
Just for fun, here’s a list of things which may or may not be important in Saigon traffic. You in the listening audience at home can try to rank the items in order of importance. Do your best!
a) lily-white skin
b) complete anonymity by way of an outfit that’d get you commited in any Western nation
c) peripheral vision
|“I can’t see my hands, so I have no idea how stupid this looks!”|
|Stand-back, I’mma blast this cracker|
So, there are the bad drivers by way of outfit choice, but there are also people who are completely ignorant of the driving rules. Entire piles of country bumpkins move to the big city (not even bothering to strike oil while huntin’ for some food first) and bring their driving-on-a-dirt-road ethos with them. I imagine most fitness-to-drive inquries go like this:
“Do you know how to drive a motorbike?”
“I can hold a Honda Cub vertical while it moves forward.”
“Yeah, but… jeez, I can’t say ‘no’ to you, you little scamp! Get out there and have a good time! Hey, if you see any white people, stare at them and repeat anything that they say in Vietnamese to your friends while laughing. Now, scoot ya little so-and-so!”
Not that I blame them, I guess. Getting a license isn’t easy or anything. I mean, it involves more than reaching into a Crackerjack box, or whatever. I got one. That shit takes work, yo. Most drivers don’t have them out here, though. Which is funny (“weird,” not, “ha, ha”) because penalties range from three years in jail on up to ten years in jail if you cause an accident and you aren’t a licensed driver (20 years, if the accident results in a death) (Source: Australian Embassy in Vietnam’s website, 2011). The downfall of not having a license isn’t so much the arrest-time as it is the fact that you actually don’t know how to drive on a road filled with other people who also don’t know how to drive. It’s like thousands of shaved, oiled, masturbating squirrels all trying to bust it on the same acorn. The only reason I don’t say, “Seriously?!?!?” thousands of times a day any more is because one can only see the stupidest motherfucking thing one’s ever seen so many times before one loses one’s capacity for astonishment (one). So, to summarize, Vietnamese roads are to driving what Thunderdome was to Australia. By which I mean a terrible time in their history which they will always look back on in shame. (Wait, Mad Max was a documentary, right?)
|In Communist Vietnam, squirrel roadkills you!|
4) If I Can’t See You, You Can’t See Me.
Vietnamese people are, apparently, in a Pre-Object Permanence stage of development. You might ask how I know this. Well, if I wanted to explain myself to someone like you, I’d have a blog.
|Now stop crying and don’t make me do that again. I love you.|
There’s one reason and one reason alone that babies are special: you can play peek-a-boo with one of those little shit factories for hours and they’re so stupid that they’ll be surprised every single god’am time. Every. God. Am. Time. Special’er’n’hail. What keeps them surprised is the fact that, developmentally-speaking, they are in the Pre Object-Permanence stage. This means simply, if they can’t see something, it doesn’t exist. When you peek and boo in a baby’s face you are, literally to them, vanishing and reappearing. Which explains why babies cry when I approach them; they fear my magicks.
Asian people play peek-a-boo all day long, they just call it “saving face.” It’s this weird thing where, in order to avoid embarrassment, someone who is culturally Asian will either say something they know to not be true or they’ll simply pretend you aren’t there by not looking at you. That is to say, most run of the mill people out here will lie or make you and your problem go away by not looking at or responding to you; because, if I can’t see you, you no longer exist. Behavior like one would expect from some sort of a sentient baby. Crazy, right? I mean, who would believe a baby could be sentient? If I were a Blade Runner, I’d shoot the living hell out of a baby.
|Is this testing whether I’m a lesbian or an infant, Mr. Deckard?|
I’m a confrontational asshole and I hate cowardice more than most things so I get along gangbusters out here. Suffice to say, you can do the most awful, shitty and/or rude thing to another human on the road and, as long as you don’t acknowledge their existence, you’re as faultless as your theoretical behavior -which you may or may not have engaged in- is dick-nosed. It’s like being trapped on Gilligan’s Island with the Bush cabinet for the duration of every trip you ever make.
|“How many coconut radios do you think we can fit into the economy’s butt-hole?.”|
While most Westerners are a bit confrontation averse (some more than others), many Vietnamese folk take it to insane levels. They’ll talk shit like champs, mumbling about how stupid foreigners are right up until you stop next to them and speak while looking at them. Then they morph into deer, front-and-center in those face-losing headlights that comprise your gaze.
You should see your average suckers on the road out here talking shit to each other, neither party looking at the other, just sitting on their bikes, eyes forward, mouthing-off to no one in particular. It’s pretty funny until some dipshit almost murders you by driving like he’s a robot sent from the future to vehicularly manslaughter you. Naturally, wanting to reinforce the illusion of cause and effect and wanting to present some sort of negative consequences for homicidal behavior, you call him on his bullshit. But your words wash over him like water over a stone. Something deep inside of him, under and behind all of his assumptions breaks, his eyes widen and he stares into the space just outside that which regular humans are capable of seeing. He’s been transported to a magical place beyond the grasp of your harsh words. You cannot hurt him. No. No one will ever hurt him again.
3) The Three “G”s of Vietnamese Driving.
The depth and breadth of Vietnamese driving philosophy can be summed-up – utterly, thoroughly and completely – with three words: go, go and go.
It’s like everybody is playing The Floor Is Lava and the road is HOLY SHIT! IT’S MADE FROM LAVA!! DON’T STEP ON IT, IDIOT! KEEP MOVING OR YOU WILL FUCKING DIE!
|THIS IS SERIOUS.|
You could be getting raped by an entire sleuth of bears on the sidewalk downtown and Vietnam’s leading bear-defence expert/ursine-mace salesman could be bogged down in a traffic-jam right next to you. If he’s moving- even a couple of inches a second- you’re fucked. Or bear-raped, or whatever. He ain’t stopping for shit. And you’re lower than shit, you non-go-ing bear-rape victim.
Motorbike drivers in this city will bust the stupidest, most unproductive moves in the known universe in the name of continuing to move without having to place their feet on the ground (don’t get me started on the scum that drive 4+ wheeled vehicles). Calling their actions counter-intuitive would be an insult to intuitive behavior on the grounds that it presumes that the opposite of said drivers’ behavior is logical. What’s the opposite of slowly crashing into a bus so as to not have to put your feet on the ground? Maybe, quickly crashing into a bus while dragging your feet on the road? I’ve seen both of those things. Neither makes sense to me.
This may not sound particularly difficult to deal with, but, as a thinking human being, when I see a bus or car trying to cross perpendicular to traffic (in mind-bogglingly traffic-flow fucking fashion, mind you), I think to myself, “if I pass in front of them, they’ll have to stop which will block the entire road, whereas, if I pause momentarily, they’ll cross the road quickly and everyone will be able to go which will be of greatest benefit.” Your average driver in Vietnam, however, is upon that gap in front of the vehicle like they’re a travelling salesman and the area in front of the car is one of three holes a farmer warned him not to slip the bone to.
Drivers here will flood onto the sidewalks, occupy both sides of a two-way road (Yay! for grass-roots political movements!) and drive the wrong motherfucking way down a motherfucking one-way street all in the name of not having to stop. Sometimes, I’ll look at people driving and mutter, “go, go, go, go, go, go, go…” to myself. It somehow seems to make their behavior make more sense. It also increases their Oompa-Loompa factor by about 12, which I’m totally fine with.
|Do the curtains match the drapes? Willy don’t kiss and tell, y’all.|
2) Look, Ma, No Hands!
If one’s knees are bent, most people- most average humans- have to extend their leg to reach into their pocket and get their phone. Drivers here do that at about 30 miles an hour and then drive their bikes one-handed while screaming into their phones. Often, after answering the phone and realizing that the discussion will take the lionshare of their attention, drivers will slow down to about 7 miles an hour and roll down the middle of the road, shrieking, “Huh? What? Huh? Hello?” into their phone. Sometimes, they’ll be overwhelmed with some piece of news they’ve just possibly half-heard (I assume that’s what’s happened, anyway) and feel compelled to stop their bikes wherever they stand. That’s not an overstatement. Wherever the fuck they happen to be in the road, they will stop. They could be sitting in the middle of đường Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa at a green light and they’ll engage in their conversation as if they’re sitting in their living room on their uncomfortable solid-wood furniture, relaxing and drinking hot water (I think that’s what Vietnamese people do in their free-time, anyway). I know several people who, taken unawares by a bike parked in the middle of a heavily-trafficked street, have run into one of these peculiar specimens (Jackie is the only person, actually, but if you measure people by height, Jackie’s worth at least two or three normal-sized shorties).
|Pictured: A giraffe tongue-kissing Jackie’s leg|
Even worse than some dude droning into his phone and endangering everyone’s life around him is a dude doing this same thing with a child between him and his handlebars. I understand the desire to have something to cushion the potentially rib-crushing blow that your handlebars could deliver in an accident, but a child makes a really shitty air-bag. They’re mostly bones, for fuck’s sake.
People also do this thing where they drive one-handed in an “I’m cool” sort of way. It’s hopelessly lame in a fashion that only a 16 year old Vietnamese kid with a really shitty hair-cut could pull off. It’s achieved by draping your wrist over your handlebar grip in such a way that, if you get into even a minor bump and grind with another bike, you’re sure to break the holy-hell out of every bird-bone in your hand. It’s totally bad-assed looking, though.
1) The Street Is My Living Room
I’ll be brief with this one, though it’s probably the main issue with traffic in Vietnam (or the main issue with everything, everywhere). Drivers, pedestrians and food-sellers seem to be under the delusion that the streets belong to individuals as opposed to society as a whole. Kids will laugh and play, pushing each other and badly riding their bikes on the busiest fucking roads you’ve ever seen (depending on where you’ve been, I guess). Food sellers will set up their stalls on the most congested roads at the worst possible times of day and create bottlenecks that my children’s children will sing songs about (I will die alone and childless). Pedestrians will ignore cross-walks and leap out in front of bikes and cars where and whenever the mood strikes them. The “this road is mine!” mentality permeates almost all on-the-street behaviors here. Pedestrians will often walk in the busiest of roads when the sidewalk next to them is perfectly clear (though, to be fair to them, sidewalks are often filled with food stalls, parked bikes and smoldering corpses). People merging never (NEVER) check the traffic they’re joining; that goes for both riders starting from a dead-stop to join a 30MPH vehicle flow, and people turning into a green-lit intersection. Why? Because this road is here for me. Me. And I do whatever the fuck I want, whenever the fuck I want.
No one looks both ways. Coming from a Western Nation and having the phrase “look both ways” beaten into my gourd from the earliest of ages this seems like some of the stupidest bullshit I’ve ever seen.
It only seems that way, though. Because, the fact of the matter is this: people are the same everywhere. There’s no difference between me and anyone that lives here. There’s no difference between American politicians and Vietnamese ones. American drivers and Vietnamese drivers. Etcetera. It’s all just a matter of how rules are enforced. People get away with exactly what they can. Vietnam does a double-plus ungood job of enforcing traffic laws (which are identical to American traffic laws, by the way). Vietnam does a double-plus ungood job of hiding corruption. Rich Vietnamese people do a double-plus ungood job of hiding their self-entitled douchebaggery (though, American rich people are pretty shitty at this, too). Deep down, we’re all selfish assholes; in order for things to function smoothly we need everyone to be super bright and empathetic or we need soul-crushing rules to keep the populous from devolving into some Lord Of The Flies-esque cluster-fuck. Don’t hold your breath while shitting into the other hand waiting for…. sour grapes? I’ve forgotten the idiom, but you know what I’m saying. The former ain’t happenin’.
|This isn’t ‘Nam, Donnie, there are… Wait. This is ‘Nam.
I’mma pop a couple off into that split.
(Mr. Shabbat-day Night Special)
I’m not alone when I feel chaffed by social constraints. But they’re necessary because there’s one thing we can’t escape: ourselves. We are fucking monsters. (Check out the free Googlebooks: Experiments With People: Revelations From Social Psychology; specifically the chapter entitled: Hooded Hoodlums: The Role Of Deindividuation in Antisocial Behavior, Eds: Robert P. Abelson, Kurt P. Frey, Aiden P. Gregg). The world is our living room, and if one of us wants to shit in it, by gob, we all will, ’cause I’m not walking all the way to the bathroom if he isn’t. Which is why true social reform is impossible and token social reform is only done with the blessing of those in power/with money. I’m not different from most Americans (well… I think abortion is murder and I’m totally fine with it, so there’s that). I think most people are totally pissed about how shit shakes down every day stateside. I just did something about it. There’s a reason I got the fuck out of the states (it wasn’t just student loan evasion). And no matter how shitty things get out here (wherever “here” is), I can wake up each morning and know that I’m not encouraging the assholes in power by perpetuating the illusion of a Participatory Democracy by voting or otherwise engaging in their broke-ass’d system.
Whoa. I got a little off-track there. Never matter. No mind.
|Meanwhile, in Iowa…|
That’s a blog!
Penalties for driving without license in Vietnam. Accessed December 18th, 2011, http://www.vietnam.embassy.gov.au/hnoi/Driving_in_Vietnam.html
Experiments With People: Revelations From Social Psychology, By Robert P. Abelson, Kurt P. Frey, Aiden P. Gregg. Pg.250 in Google Books, the chapter entitled: Hooded Hoodlums: The Role Of Deindividuation in Antisocial Behavior
Also, if you wanna get bummed (Am. slang for “depressed”), you can read this article about an American math professor who was discussing how to solve Vietnam’s traffic problems with a colleague when he was hit and killed by a motorbike in Hanoi: http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/world/archives/2006/12/17/2003340777
A side note: I can’t express to you my joy at simply writing a citation without giving a fuck about conforming to APA style.