Tuesday, 3 April 2012

On the road in Vietnam

This post was first published on Crikey

The Vietnamese spend so much time on their motorbikes I expect that eventually they will evolve into two-wheeled centaurs.

If you pitted a 40-kilogram, stiletto-wearing Vietnamese girl against a burly Aussie bikie in a test of motorcycling skill, I know who my money would be on. But I’m not going to say it, in case I get shot.

But say the test of motorcycling skill was being held out of town, and you had to take a long, bumpy bus ride with the contestants to get there, for the love of God, sit next to the bikie.

The Vietnamese ride through the market, never getting off their bikes even as they prod the produce and haggle over the price of pomelos. They’ll swathe their steeds in swinging bags of meat and fruit and eggs, then drive to a roadside food stall where, like a lo-fi drive-thru, a bread roll with pâté, or a little crème caramel, can be bagged up and hooked over their handlebars, without them ever having to leave their seat.

On their motorbikes they can smoke, and send text messages, and carry a brimming bowl of noodle soup one-handed. Probably all at the same time. Children do their homework riding pillion, and toddlers fall asleep while standing up, wedged between their parents’ legs, their head resting on the handlebars.

But because the Vietnamese pretty much drive out of the birth canal on two wheels, they miss out on a formative experience we take for granted: adapting to four-wheeled transport. As a result, no long-haul bus ride in Vietnam is complete without at least half the passengers vomiting into plastic bags, tying those bags up, then flinging them out the window throughout the entirety of the journey. It’s a case of projectile vomit turned vomit projectiles.

These little exploding parcels of spew litter the highways of Vietnam. So, say you are going to watch this test of motorcycling skill on a motorbike that’s travelling behind the contestants’ bus, then keep a wide, wide berth. Unless you want to receive a high-speed bag o’ vom in your face.

Just as the Vietnamese are, on the whole, inexperienced car passengers, they’re also inexperienced car drivers. This is changing at an incredible rate, with growing wealth resulting in more and more Vietnamese people buying their first car, and taking their first driving lesson.

Hanoi is not the ideal place to earn your driving stripes. The streets are narrow, and already filled almost to capacity with motorbikes. The learner drivers of Hanoi travel at a trepidatious crawl, as if they too are transporting brimming bowls of noodle soup, and maybe they are. They go at speeds so slow that I can easily overtake them on my bicycle at little more than a dawdle.

Taxi drivers are often learners themselves, shuddering along in third gear at speeds that barely make the speedometer twitch. Once, late at night, I’m pretty sure Nathan and I were the inaugural customers of one taxi driver. With his emergency lights and high beams on, we crawled along the deserted street for a few blocks. Then the windows all fogged up; the driver panicked, mounted the curb, and said “Okay!” as if we’d just arrived at our destination, and everything was completely under control.

The all-too-experienced motorcyclists take advantage of the lumbering learners, swarming around them in all directions at intersections, as if the car is merely a fixed obstacle, which can be avoided like a traffic cone.

But there are more cars on the road every day, the result of a furious upward mobility that will, eventually, lead to a traffic standstill when simply no more cars can fit. Vomit missiles will become a thing of the past, and so will all the learner drivers, but no-one will be going anywhere.

8 comments:

  1. God you crack me up....you always seem to so eloquently sum up the stuff that tumbles around in my addled brain. "Vietnamese pretty much drive out of the birth canal on two wheel" is only barely surpassed by "bag o’ vom".

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Dani! For someone with a supposedly "addled" brain, you put the rest of us to shame with your conscientious blogging!

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    2. Those were my fav parts too :)

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  2. stunning prose! i can smell the fumes

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    1. Thanks Aladar. I can smell the fumes too. Oh, wait...

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  3. So funny and so true. Mitchell once saw someone throw a heaping poop-filled diaper from a balcony onto the street. Holy flying crap!

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    1. That is the most disgusting thing I have ever heard. Can you imagine... No wait, don't.

      Once we were having dinner at Chim Sao, where everyone is seated on the floor and the "table" is raised about ten cm from the ground, and the group next to us changed their baby's pooey nappy right there, several inches from our (and their) food. Aah, I love seeing a bit of bum wiping as I'm eating my spring rolls.

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