Thursday, August 19, 2010

5 Motorbike Behaviors that Shock Foreigners

If Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are the brain and heart respectively of Vietnam, then motorbikes are the blood. They circulate through every nook and cranny of Vietnam, leaving no area untouched. It's nearly impossible to exaggerate their importance to this country. Without motorbikes, Vietnam would literally come to a standstill. And in such sheer numbers, there are bound to be some quirks, and downright bizarre behavior, that foreigners have difficulty grasping. Here are five of them:

The Vietnamese will honk at anything -- or more precisely -- nothing. In the west, a baby's first words or a kindergartner's first day of school are causes for celebration. In Vietnam, a big moment for a child is when he or she first learns how to use the horn. Honking is so ingrained into the psyche of every driver that a moment of silence is quite unnerving. One would think that escape from the incessant "honk! honk! honk!" could be found inside buildings, but even they fall victim to the piercing sounds. Has the light turned green? Honk to make sure everyone in front of you is aware. Will the light turn green in three seconds? Honk to make sure everyone in front of you is aware. Somebody on their cell phone? Honk to annoy them. Running a red light? You better damn sure be honking through that intersection like a madman. Somebody cut you off and you're pissed? Hon...actually, interestingly enough, the Vietnamese never use honking as a form of aggression.

Pregnant Women and Babies
Let's just get this out of the way -- motorbikes are dangerous. I don't mean like hiking alone in the woods dangerous. I mean like crossing the highway on foot dangerous. The west shells pregnant women and babies in protective cocoons and makes sure at all times they are more protected than the rest of society. Ironically enough, the opposite is true here. Babies, because their heads are too small, are not given helmets. They're not given any protective gear of any kind now that I think about it. Their mother, sitting behind the husband, usually holds the baby under the armpits and raises it like Simba -- so that the baby can survey his kingdom I guess. And pregnant women, because of their ever enlarging bellies, cannot sit with one leg on each side of the motorbike. Instead, they must side-saddle it, which leaves them prone to a variety of horrible accidents.

Like this...while driving.

Imagine you've just gone to the supermarket to get some groceries, and now you're backing out of your parking space and BUMP, you run into the car ever so slightly that was waiting to take your space. You curse under your breath, maybe ask why he was so close, or admit fault, and then eventually exchange insurance information and phone numbers, etc. It's all very civil. Vietnam's equivelant of a fender-bender doesn't quite play out this way. After an accident, which almost always results in one or both of the participants being thrown from their bike, they look at each other angrily, pick their bike up off the street, and begrudgingly continue on. When only one person falls off the motorbike, the still upright survivor often just keeps going. You're lucky if he or she gives a cursory glance backward to make sure you're not bleeding to death. Many people here don't even have driver's licenses. The prospect of two Vietnamese people exchanging insurance information is laughable.

They are Cargo Trucks
So you've just ordered a new fridge from Sears. They promised you one-day delivery, so you eagerly wait by your door. Eventually, a large truck with a lot of cargo space pulls up in front of your house, and slowly unloads its contents. In Vietnam, they just throw said fridge onto the back of a motorbike and that's that.

Motorbikes, which aren't confined to an enclosed space, can accommodate unbelievably large things. It's almost like Vietnamse drivers are in constant battle to see who can put the largest and most ridiculous thing on the back of their ride.

There are Literally no Enforced Rules
A traffic system without rules is one where everyone must be stuck in constant logjams and frustrating situations. How could anyone get anywhere if there are no rules -- at least rules that are somewhat enforced. Against all common logic, Vietnam functions quite well in terms getting around, even in its biggest and most populated cities. Perhaps this is precisely because there are no rules. Driving on the sidewalk, speeding, going the wrong way down one-way streets, pulling u-turns whenever and wherever you please, making left turns from the right lane -- well, as they say in Vietnamese, khong sao (no problem). Yes, there are police, and yes they will stop people, but the fine is usually small ($5-10), and as I said in a previous post, it's almost encouraged to try and run from them. 99% of the time they won't try to chase you unless they're feeling especially proactive that day. With no rules in place, everyone operates according to what's in their best interest. That means getting from point A to point B in the shortest time possible without getting into any accidents. Thus, Vietnamese traffic by and large works in a timely and efficient manner.

Well, kinda.