Lesson #4: Swimming next to a shark is much safer than swimming in front of it

While I understand this doesn’t seem obviously related to motorcycles, bear with me since there will be many nautical parallels throughout Friend or Phở. This is entirely by accident, but I’m thrilled about it to be honest.

It’s funny how sometimes when you try really hard to do something on purpose, you simply can’t. Then when you stop trying to make it work, it just happens practically on its own.


When I first started driving here, the hardest part was definitely not operating the vehicle itself- that part was and is pretty straightforward. The hardest part is figuring how to drive your bike in the middle of the ocean of Vietnamese Vespa Jedis I mentioned before. Add a dash of cars, a sizeable pinch of buses and large trucks, all shaken with a healthy dose of, “I have no idea what the phở-ck I’m doing,” and it’s a fool-proof recipe for stress.

One of the traffic “rules” which differs between where I come from and Vietnam relates to left-hand turns. My instinct based on where I come from is to wait for oncoming traffic to clear, then go when there is no one coming from the other direction.


I do not know what the Vietnamese law regarding left-hand turns actually says, but I feel moderately confident it definitely does not tell you to wait. As far as I can tell, it sort of goes something along the lines of, “Life is short! Live hard! Die young. You need to go left? Why wait? GO NOW- NEVERMIND THAT CEMENT TRUCK YOU CAN TOTALLY DO THIS.”

At least that’s what it feels like a chorus of vehicles is honking at me every time I need to turn left here. And you know what? They’re not wrong. Life IS short, and if you wait for the perfect moment for anything, you might wait forever.  And it’s not just yourself that you slow down. If you wait, you are holding up the people behind you from getting where they need to be in this life. Who gave you permission to do that? I’ve got places to be, and heaven knows I’m not going to let anyone else stop me from getting where I need to go in this world.

That said, I’m going to be real with you, there’s something slightly intimidating about 30 motorcycles and 2 buses hurling their metal frames towards you at 65 kilometers per hour.  So, maybe life IS short, but maybe let’s be careful not to make it SHORTER ourselves by colliding with bus route #42 shall we? There has to be a happy middle ground somewhere…I mean, I have a friend here who refused to go anywhere that required her to turn left for six months until she felt like she could handle it.


Here is where I tie this altogether in some kind of bow, and I only need two words. PILOT. FISH.

This crafty phở-cking fish spends his or her days swimming side by side with the world’s oldest, most cunning, most perfect killing machine: the shark. They’re so worthy of our attention, Herman Melville, the guy who wrote Moby Dick, wrote a poem about them. Kind of. The poem is about Maldive Sharks, but still, they are the Fish Loki to the Shark Thor- they play an award-worthy supporting role.

The poem basically says, “Look at how bad ass these fish are. They swim beside, and sometimes even around the head, and the shark doesn’t seem to mind.”

These fish have figured out if they stay alongside the perfect killing machine, they will never be in front of it.  That would be, the mouth part of the shark. In English, we call this “the business end” of it. Keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer you know?


If you have to turn left, and you WILL have to because you can’t make three rights to make one left your whole life, be like the pilot fish. Look for a shark.

In HCMC this means a car, a bus, pretty much ANYTHING moving that’s bigger than what you’re driving.  It’s so much less likely a bus is going to plow into another bus because, well, physics: it will hurt so much more than just running one little motorcycle over. You’re much safer turning with a car than on your own.

If another vehicle is turning left, you sneak right up on that vehicle like you’re a fifteen year-old creeping on a famous person on social media. Practically climb inside the backseat, sing along to whatever is on the radio, make eye contact so they have a vested commitment in you surviving this left-hand turn (but not too intense- there’s a fine line between a look that says, “Help me,” and one that says, “I might be a serial killer.”) So play it cool. Don’t be that guy.

Remember, don’t ever be afraid to go swimming- just make sure to stay next to the shark, not in front of it, and you’ll be safe from everything else.

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