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.
* 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.
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.