When I arrived in Vietnam eight weeks ago, one of the very first things I noticed was that, after 10 months in Japan, I was once again in a place where cars keep to the right side of the street. Which was a relief, as it had taken me months to get used to cars driving in the left lane, a learning curve during which I nearly lost my life daily, because I’d be looking down the street the wrong way, think to myself, Well all’s certainly clear in that direction, then step into the street and suddenly see my life flash in front of my eyes to the soundtrack of a blaring horn as I narrowly missed becoming a flattened pedestrian fatality. (On one hand, this was a great way to review the highlights of my life. On the other, some of the bits were a little boring, frankly, and it was always hard to buy new underwear in my size in Japan.) Also, it makes perfect sense in retrospect, but it took me a while to figure out that, just like in America, as things go on the street, so do they also go everywhere else. I was constantly running face-first into startled Japanese people who were walking, naturally, on the left side of the sidewalk, or the office hall, or the supermarket aisle. So while I thrilled at the idea of once again traveling on the unambiguously correct side of the street and escalator, I also worried about how long it would take me to unlearn everything I’d learning about walking in Japan.
I should mention that when I first noticed this, it was technically just a few moments before arriving in Vietnam, by which I mean landing, because I was peering down at the roads through the window of the airplane as we dropped toward the runway at Hanoi International Airport. There are two other interesting things I did not anticipate about Vietnamese traffic at this time, one of which I noticed from my seat in the airplane – that there were very few cars, but lots and lots of motorcycles – and the other one I didn’t notice until later, because it can’t be seen, only heard.
And what a sound it is. Vietnam is a symphony of noise, one in which the horn section dominates. Some horns are short, piercing exclamations, others are lengthy outbursts that go on long enough to shift into incredible new registers as their owners race past, clearly hellbent on either manslaughter or suicide. The sheer variety of horns is staggering. They honk, screech, blast, whine, and babble. They bellow and cough, shriek and wail, bark, burst, and ululate. Some produce malicious, angry noises that are the fingernails on a chalkboard of the horn world, while others have the gentle gravitas of an elephant melodically breaking wind. Some sound like geese that have been goosed.
They do not stop, except in the very small hours of the night, and then they merely subside.
All this honking actually serves an important purpose. There are 80 million people in Vietnam and 40 million 125cc motorbikes, all operating on roads that in many places are more pothole than pavement. When you pack that many two-wheeled vehicles together — many of them laden with assorted boxes, shrubbery, furniture, construction equipment, live farm animals, and often entire families of five — on narrow, neglected streets, you have an accident waiting to happen. Several million accidents, actually, all at once. But they don’t happen, or at least not on the scale you’d expect.
That’s because in Vietnam, honking one’s horn does not mean “Get out of my way, you irritating, brainless, steaming pile of retarded baboon shit,” the way it does in the U.S., but rather “Here I am, just so you know.” Besides being much friendlier, it’s also much more practical. In America, all honking accomplishes is to piss somebody off, dramatically decreasing the chances that they’re going to accommodate you in whatever way you’re hoping they will. Here it’s exactly the opposite. The system works a little like the way bats echolocate to keep their bearings, or the way fish use receptors in their skin to know what their immediate neighbors are doing so the whole school can turn on a dime. All that racket is just a giant conversation happening on the streets, which is a little ironic, as most of the drivers and their passengers are also busily conversing on their cellphones.
Figure also that road rules, as such, are all but nonexistent in Vietnam. Medians are an afterthought, stop signs are mere suggestions, traffic lights are a waste of electricity, and sidewalks are considered crucial parts of the roadway. Driving into oncoming traffic is a skill that’s seemingly taught from birth, as is the ability to drive at speed millimeters away from neighbors on five or six sides or weaving maniacally through traffic while your passenger sits sidesaddle on the back in heels and a short skirt, applying lipstick in a compact with the composure of a bored housecat. The Vietnamese government enacted a law last year that requires every motorcycle driver to wear a helmet, but this seems largely understood by the population to have been an ironic joke.
The one rule that everyone observes is that the bigger your vehicle is, the greater your claim to the road. Right of way is determined by size and size alone. A utility van defers to a garbage truck, and a Kia moves aside for the utility van. The pecking order proceeds down through the ranks of passenger cars, motorbikes, and bicycles, though it does allow an exception for the technically larger but slower moving cyclo – a motorized version of a rickshaw in which the passengers ride in front, facing the tumult head-on. (It probably goes without saying that tourists rarely ride in a cyclo twice.) At the very bottom of the hierarchy stands the humble pedestrian, who if she is wise hugs the side of the road and keep her head up, eyes peeled.
Strangely, this formulation changes once the pedestrian wishes to cross the street instead of to move with traffic. In fact, it’s upended altogether. Given the negligible reasons for traffic ever to pause, it does not, and so a pedestrian waiting for a break in the traffic to cross the street will wait a very long time indeed. Therefore, the way to cross a street is simply – and for newcomers this takes a great deal of faith – to step into the street and begin moving toward the opposite curb. (If this seems counterintuitive from where you’re sitting, you should try it on a major Saigon thoroughfare.) The key, like swimming with sharks, is not to make any sudden or unexpected movements, and to maintain a slow, steady pace toward the other side of the road. Miraculously, the traffic parts around the person as smoothly as a stream flowing around a boulder. The result is a cacaphonic mechanical ballet that seems to defy the laws of space, time, inertia, causality and common sense. But somehow it works.
I owned and rode a series of motorcycles in the U.S. on and off for about ten years, so I thought I’d have a leg up when it came to renting one of the thousands of motorbikes available to visitors for $5 a day or so and zipping around Hanoi. It’s amusing, really, when I reflect back on my naive self climbing aboard that first scooter and looking forward to a day of carefree cruising, taking in the sights, the wind in my hair, or what’s left of it. I was still unaware that you age differently driving on the streets of Vietnam: one minute there is like a year in the real world. And that this speeded-up time is reflected daily in your physical appearance. I was oblivious also to the fact that letting your concentration on the road and the other drivers waver from 100 percent to 99 percent is akin to standing on a golf course clutching a steel pipe over your head in a thunderstorm.
I learned quickly. These days, I’m a different driver than I was in America. I climb sidewalks in my Honda Dream for the pole position beneath the red light, watching for a moment to dart into the oncoming traffic for a shot at jumping the median so I can beat the horse-drawn cart I can see hogging the road two blocks away. I fill my tank with petrol poured from a plastic one-liter Coke bottle at a “gas station” on the roadside before jockeying for street space with scarred, grizzled veterans of the road. And when I have a close call, which is often, my life flashes before my eyes, and I pay attention even to the boring bits, and the soundtrack is music, sweet music.