The rise of Ho Chi Minh City and the quest to cross the road
Another trip, another country. First time in Vietnam. Arriving in Saigon with little clue as to what to expect … only that there would be motorbikes. But exactly how many motorbikes there would be in Saigon I never imagined. On the journey from airport to hostel there was barely room for anything else. Taxis seemed entirely overwhelmed by the thousands of helmeted road warriors zipping by, and as for buses, or the lack thereof, first impressions pointed towards public transport probably not being the most convenient way to get around town.
While we crawled along, hemmed in by all around, motorbikes casually kept on sliding past us to continue on their way. You could see the taillights jostling of those out front. Turn left or right and you’d have a passenger window full of biker profile to contend with. While out back, a relentless flow of headlights and helmets was narrowly avoiding crashing through our rear windscreen.
Those stopped at traffic lights as we carried on through looked poised for the green light of a Grand Prix. Lined up, engines revving, they each had a look in their eyes that seemed determined to get away and to the other side before the others had time to let go of their breaks. But with almost two weeks in the country ahead of me, I’d soon realize that this two-wheeled phenomenon wasn’t unique to Ho Chi Minh City. Travelling up the coast, first to Hue, then on to the capital Hanoi, in every town and in every city, the basic proposition Vietnam seemed to live by was four wheels bad, two wheels good. Flowing like a single-cylinder river day and night, the evidence was there in the street, preventing passage across roads, turning fresh air blue with fumes and giving a constant insight into the plight of life with tinnitus. But nowhere was this more evident than in Saigon.
In this city of over 7 million people, it is said that the number of motorbikes currently on the road is in the region of 4 million, with 1300 more being added each day. In Hanoi, according to a 2010 estimate, the numbers are 3.5 million motorbikes and 330,000 cars for a population of 6.5 million. With public transport still meeting less than 10% of demand in both cities and Vietnam’s urbanisation showing no signs of slowing, the familiar problems of pollution, congestion and road traffic accidents have come to present a real problem for officials, residents and visitors alike.
Again, the evidence is there in the street. Kids and adults wear sunglasses and masks to cut down on the muck they breathe in, as often whole families share the same ride across town. I counted a maximum of five people on the same bike at one point, with small children sometimes privileged enough to have their own makeshift wicker or plastic seat up front on which they can ride in stately comfort. Add to this the familiar sight of bikes weighed down with any random type of goods you can imagine – from chickens, pigs and livestock, to windows, door frames, plant pots, goldfish, fruit and vegetables, flowers, car parts, shoes and birthday cakes – and despite the environmental costs associated with its rise, to the Vietnamese, the motorbike isn’t simply a luxury, it is an indispensable necessity of life in 21st century, upwardly mobile Vietnam.
On the ground, however, the most pressing problem I encountered wasn’t pollution or the state of public infrastructure, but like most first time visitors, it was the problem of how to cross the road in Vietnam without succumbing to this motorized maelstrom.
It seems impossible. Stepping into a wave of oncoming vehicles not only defies all accepted rules of engagement, but by general consensus, it is also pretty near suicidal. But if you are in Vietnam – and in Ho Chi Minh City in particular – there comes a time for every traveller when fortitude and faith must be mustered in equal parts, and to hell with everything else, you just have to dive right in.
As ever in foreign and unfamiliar circumstances, it’s often best – and safest – to do as the locals do. With this in mind, I found myself wherever possible slinking up to the nearest group of crossing Saigonians and using them as a human shield until I was confident enough in the fruit of my own curbside studies to attempt the feat myself. I noted that I shouldn’t run. I should cross steadily and never hesitate. If the motorbikes are not trying to hit you, chances are they will steer around. Thus, when that lone moment finally did arrive, what at first seemed like an impenetrable torrent of noise and metal became, with studied patience and testicles (both actual and metaphorical) safely cupped in hand, a Red Sea through which it was possible to negotiate safe passage without much more than a bout of mild hyperventilation for the ordeal.
Ho Chi Minh City is certainly experiencing its fair share of problems as it continues its rise towards becoming the Asian megacity its developers envisage. As the standard bearer of its country’s modernising drive, it is having to cope with developments that its still adolescent framework isn’t yet ready for. A kind of gigantism of everyday life that is as exhilarating as it is alarming is taking place. You can see it in the traffic, in the buildings, in the corporations that have sensed the dollar and are moving in. The worry now is that the history and character that make the place unique will be lost in the shimmer of shiny newness and the razing of the past. Saigon is done with waiting; it is in the torrent and there is no looking back. The other side is approaching fast and every foot is stepping forward as one to get there. Just remember to cup those testicles when you cross.