“I paid someone for this motorbike, I paid someone for this motorbike, I paid someone for this- WHY ON EARTH ARE YOU CHANGING FOUR LANES OF TRAFFIC ALL AT ONCE WITHOUT AN INDICATOR SIR?!”
It’s nighttime in Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam. The city is vibrant, buzzing, and beautiful. For the first time ever, I am attempting to navigate the streets on a motorbike in the largest round-about in District 1 (and by that I mean not die in a tiny blaze of Vespa glory). There are thousands of other motorists on the road, and from what I can tell, there are no traffic rules here, only organized chaos. It’s like the most intense live-action Mario Kart I’ve ever seen.
Back to the round-about: An elderly gentleman of roughly 70 years barely passes by on my left only to cut across my “lane” (Who am I kidding? Even the roundabout has no lines because it knows that “lanes” are for OTHER cities…) so he can exit the traffic circle. He does this so quickly that he doesn’t realize my front tire is still in alignment with his back tire, so I slam on my brakes.* Which of course, when one is not accustomed to riding essentially a really fast and heavy bicycle, causes one to lose their balance, stop in the middle of the road, get bumped into by three other motorbikes (all of which are being operated by experienced, Vietnamese Vespa Jedis) who look at you like you must not only be lost map-wise, but also like, life-wise. One Scooter Yoda looks at me and his eyes say, “Honey…ready for big roundabout, you are not. Park bike in traffic corner of shame, you must.”
*I have since learned it is entirely my responsibility to brake for anyone in front of me, no matter what they are doing. Classic rookie mistake.
The truth is, driving a motorcycle here is the scariest thing I have done in a long time. Not only because motorcycles are dangerous (yet pragmatic in this city), but because a year ago I was living in Reno, Nevada with family and friends, teaching at a wonderful high school, and driving a Toyota Yaris with airbags. Oh airbags, how I never really appreciated you until now.*
*Author’s note: please read with a wistful look in your eyes
However, I turned 30, not in a state of crisis oddly, and decided that I had been delighted by Reno long enough. It was time to set out on a new adventure. Now, I live here and teach at an international primary school, all while I continue to, you know, try and not die every time I go to the grocery store like I mentioned.
What I have noticed is that the time I spend on my bike is my most thoughtful. I realized that even though at first it seems like there aren’t any rules, if you look closely and pay attention, there are certainly plenty of unspoken traffic rules in this city. These, often, might not correspond to the traffic laws of Viet Nam, yet somehow everyone seems to know them anyway (For example, you “can” drive through a red light as long as there isn’t anyone coming…I don’t do this because I’m terrified, but plenty of people do and no one seems to mind).
These unspoken rules, well, they actually DO seem to correspond to some pretty important life lessons, so that’s why I have decided to write about them here (In English and in Vietnamese). Before you ask, I am definitely not translating these into Vietnamese myself because, frankly, I’m just not skilled enough to be funny. It would be about as much fun for someone to go to the dentist as to read this in Vietnamese I wrote (a HUGE apology to Cô Binh, my incredible Vietnamese teacher…)
I have been threatening to write a book for years now (I mean it guys, if you’re not careful I’ll really do it, and then you’ll have to read it), but I thought a blog would be a much better place to start.
My new house number is 52, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s the same number of weeks in a year? It is simply too happy of a coincidence to ignore, so I have decided to spend the next year sharing a life lesson I have learned from driving a motorcycle in Saigon with any willing readers each week…and if there aren’t any readers, you know, we’ll just call this a diary and not a blog and then I won’t be embarrassingly devastated that no one read it. Anyway, here goes nothing:
The first rule of the road here in Saigon is this; there are no rules. At least, not at first glance. The only way to learn these rules is to be adventurous. You have to stop being afraid and just get out there. However, you have to be mindful of others around you if you’re going to figure out how to navigate this road you’re on. Just as you must in life, you must make sure you’re always on your toes, ready and waiting, for whatever might happen next because you’ll have to react quickly. You cannot mindlessly coast through life uninterrupted because like the streets of this city, it’s organized chaos. The actions of other people will impact you, and you have to figure out how you are going to handle them.
Well, at least you do if you ever want to move forward with your life and get out of the middle of that round-about, and Scooter Yoda knows you do.