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.
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.
Another mobile shop; if you can’t find the basket that you want here, then it probably doesn’t exist.
So many plants on this mobile nursery, that I couldn’t see the rider.
I think it is only sheer willpower and good intentions that is keeping this motorbike and cargo together. Maybe some rope too…
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.
These are light, plastic containers but the size of this cargo alone makes riding extremely difficult.
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.
Almost colliding with 30kgs of water spinach is a typical, early morning event near a traditional open-air 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Also this tree on a hill top at 150 metre elevation.
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.
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.
Whatever your answer is; you’re probably wrong – it’s a beer, 333 beer actually.
Though I suppose I could have been given three of her Grandmothers; though it pretty unlikely.
The Vietnamese language sometimes needs context to be clear. So, if l worked in a marine sanctuary (or a restaurant) then ba ba ba really could mean three turtles.
The Vietnamese words for cream, ice cream and moisturiser are the same – kem. It would be obvious if I was asking for some kem to put on my face, but less so if I ordered some kem to go with a piece of cake.
But this is just the beginning of my Vietnamese language confusion.
At one point I thought that bánh meant bread, as in Bánh Mì a Vietnamese bread roll. Okay, that is easy.
Then I came across Bánh Xèo, a delicious savoury pancake stuffed with pork and bean sprouts. It isn’t a really bread, so I modified my definition of bánh to mean anything made from flour. My beloved Bánh Cuốn (steamed rice noodle rolls) are made from flour, so is Bánh Chuối (banana cake). Finally I figured it out and it all fit! I felt pretty proud of myself for having used my excellent powers of deduction so skilfully.
Then I learnt the words for motorcycle tyre – bánh xe… Huh? What?
Tyres are made from synthetic rubber, natural rubber, fabric and wire, not freaking flour.
Then what the hell does bánh mean?
All confidence in my reasoning skills having left me, I finally just asked someone what it means.
And it pretty much translates as something that is or was round in shape.
Okay then; I can live with that.
Actually, the double, triple, quadruple and octuple meanings of the same word are less bothersome to me than the tonal nature of Vietnamese. But I can tell you’re already reeling from this small insight into the multifariousness of Vietnamese words, so let’s go over tones another time.
Fun fact! Many people, locals and tourists alike, use motorcycle taxis or xe ôm to get around. Xe is a prefix word for a type of vehicle, as in xe gắn máy for motorcycle. In Vietnamese, ôm means a cuddle, so the direct translation isn’t ‘motorcycle taxis,’ it is ‘motorcycle hug.’ I think that is just a great way to put it.
Newton’s First Law of Motion – “Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.”
Newton’s Second Law of Motion – “The relationship between an object’s mass, its acceleration, and the applied force. Acceleration and force are vectors; in this law the direction of the force vector is the same as the direction of the acceleration vector.”
Some new-comers to HCMC are given the advice that the best way to cross the roads are to, ‘just fix your eyes on the other side of the road and just start walking, don’t look and don’t worry about the traffic because people will simply swerve around you. You can even close your eyes if it helps you take the first step…’ This is great advice if you are interested in taking an in-depth tour of the Vietnamese medical system, or the sweet release of death. Viet Nam has an average of 21,000 deaths on the road per year and an unsettlingly percentage of these are pedestrians.
If you cherish your life, maybe peruse my list of dos and don’ts for crossing the road.
Don’t believe that traffic lights and pedestrian crossings have the same magical powers to stop vehicles that they have in your country. Call them what you like – pedestrian crossings, cross walks, zebra crossings, etc, HCMC has these painted white lines on their roads, but I suspect that it was done as an elaborate prank on foreigners to lure them into a false sense of security. Vehicles won’t stop for you at pedestrian crossings, but they can be a good place to start crossing the road because at least riders are expecting people to be there. Most people stop at the traffic lights but many will run through, especially if they are turning right.
Do pick your moment to walk. The traffic isn’t going to stop for you; they will just go around you – if they can. Please don’t step out in front of a large group of motorbikes when they are all riding next to each other, they can’t all swerve around you. Avoid stepping in front of cars and buses all together.
Do walk parallel to the road if you are in a group. HCMC is not the place to re-enact the Beatles crossing Abbey Road. Make your group as easy to swerve around as possible by walking in a straight line in the same direction as the traffic. The person on the traffic side of the line has a lot of responsibility, they will determine when the group moves and how fast. Be sure to place yourself on the traffic-side of the line if your companions are idiots. If you are alone, and feeling a little nervous about stepping into traffic, maybe try crossing with a stranger, preferably an older person – if they are survived that long, they probably know what they are doing.
Do try to make eye contact with some of the riders. This just helps to establish that they have seen you.
Do look in all directions. My closest near misses have come from times when riders have driven into the oncoming lane and I was looking in the correct direction of the traffic flow. One way streets are merely a suggestion to some riders, so always look both ways when you step off. Keep your head and eyes moving all the time.
Don’t assume that everyone is watching the road. Most people are very good and safe drivers but some people think that text messaging, lighting a cigarette, calling friends, holding their girlfriend’s hand, nose picking, etc should be given more focus than where they are going.
Don’t assume everyone’s brakes work. There are some appallingly clapped out bikes on the road and the high-pitched squeal they make when they brake indicates they have worn through the brake pads and are breaking using metal on metal. Those bikes don’t come to a stop quickly or at all.
Don’t assume that motorbikes will only drive on the road. Footpaths are where people park and are also seen by many as a convenient detour to avoid stopping at traffic lights or going the opposite direction on a one way street. The bikes will absolutely be on the footpath with you.
Don’t be surprised if you are escorted across the road like an old lady. I’ll admit that I almost started screaming the first time a complete stranger seized my elbow and dragged me into the road with an outstretched hand towards the heavy traffic. I actually didn’t struggled too much because I was so shocked that the traffic was brought to a standstill by just an extended palm. By the time we reached the other side of the road, I knew what had happened – a kindly man saw a tourist too fearful to cross the road and decided to intervene. I thanked him for his trouble and waited a respectful amount of time to cross back to other side of the road where I had been waiting to meet a friend… This somewhat forceful assistance has since happened to me a few more times – usually when I’m a little distracted and have taken too long to cross the road.
Don’t run and don’t stop. Like I said, people are going to veer around you and they’ll do this by automatically calculating the speed they are travelling, the distance from you, how fast you are walking and determine where you’ll be in next three seconds. Then they aim to put their bikes where you won’t be. This is complicated way of saying that they’re figured out how much they need to swerve based on how fast you are walking. If you decide to stop walking or start running, there is going to be a problem. I’m not staying that you shouldn’t jump out of the way to save your life if something is going to hit you, but if you can, walk at a slow, steady pace and don’t panic.
Don’t assume Newton’s first and second laws of motion don’t exist because you’re on holiday, very important or particularly clever. Even if their brakes are in working order, the bike you’re stepping out in front of might be carrying a heavy load or a family of five and physics is going to ultimately determine the outcome.
All of this goes double for cars and be aware that buses can’t and won’t stop or swerve for you.