Goodnight Sai Gon

Some nights there is no sleep to be found in my restless city; sometimes it is the heat and humidity, occasionally it is the flashing neon lights. But usually it is the noise. Most of the sounds are familiar to me now, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the power to keep me from falling asleep. The sleeplessness gives my mind time to wander and compose childhood inspired verses.

Goodnight motorbikes, goodnight cars,

Goodnight tourists drinking in bars.

Traffic

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Goodnight rats, goodnight bats,

Goodnight street children asleep on mats.

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Goodnight boys sweeping the street,

Goodnight yowling cats in heat.

Cat

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Goodnight woman selling her bread,

Goodnight monks praying for the dead.

Funeral

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Goodnight mosquito in my ear,

Goodnight men drunk on beer.

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Goodnight roosters trained to fight,

Goodnight workers at the building site,

why do you work so late at night?

Cocks

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Goodnight geckos that go ‘cheep,’

Goodnight taxis that constantly beep.

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Goodnight karaoke in the air,

Goodnight Sai Gon noises everywhere.

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Overload

I’m not the best person to hear tourists’ “I saw the craziest thing on the road today” stories. For one thing I probably see the same thing or more disastrous almost daily and I don’t feign surprise or interest well. And worse, I’ll probably share one of my own inconceivable stories that comes from a solid year on the Sai Gon streets. Either way, I’ve robbed their ‘four people on a bike’ story of its magic. I don’t like this part of my personality and I’m really trying to work on it.

To purge myself, I’m sharing some of my best/worst photos of overladen vehicles and improbable cargos. These photos are a simultaneous testament to people’s ingenuity, pragmatism, craziness, and desperation. Generally these people and their cargo are trying to make a living or just getting from one place to another; just stand back with your faces set to stunned.

An entire pottery shop on a bicycle.

Overload cups
If this was my bike, there’d be broken pottery just everywhere.

A lot of people train their dogs to ride on their bikes with them; small mixed breeds, terriers, pugs, etc. This guy gets his Great Dane to squeeze itself in front of him. I ran down the street after them.

Overload Dog
My 9kg terrier used to get the entire backseat of a sedan to himself and still managed to find something to complain about.

Another mobile shop; if you can’t find the basket that you want here, then it probably doesn’t exist.

Overload baskets
You don’t even have to get off your motorbike to buy that gourd you needed!

So many plants on this mobile nursery, that I couldn’t see the rider.

Overload florist
Just a palm tree taking some orchids on a ride.

I think it is only sheer willpower and good intentions that is keeping this motorbike and cargo together. Maybe some rope too…

Overload Garbage
You can’t imagine how uncomfortable this is.

Tourist cyclos (most tourists call them tuk tuks) do double duty taking cargo around town. Saigonese people are daring and skilled motorcycle riders, but not ‘four queen-sized mattresses’ talented.

Overload Mattress
Note the garbage collector to the right of the picture also – this is what hard work looks like. 

These are light, plastic containers but the size of this cargo alone makes riding extremely difficult.

Overload plastic
I walk past the woman that owns this motorbike most mornings, we’re ‘waving buddies’ now. 

Sadly, this is the best example I have of long poles being transported on a motorcycle. I never seem to have a camera when I’ve seen full-length street lights being transported this way; one on either side of the bike for balance. Maybe one day.

Overload Poles
You don’t want to be riding next to them going around corners.

Almost colliding with 30kgs of water spinach is a typical, early morning event near a traditional open-air market.

Overload veggies
Vegetables that are so keen to be sold, they drive themselves to market.

This is my best/worst photo of an overloaded Saigonese vehicle. He could barely reach the throttle to start moving and his riding looked pretty wobbly. Even the Saigonese native standing next to me couldn’t believe what we witnessed. This is why your stories don’t impress me.

Overload last

Cargo witnessed, but not photographically recorded.

  • Lobster tanks with water oxygen system – fixed to the back of a motorbike.
  • Small refrigerator – held by a motorcycle pillion passenger.
  • Box of live tree snakes – fixed to the back of a motorbike.
  • Small mahogany armoire – held by a motorcycle pillion passenger.
  • 60 live gold fish in bags – hung from frame on motorbike.
  • 1.5 metre, potted mandarin tree – strapped to back of motorbike.
  • Live, baby black bear – dragged in a cage behind a motorbike to advertise a circus during Vietnamese New Year traffic (the worst, craziest and loudest of Vietnamese traffic). I’ve never seen a more terrorised and frightened creature in my life.

Uneasy Rider

WARNING – the last image in this post is a picture of a Vietnamese safe driving poster. It is graphic images of traffic accidents meant to deter dangerous driving and riding. Don’t scroll to the very end if you want to avoid it.

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I’ve noticed that people tend to behave differently when they leave their countries of origin to holiday or work overseas. Someone who would never consider riding a motorcycle back home because it is too dangerous, suddenly find themselves renting a bike when they travel to Viet Nam. I’ve seen some horrifyingly stupid behaviour from foreigners on the roads and I’d wish they’d ask themselves some of these questions before they hit the streets.

Do you know how to ride a motorbike?

If you don’t, then Sai Gon really isn’t the place to learn, not many places in Viet Nam are.

Do you have a valid license?

Pfffft, of course you don’t! But you probably should…

Non-Vietnamese citizens are only permitted to drive in Vietnam if they hold a temporary Vietnamese driver’s licence. To convert a foreign driving licence into a temporary Vietnamese driver’s licence, the applicant must hold a valid Vietnamese residence permit of at least three month’s validity. Only full, condition-less license will be converted, not learners or provisional licenses. You’ll have to hand over translations of your licensing documents and certified copies of the originals. If you don’t have these, you’ll have to take a driving test (riding in figure eights around some traffic cones) and sitting a written exam… in Vietnamese.

Viet Nam started the process to recognise International Driving Permits in January 2015, but legislative changes take a long time to enact so you’ll have to research this for yourself. Also, there are far fewer licensing requirements if you ride an electric bike or motorcycle with a 50cc or less engine. These small bikes will feel like you’re riding a hairdryer, but it isn’t like you’re going anywhere fast in Viet Nam anyway.

Police can confiscate your motorcycle if they find you without a license, though this is rare. It is more likely you will be fined. There is a fixed fine amount that you pay at the police station, but if you pay the fine directly to the person that pulled you over, the amount is usually lower… read into that what you like.

Given all this, many foreigners ride without a license, which isn’t an endorsement. It seems that riding unlicensed isn’t uncommon for the local population too. Vietnamese Government records show that there are currently 3.5 million valid driver’s licenses; that means only 3.8 percent of the population holds a driver’s license of any kind. Consider that when deciding to get on the road yourself.

Does your travel insurance still cover you if you ride unlicensed?

All travel insurances have conditions that void your cover if you break them. Conditions often include riding a motorcycle without a license or even riding a motorcycle at all. Always check your insurance’s terms and conditions.

Do you have access to a good helmet?

I brought my helmet over from Australia and it is simultaneously the joy and bane of my life. On one hand it is built to Australian safety standards, so I’m reasonably certain that it will do its best to protect my squishy brain and my beautiful, beautiful face should I be involved in a serious accident. On the other hand it is enormous compared to Vietnamese helmets and it won’t fit inside my bike’s internal storage (it won’t fit inside any bike’s storage, I’ve checked.) This means that I have to carry this huge helmet around with me, leaving it with my bike isn’t an option because the parking attendants move motorbikes and the helmets fall to the ground routinely. It would also get stolen – actually it would probably be stolen before anyone had a chance to drop it. Any helmet that you are given when you hire a motorcycle isn’t going to offer much protection – you may as well wear a plastic ice cream container on your head. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen people do that.

An example of the quality of some helmets here.
An example of the quality of some helmets here… stop laughing.

Do you understand Vietnamese traffic?

No, you don’t.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve been riding motorcycles in your home country for the last twenty years; Vietnamese traffic is a different animal entirely. Past riding experience is really essential to being safe on the roads, but the traffic here is next level crazy and you will not have time to learn what is happening on the first day of your two week holiday. There is a pecking order based on size, buses and trucks always have right of way. Flashing headlights and hand signals don’t mean what you think they do. Traffic lights, one-way streets, pedestrian crossings; mere suggestions. In spite of all this, there is a recognisable rhythm and patterns. You only able to read through the chaos after many hours riding pillion or when you are no longer transfixed by the disorder of a busy intersection.

If looking at this makes you feel suicidal or homicidal, maybe Sai Gon traffic is not for you.
If looking at this makes you feel suicidal or homicidal, maybe Sai Gon traffic is not for you.

Do you know there will be unexpected road hazards?

I’m not just talking about other riders on the road, I’m referring to any number of strange dangers on the road. Chickens and dogs often wander around the streets. I once had a wobble when my bike’s tyres hit some ice on the road, in Summer, in Sai Gon, at noon. A drink seller had tipped ice out of a container onto the road – I wasn’t expecting that.

My colleague had an accident when a street vendor’s mobile food stall dropped some tofu on the road; given that tofu doesn’t have a great deal of traction, her wheels spun out and she went sliding. Would you expect street tofu? DEFINITELY NOT, NO ONE EXPECTS STREET TOFU!

Do you know what to do when you have an accident?

You’ll notice I didn’t say ‘if you have an accident,’ this is because if you ride on Vietnamese roads for long enough, it is guaranteed that you will hit someone or something or they will hit you. There have been countless times that I’ve been cut off, bumped from behind or come inches from colliding with someone. There have been three separate occasions that I’ve had to swerve around a bike carrying a family of four that has come to a dead stop in the middle of the road because one of the kids has lost a shoe…

Of course there are degrees of accident seriousness; from a slight knock, to a three inch obituary in your local paper – hopefully they don’t use that high school picture of you when you were going through that ‘awkward phase.’

If the accident only caused damage to property, then money is probably going to change hands and as a wealthy foreigner you’re almost certainly going to do the paying. If you’re involved in an accident that injures or kills someone, then your life is going to get very challenging in many different ways.

Do you still want to ride a motorcycle?

Yeah, probably.

I understand that after all this many people will still want to take to the roads themselves; just be informed of the risks and make an informed decision. Riding a motorcycle here is dangerous and foreigners do make up a portion of Viet Nam’s five figure road mortality rate.

At least take some advice;

  • Be careful, don’t go fast, don’t drink and ride (there are enough people doing that already).
  • Wear the best helmet you can find.
  • Ride the best bike for you. Make sure the breaks and lights work. If you don’t know how to change gears, then get an automatic. Generally a smaller bike and engine is the better for inexperienced people, under 50cc is preferable.
  • Avoid riding on highways if you can help it. The trucks don’t really care if you’re mowed down as long as they don’t have to stop.
  • Wear more than just shorts and a sleeveless shirt – something like jeans will only protect you if you come off in an accident for a couple of centimetres before the road shreds them, and then your skin gets cheesegrated. Jeans will stop you from getting burned on someone else’s exhaust pipe, though. The burn takes a long time to heal, it will scar you and it is a terrible tourist cliché.
You'll have a souvenir like this forever.
You’ll have a souvenir like this forever.

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Vietnamese road safety warnings do not pull their punches.
Vietnamese road safety warnings do not pull their punches.

Trunks for the blind drunk or insect free trees

Visitors to Sai Gon will notice most of the trees are painted white around their bases; most trees in the rest of the country and the South East Asian region are similarly painted. I’ve asked why this is done and I’ve had many, many answers.

Typical Vietnamese street.
Typical Vietnamese street.

One reason is that many streets are poorly lit and it would be easy to miss the tree trunks in the darkness. Painting the trees white at the base makes them stand out in the gloom, and considering the sheer numbers of drink drivers, I’m glad they’re hard to miss. This reason certainly rings true because the painted trees really do jump out at you at night. This is an elegant, low-cost, long-term solution to a problem. But then, check out some of these exceptional examples below.

If you're in danger of riding into this tree, then you probably have bigger problems.
If you’re in danger of riding into this tree, then you probably have bigger problems.

Also this tree on a hill top at 150 metre elevation.

6.3ft tall foreigner for scale.

So, we come to another good explanation for the paint. It is supposedly Limewash; a breathable paint that soaks into underlying materials and is primarily composed of Lime (Calcium Hydroxide, not the fruit) and chalk. It can prevent termites and insects from eating or boring into the trees. This would explain why you find painted trees deep in forests, far away from any traffic.

In an Emperor's private forest (he wasn't there at the time).
In the Emperor’s forest.

Other explanations given are that it is kind of sun protection to prevent damage from excessive sunlight. This pairs nicely with the Vietnamese obsession with avoiding the harmful effects of solar radiation.

By far the most romantic reason given was that during the American War, trucks would travel down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but as they couldn’t use their headlights to see the way, women from the villages used to stand along the road during the night wearing white Ao Dais (Vietnamese women’s traditional dress) to guide them on their way. Trees are painted white in their memory.

The white paint might be a combination of all these reasons and more. If anyone wants to add another explanation, I’m open to suggestions.

Not same, same but completely different

I’ve lived in a couple of countries so far, and I’m plenty comfortable with things around me being a bit different to what I grew up with. I actually like that element of living somewhere new. Except for the ‘no flushing the toilet after 10pm’ rule in Geneva – I’m not an animal, Switzerland!

All this being said, it is still somewhat startling when you come across cultural quirks that are the exact and complete opposite to your own, some example I’ve found in Viet Nam include;

Nose picking

I tend to think picking your nose is a bit like masturbating or singing along to a Taylor Swift song; people do it more than they admit, but they do it in private (not me though – I never have and I never would sing along to a Taylor Swift song; I mean, how embarrassing!)

Picking one’s nose here seems to be as public and open an activity as brushing sleep from your eyes. There appears to be little cultural stigma attached to it; people do it everywhere and often. It’s no big deal, just a finger moving around in a nostril. It seems to be done quite absentmindedly; while standing around; waiting somewhere; doing any somewhat boring activity that doesn’t require two hands. At this point I’m very used to seeing people doing this but it is still a little disconcerting to hold unblinking eye contact with a 60 year old man sitting next to me at the traffic lights, while he languidly picks his nose.

I truly envy other people’s freedom to publically feel around up there if they feel something is amiss, but a childhood steeped in the rigors of western social etiquette means that I am unable to join in. I foreswore public, digital nasal investigation decades ago and I’m too inhibited to start now. Maybe one day.

Flashing headlights

In my countries of origin (and many western countries), if there are two cars travelling in opposite directions and the road reduces to a single lane because of a parked car for example, both drivers would slow down and if one drivers flashes their headlights they are indicating that the other car should go ahead. The flashing lights are a kind of imitation Morse Code for “Please, sir, after you.” In the same situation in Viet Nam, the person that flashes their lights is basically saying, ‘I don’t care what you’re going to do, but I’m driving through,’ and will proceed to gun their engine and swerve out, flashing their lights and beeping the whole time.

Cold foods and sore throats

When I had a sore throat as a kiddie, my mother’s remedies were as follows;

  • Salt water gargle (tasted like the worst thing about swimming in the Ocean without any of the fun)
  • Lemon juice and honey in warm water (the delicious burn of the citric acid followed by the balm of gentle honey)
  • Icy cold water or partially frozen orange or pineapple juice (so cold, so numbing, so good)

The last one was my favourite remedy and seems to me like perfectly normal and natural ways to calm an angry throat; so imagine my surprise that in my first month in Sai Gon I was warned by four different people that cold drinks actually cause sore throats. I don’t mean that cold things are bad for an already swollen throat but that it will actually cause one. I’ve spoken to parents that ration the number of cold food and icy drinks they give their children for fear it will hurt their little throats. I’m almost hoping that this one is an elaborate fib that society tells its children (like that Santa Claus exists, participation trophies mean something and it’s the thought that counts) so kids don’t eat too much ice cream.

Lining up

I was raised with the idea that the best way to pass the time waiting for something is staring at the back of someone else’s head. Damn soothing, is what it is. I’d make a line with just myself if I could.

Lining up in Sai Gon seems to be mere suggestion most of the time; huddling around where you want to go or what you want, seems de rigueur. Walking in a line involves being pushed from behind and pushing the person in front of you. It certainly makes going to the supermarket more interesting.

The Phantom

Close to my work there is a man who sits on a street corner asking passers-by for money. He has to because he lost his legs below the knees some time ago. He looks to be the right age to have been involved in the American War (most people would know this conflict as the Vietnamese War), but it could have been the result of any sort of accident or malaise. I like this guy; he knows me by now and we wave to each other. He also has a terrific moustache that he keeps waxed in the Salvador Dali-style. I’d say he’d have some interesting stories.

One day I was heading back to work and I was walking over to him to give him my change from lunch when an approaching car caught my attention. I had never seen this car in person before but I instantly recognised what it was; a Rolls Royce Phantom. This is a car with a 6.8-litre V-12 engine which shits out 453 horsepower/720nm of torque. You can order it any of 44,000 paint colours and add teakwood trim, a drinks cabin, even a roof which incorporates hundreds of tiny fibre optics to give the impression of a star-filled night sky. It has a six-speed automatic transmission and rear-wheel drive. It is over 2.6 metric tonnes but it can still jump to 100km/h in well under six seconds and has a top speed of 249 km/h. Though, considering that the average car on a Saigonese road probably doesn’t go above 15 km/h, I’d say you’d rarely utilise this feature.

But its speed and power are not the reasons this car was purchased, it is a signal to everyone how much money the owner has; it is the very definition of conspicuous consumption.

If you think this car would likely be expensive, then you’re only half right. It would be expensive in the United States where it retails for around USD$1 million, but what you may not know to that Vietnamese consumers seeking to purchase a new, imported vehicle are required to pay an additional 70-100 percent tax.

I was actually watching USD$2 million worth of car sail past a man with no legs, begging on the street. I handed to him, the sad amount of dong I had in my hand and continued on my way. There wasn’t anything to say.

This car doesn’t just drive around the streets of Sai Gon; it drives around the ever widening gap between the very rich and very poor in Viet Nam. We have gone beyond the Haves and the Have-Nots. We have entered the era of the Have-Nots and the Have–Yachts.

photo reference http://www.baomoi.com/Phantom-rong-va-dan-xe-khung-trong-dam-cuoi-o-Sai-Gon/145/12777930.epi
photo reference http://www.baomoi.com/Phantom-rong-va-dan-xe-khung-trong-dam-cuoi-o-Sai-Gon/145/12777930.epi

Second gear

Oh God, the shuddering, the labouring, the painful tremors. I feel every inch of you vibrating, struggling to stay alive, to stay in motion. I feel your agony, and I would help you if I could, but I am as powerless as you are.

You’re a taxi and I’m your passenger, and our driver is trying to go five km/h in second gear.

We’re crawling in typical HCMC traffic and the car is just moments from stalling, saved only by judicious use of the clutch, but not by shifting into first gear.*

I wouldn’t be too bothered if this was a one off, but it is the same for all the taxis I ride in. Every. Single. One.

Over and over in my head “Oh please, shift down, put it into first gear, SHIFT DOWN!”

I’m worried that one day my internalised screams will suddenly come flying out of my mouth and terrify a random taxi driver.

I can’t figure out drivers’ reticence to use the first gear. I’ve asked some people but I’ve never been given a truly satisfactory answer. So in the place of facts, I’ve developed some working hypotheses; People’s first experience with motor vehicles are motorbikes which tend to be a little more forgiving when it comes to driving in the wrong gear and gear change – so when they learn to drive a car, they take the same habits with them. Maybe people think that lower gears use more petrol/power, I’ve heard this in relation to headlights and both are myths. Perhaps driving in traffic jams all day makes people not want to bother changing gears.

I think my last theory seems most likely – the longest I have ridden my bike in HCMC is two hours and it was exhausting. The taxi drivers do it all day, most days, with limited breaks. One day I’ll learn how to say, “Jump out, and have a rest in the back seat, I’ll drive.” Until then, I’ll hunker down in in my seat and anthropomorphise the feelings of a car.

Taxi
Vinasun Taxi – I feel you Buddy.

* I’m not going to assume that the majority of people exactly understand how a manual transmission works, but I’m sure that most people know that you start a manual car from stationary in first gear and shift gears up and down as you go faster and slower. Go too slow for your gear, you stall. Go too fast for your gear your revolutions per minute (RPMs) go crazy. RPM matching and gearing changing is an art all manual car drivers must master so they aren’t bunny hopping their car and damaging their clutch.