Ho Chi Minh City Bus Kills 3 on Motorbike

A public bus ran over a motorbike in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 8 Thursday morning, killing a man, his daughter and his nephew on the bike.

Hoang Binh Duong, 44, was driving his daughter Hoang Truc Phuong and his nephew Pham Hoang Sang to school.

The bus, which had sped down the Nhi Thien Duong Bridge, crashed into the motorbike, dragged the driver and his two passengers for 20 meters and the motorbike for a further 50 meters before stopping.”

About three months ago, I bought a bicycle in Saigon. Until then, I’d been renting a dinky 125cc Honda motorbike from one of the cafes in the District 1 backpacker ghetto known as Pham Ngu Lau, for which I paid about $65 a month. The day after I bought the bicycle, I returned the motorbike to the cafe and walked away without looking back.

This I did for a variety of reasons. I’d recently moved beyond the tourist-choked streets of District 1 across the river to a newer neighborhood in the trendy part of District 7 known as Saigon South. (Please understand that when I say “trendy,” I mean only that the Vietnamese men urinating on the side of the road here make a token effort to hide their peckers, and being stopped by the police and getting shaken down for a bribe is marginally less common.) Out here, the streets are wider, the traffic less menacing, the chances of death by moving vehicle exponentially less immediate. I even found a cozy two-bedroom loft apartment just 2km from the university where I work.

I’d also noticed a worrisome trend in my waist size since leaving Japan. I reckoned this was due partly to recent changes in my diet – fried spring rolls and buttery baguettes instead of sushi every day. But mostly I thought it was because my motorbike was turning me into a walking twinkie.

In Japan, there was nowhere to which I couldn’t either a) walk, b) ride my bicycle, or c) catch a train. Sometimes I did all three; the bicycle I owned there was a smart little three-geared folding number that I often took on the train with me, doubled over on itself like a Hindi contortionist. If I got tired of riding, I could flip down the kickstand and leave it anywhere I liked, unlocked even, and return later secure in the knowledge that it would remain untouched, safe as a sleeping cow in a Mumbai market.

Trains in Vietnam do exist, but they run only between the bigger cities, and riding on one is like sawing off your own leg: slow, uncomfortable, and usually traumatic. Walking to your destination is similarly pointless. The interesting things are just too far apart here, and the hazards to life and limb too great. People look at you with a mixture of pity, perplexity, and amusement; even the locals know not to walk anywhere. Why should they, when they can hop on one of 100,000 or so idling Xe Oms and catch a harrrowing motorbike ride across the city for less than $2? Nor is there any tranquility to be had in walking anyway; traffic is an assault on the senses, and you can’t move ten meters without being propositioned by one of those 100,000 Xe Om drivers, who take the idea of a person walking – particularly a foreigner – as a personal slap in the face.

In Saigon, the only public transportation options are rust-rotten buses that run on no schedule whatsoever, and taxis. Taxis take at least triple the time to get where you’re going as driving a motorbike does, because cars are limited to driving in the leftmost of two lanes. Cars are also outnumbered by motorbikes by about 20 to 1, and the motorcyclists feel no compunction at all about driving in whichever lane suits them at that split second – or on the sidewalk, or down the wrong side of the road into oncoming traffic, if its convenient, which it often is. A precise description is elusive, but imagine if you beat an anthill into dust with a shovel, then sent a remotely controlled toy car through the teeming ruins – and tried to do so without running over any ants. The result would look a lot like your typical Saigon street.

Motorbike riders here also have a breathtaking sense of entitlement to the road. Not just as a group, but individually, too. For example, there’s nothing a Vietnamese motorbike driver hates more than having to apply his brakes. It’s a psychological admission of defeat, a yielding of space and primacy that’s to be avoided at all costs. Case in point: riders emerging from a side street onto a busy highway never, ever stop and look into oncoming traffic before plowing into the stream. Instead they make a very specific point of neither pausing nor looking. It look me a long time to understand this seemingly suicidal behavior. Entire families of four would suddenly appear out of nowhere on a rattling pile of scrap metal atop two wheels, emerging from a parking lot or alleyway without so much as a glance to see who, or what, might be about to run them over – me, in this case. I’d swerve at the last instant, avoiding four counts of manslaughter by mere centimeters, cursing and gasping at the driver’s stupidity.

Only after some months did I realize this is not stupidity (or not stupidity alone) but strategy. Think about it. If, as a driver, you refuse to look at and acknowledge oncoming traffic, then the oncoming drivers will notice this, as they can’t help seeing what’s in front of them. This places the responsibility for avoiding a collision upon the only party who sees that a collision is iminent, and lets the wilfully blind driver scoot into traffic while the traffic flows around and absorbes him. It’s still insane, of course. But there’s a demented sort of logic behind it that can’t be argued with. If only a few individuals drove this way, fatalities would be through the roof. But it’s a system-wide strategy that everyone understands and uses. (This epiphany also helped me to understand one other thing about Vietnam driving codes: The reason the tumult of horns here never ceases is because horns are what Vietnamese people use instead of brakes. Suddenly it all made perfect sense.)

In other countries, parents teach their children to stop and look both ways before crossing. Here, parents teach their children that they mustn’t stop or look under any circumstances. Because then you’ll never get across.

What with all this, I found myself feeling nostalgic for the old days of bicycling to work every day. I pictured myself gliding into the parking area, the wind ruffling what remains of my hair, calves bulging beneath my work slacks, attractive female colleagues turning their heads to watch in slow motion.

What I failed to take into account was that a) it’s a lot easier to justify bicycling to work when it’s the only option, and b) it’s a hell of a lot hotter in Vietnam than it is in Japan.

I bought my bicycle at a little corner shop in District 1. My girlfriend Malo and I have a sneaky strategy we use when I need to buy anything significant in Vietnam. Knowing that, as a foreigner, the price I’ll be quoted is anywhere from twice to five times what a Vietnamese person will pay for the same item, we let her do the bargaining. But just letting her do the talking isn’t enough; the seller will see that she’s with a foreigner, and the price will be just as outrageous as if I’d asked myself. Bargaining under these circumstances is pointless, as Malo will be told it’s her duty as a patroit and a human being to help the seller ensure that I part with as much of my money as can be managed. For a local to try and lowball a fellow Vietnamese person on behalf of a foreigner is the lowest form of treachery.

Fortunately, Malo doesn’t buy into this notion. (Partly this is because she’s from Hanoi, where contempt for South Vietnam is about the same as you’d find among New Yorkers for residents of Mississippi.) So what we do is first identify an item of the sort I want to buy. Then she moves off to find a seller who hasn’t seen us together. Sometimes, after she’s asked for a price and gotten a reply that’s in the Vietnamese ballpark, I’ll sidle up to see how things are going. This usually results in a very pissed off merchant – doubly so if Malo has managed to haggle him or her down from the original asking price, which every sale involves. Sometimes, in order to avoid being cursed and accused of betraying the spirit of Uncle Ho and the entire communist way, Malo will complete the whole transaction without me. I prefer to avoid this, because too many times I’ve been burned by discovering afterward that my idea of what I wanted and her understanding of it were not as close as I thought they were.

My bicycle cost me a little more than it might have, because of this – about $175. But a bicycle is something you want to be sure you’re comfortable with. (Still, I paid a lot less than the Australian guy who bought the same bike while we were there.) It’s got 21 gears, which is about 18 more than I need here, the flattest country this side of Ohio.

It’s just a ten-minute ride from my apartment into work. I arrive with the breeze in my exhaust-fumigated hair, calves bulging invisibly under chain-grease-stained slacks, dripping sweat through my work shirt. My female colleagues all turn their heads to watch, and it is with a mixture of pity, perplexity, and amusement.