They really are out to get us!
I have mentioned before that Vietnam is very much an in-your-face kind of country. Tourists attract a lot of attention, and we sometimes feel like we are on display when we’re out in public. I am thinking of changing my name to ‘Hey’, ‘cos a hundred times a day that’s what people shout at us before trying to sell us some product or service. I think ‘tourist’ is synonymous with ‘walking ATM’ in Vietnam. They are insistent salesmen, too; one guy jumped onto a moving bus simply to push a business card into my hand, and we’ve had the same guy offering us the use of his taxi three times in ten minutes. The epitome of optimism, though, had to be the bloke in Hanoi who tried to sell me a baseball cap… while I was already wearing one! It gets a bit wearing saying, “No, thank you” all the time, though. Perhaps I should get it tattooed on my head. Or sewn onto the front of my cap. Maybe the vendors will notice it then.
Anyway, the point is, we are a bit of a novelty in this part of the world. While we were on our day trip to the Thai Vi temple in Ninh Binh a couple of weeks ago, two Vietnamese people approached us and asked if they could have their picture taken with us. We were a bit confused as to their reasons, but agreed, seeing no harm in it. The girl immediately grabbed hold of my arm and grinned like a Cheshire cat, while the fella she was with snapped off a photo. I can only imagine what it’ll be like when she gets home and shows the pictures to her family and friends:
“This is me outside the temple… and this is me next to Buddha’s shrine… oh, and this is me with a couple of European hippies we found wondering around looking a bit lost. Aren’t they simply the funniest thing you’ve ever seen?”
The mind boggles! Oh well, at least they didn’t try and charge us for the pleasure.
The other way in which you can start to feel like a target here is simply walking down the street. The traffic is crazy – like nothing I have ever seen. If they have a road code, nobody pays the slightest bit of attention to it. It is impossible to walk on the pavements because the Vietnamese treat them as car parks, and it’s scary walking in the road because of the sheer amount of unpredictable traffic. And the noise! Everybody honks their horns all of the time, which can be rather deafening.
When I was in sixth form college back in the UK, I had a friend called Nettie. The college was next to a busy main road, but the pedestrian crossings were inconveniently located away from the college gates, which lead to a lot of jay-walking. Nettie had an extremely idiosyncratic approach to crossing the road: she would dash across as quickly as possible, screaming all the way. I once asked her why she did this, and she replied, matter-of-factly, “Oh, it’s in case the drivers are blind. At least this way they’ll be able to hear me.” At the time I thought this was just another example of Nettie’s hilarious quirkiness; now I am convinced that she lived in Vietnam in a previous life. All the guide books will tell you to simply walk at a steady pace when crossing the road here, and let the drivers swerve around you, but Nettie’s dash-and-scream approach seems a lot more realistic. It’s certainly what I want to do every time I set foot outside the door!
Anyway, after more than two weeks of observing traffic here, I think I have worked out the road rules. Below is my take on the Vietnamese Highway Code, should such a thing exist (which I seriously doubt).
THE ROAD CODE, VIETNAM-STYLE:
Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre
MSM is for sissies. Just rev your engine and pull out without looking. Nobody will mind if you cut them up, honestly. Some of them will even make an effort to avoid you.
Road signs and road markings
Purely for decoration; ignore them.
Pretty, aren’t they? Don’t worry what colour they are; red, amber and green all mean ‘go’.
Is some inconsiderate person in your way? No problem! Lean on the horn until (s)he moves. If the aforementioned inconsiderate person refuses to move, simply pull into oncoming traffic and honk at them instead. Someone will give way… usually.
Cyclist and motorcyclists
Are you in a big car, bus or truck and want to overtake a cyclist? Easy! Simply sit on their tail and blare your horn at them until they take the hint and get out of the way. Alternatively pull along side them and nudge them off the road into the nearest ditch or paddy field.
If you see a pedestrian walking along the side of the road, honk your horn at them. If you see a Western tourist, laugh, speed up and aim at them. Honk only if you feel like giving them a sporting chance. Remember: if they’re not pale and terrified, you’re doing something wrong.
If you see a pedestrian trying to cross the road, park immediately in front of them. They won’t mind walking 500 meters down the road to the next available gap, even if they are carrying heavy backpacks.
Are you the only driver on the road at 3.30 in the morning, feeling lonely? Don’t worry; honk your horn to cheer yourself up. People don’t mind being woken for no reason and they won’t curse at you... much.
Alright, this is just a bit of silliness I dreamt up during my first few traumatic days in the country, but I'm not kidding about how manic the traffic is here. Check out the blog below for some photos that beautifully illustrate my point:
But, intimidating as this all seems at first, you really do get used to it. We no longer care that we are walking targets, and the honking is just another part of the background noise. Actually we have pretty much reached the conclusion that the locals are reluctant to run over us – after all, they can’t take our money if we’re squished all over the road! (Cynical, me? Surely not.)
And, despite my saying that pigs would fly before I trusted myself in any vehicle other than a taxi, I have actually travelled in a cyclo and on the back of a motorbike. That, however, is another story, so look our for my next update very soon.
Bye for now!