Friday, May 8, 2009

the joy of driving in Southeast Asia

The first thing you’ll notice when you get to your hotel in Vietnam is that there aren’t many cars on the road, but everyone has a motorbike.  For foreigners like myself, this requires a little bit of adjustment, but you get past it eventually, right?  You have to.  The part that I can’t get past is that there are no road rules at all.  I’m not exaggerating.  Think of all the stupidest, illogical things you can do while driving, and here in Haiphong it’s accepted as totally normal.  This includes the following:

  • Passing on the left over the double yellow line
  • Driving on the wrong side of the road
  • Turning two blocks before the desired street and driving on the far right of the street in the wrong direction
  • Not stopping at red lights
  • Pulling a u-turn in a street of shoulder-to-shoulder motorbikes (again, not exaggerating)

All of this happens anytime you go on the road.  The way passing in cars works is that it’s understood that on a 4-lane road, the motorbikes get the right lane of each direction.  So cars don’t pass on the right; they pass on the left by going across the double yellow line, which is actually white here, or nonexistent.  This means that any time you get in a car, you will be engaged in what is essentially a game of chicken with cars going in the opposite direction, most likely many times during the course of the ride.  If you’re me, you have to either engage with someone else behind or to the side of you, so that you’re not looking out the front of the car, or you have to close your eyes.  Otherwise you’ll go insane, because each car ride involves multiple near-misses, many of which involve what would be head-on collisions.

We witnessed 2 accidents in the first 1 1/2 weeks we were here.  The first was when the bus driver to our Ha Long Bay trip collided with a woman who was trying to pass us in a motorbike on the right while the bus made a right turn.  She seemed OK to me, afterwards; she stood right up, it looked like her hand was scratched, but it wasn’t clear how much she might have twisted her knee.  An accident is a disaster, since the way they get resolved is through a yelling match between what are normally very cooperative and docile people.  Whomever wins the match, supported by witnesses, gets paid and the other person pays.  In our case the bus driver paid the woman $200k dong, which is ~U$12.  I’m not sure it was his fault but he very understandably wanted the whole thing to be over with ASAP.

The second accident was when we were coming back from a restaurant near the hotel in a cab.  Our driver very deftly navigated through an intersection where cars were coming from all directions, and someone tried to do a u-turn.  A car coming very fast towards us in the opposite direction passed us and crashed into one of them with a very loud crash.  Our cab driver didn’t stop.

The other day my translator let me drive her motorbike in the hotel parking lot, which is huge.  I was nervous but since she is about 90 pounds soaking wet, I figured I should be able to handle the bike, at least to do a quick drive up and back from the end of the driveway.  It was fine, and simpler than a motorcycle.  You have to shift, it has 5 gears, but there isn’t a clutch, so you basically just push on the accelerator and it goes.  After coming back she asked me if I wanted to take it on the street.  No thanks :)

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