Sarah balls my shirt in her fist. Over the groan of the motorbike, I hear her suck in air, the sound of her heart leaping into her throat. I keep the motorbike aimed forward, my foot teasing the brake. Having played passenger for the first two days after we purchased the bike, I know how she feels.
Sarah sees dead people.
Driving a moto in Ho Chi Minh City is an exercise in cooperative chaos. “Scooters” are for more civilized destinations. Here, there are virtually no rules, so driving becomes a perpetual, moving negotiation. The most basic understanding is that what’s ahead of you dictates what you are doing at any given second. Forget the people behind you; they’re operating on the same principle.
The second-by-second bedlam is alleviated by a fact that becomes apparent after a few days in HCMC: the Vietnamese are exceedingly helpful. Pull over to phone for directions and someone will stop to offer them. Show the slightest difficulty in a turnaround and a compatriot appears to guide you out of the quagmire. Even laying on the horn here is not a malicious act; it’s a necessary fact of driving, most often used to warn that you’re coming up the rear.
And just when you’ve gotten in sync with the sights and sounds of driving in HCMC, out come the ghosts. From the blur of break lights and multi-colored helmets, a body suddenly materializes amid traffic. Pedestrians operate without rules, as well, so they seem to manifest out of the ether of electric blue and fire engine read moto bodies. Sometimes the ghosts are even shepherding steaming noodle bowls through the mass of motorbikes.
The influx of cars and SUVs — most of them taxis — has only complicated matters. Rising wages explain a portion of the increase, but a look at the changing face of downtown District 1 (Louis Vuitton, skyrocketing menu prices) presents a simple explanation. Try getting high-spending, boutique-shopping tourists on the back of a xe om during rush hour.
The introduction of any job-producing industry in a developing country, so long as its good outweighs its bad, is generally cause for celebration. But these behemoths, symbols of a more secure, ordered transportation experience, simply clog up the entropy. And entropy was doing just fine.
Taxis, even the SUVs, are insignificant enough. Most times the lilliputian motos simply swarm the helpless, impotently honking Gullivers. The new olive-drab city buses, however, present a less navigable obstruction, at least for the sane-minded driver. For an object lesson on their influence on Saigon’s traffic, go introduce a sperm whale to your local minnow stream and see how well that works out.
Worst of all, the buses, cars, and SUVs violate the horn culture, honking out of mad futility.
While development in District 7, with its massive traffic lanes that swallow the typical motorbike, surely anticipates increased car and SUV consumption, it’s unlikely the moto will face extinction on the cramped streets of less-developed districts. Wages aren’t rising fast enough to make cars widely affordable, so for the time being, the body traffic will remain a mobocracy.