We were on foot and found ourselves at a large intersection. My camera lens had broken on day 4 out of 43. We had waited until Ho Chi Minh City before we started the hunt for camera repair shops. We had asked our friendly travel agent for recommendations on where to go. She had sent us across town.
So here we were at the intersection and we could see a camera repair shop opposite us. The obvious action would be to wait for the green pedestrian light and cross, but this was a Vietnamese intersection.
From right-hand kerb to inner lane, the hierarchy went as follows: pedestrians then bicycles then motorcycles then cars, buses and trucks. The bigger your vehicle, the more priority you got.
There were no apparent signs of road rage, just beeping to show they existed. There seemed to be some order to the disjointed flow, unlike the complete chaos found on Cambodian roads. There were just so many motorcycles, swarms of them – they took up most of the space.
Our guide on our visit to the Mekong River had already given us his explanation as to why there were so many motorcycles on the road. He didn’t mention that the government charges a hefty tax for large vehicles so most people buy motorcycles.
As long as the motorcycles dodged each other, all was fine. And that, it seemed, was no easy feat. Vehicles turning left simply cut the corner and merged into the oncoming traffic. We watched as they drove along the kerb until there was a large enough gap to zoom across to the correct lane.
A red light seemed to only indicate caution for some, rather than an immediate complete stop. Most of motorcycles, however, encircled the waiting cars and taxis, hoping to jet off ahead as soon as the light turned green. If there wasn’t enough room within the lane to wait, they sometimes used the footpath or extended into the lane going the opposite direction.
The clouds threatened above us as we stood on the footpath. A removable food trolley nearby was selling street food and little plastic stools were placed around it. Those sitting there didn’t seem to mind eating alongside all of this traffic.
The pedestrian light went green. Looking both ways, we stepped onto the road with confidence. We advanced. A few straggling motorcycles went past and then another came up from the wrong direction. With the all clear, we moved to the middle of the road. More traffic came, so we stopped. Gap, advance, stop, gap, advance, stop. We repeated this stuttered movement until we made it to the other side.
As the shop assistant inspected my camera lens, I stood at the entrance to the shop and watched the peak-hour congestion build up. All the motorcyclists were wearing helmets, even if some looked fake. Apparently there is a law limiting the amount of people that can fit on one bike (two adults and one child).
It started to rain. Some motorcyclists pulled over and put specially-shaped raincoats over themselves, dashboards and side mirrors. When the downpour stopped, they once again pulled over and released themselves from the sweat-inducing ponchos. This was a trend I came to witness throughout the country.
The shop assistant couldn’t fix my camera lens. We went back out onto the street and readied ourselves to once again cross the intersection, to continue the hunt. This was training for crossing roads all over Vietnam.
Photo: motorcyclists and other vehicles on Vietnam’s traffic-induced roads.