Learning to Walk Across the Street

Trip Start Apr 17, 2001
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Trip End Ongoing


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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Wednesday, March 2, 2011

 

Ellen and I arrived in Saigon last Sunday. After just two days in this chaotic city of nine million people we boarded a train for a 1,150 kilometre journey up the coast. The Imperial city of Hue, with its tombs, temples and palaces would be much calmer. Trying to envision a place after reading about it is so often a poor way of planning your travels. At least for me it is. If you were to take the guidebook's word for it, Kuching in Borneo and Hue in Vietnam could be twin cities. They both have charm, picturesque views and and a river running right through the old city centres, they say. In reality though, where Kuching does have the river, the magic and the charm, Hue just has the river.


The last time we were in Vietnam, I sat on the balcony of our Hanoi hotel room each night with my mouth agape, wondering why vehicles don't run into one another. And why people don't get run over. They scurry about like ants, with no stop signs or traffic lights. This time around I think I've figured it out. It seems that whoever reaches a given point first - car, motorcycle, or bicycle - has the right of way. And in a crazy kind of way, it works the same way with pedestrians who want to cross the street. At home if someone turns their vehicle in front of yours it's called 'cutting off'. Road rage often occurs. Sometimes fist fights, even death. Here, cutting off is quite normal and acceptable.

Let me describe as best as I can, the insanity of crossing the street by foot:

Traffic is so dense - mostly motorcycles - that if you lowered your head and tried looking through the mass, you couldn't see what's on the other side of the road. To walk across the street you must edge your way onto the road and move slowly, step by step, with your hand raised above your head towards oncoming traffic. Motorcycles, cars, even trucks, will stop for you, because you have reached that particular point of convergence first. You have the right of way. It's really quite frightening the first couple of times, to look to your left or right and see a motorcycle coming straight towards you at 30 or 40 km per hour. You can't step back because you will surely get hit by the one that is zooming along just inches away from the one that is coming straight for you. And you can't step forward because the same thing will happen. And that's when this remarkable right of way thing happens. The guy barreling down on you stops and waits for you to take your next step. This continues motorcycle by motorcycle until you get to the other side.

And if you think walking across the street is scary, you need to try riding on the back of a motorcycle. You'll be zooming along quite calmly until the driver arrives at the place where he's about to drop you off. If it happens to be on the other side of the street he'll simply turn his motorcycle into the oncoming traffic and drive right up to the curb where you can more easily climb off the back. None of this makes sense, but it works. We've seen no accidents and hardly any dents on vehicles.

I'd never tasted Durian. Never even smelled it. Many hotels in south-east Asia forbid it from being brought into their establishments, because once you cut into it, it apparently stinks.

We popped into an ice cream parlour in Hue by the river yesterday. Ellen ordered raspberry and I went for the vanilla. Then I saw durian on the menu. I asked if I could try a tiny plastic spoonful. The guy behind the counter gave me one of those wicked, your not going to like it, smiles. It took the better part of the day to get that horrible taste from my mouth. Durian doesn't at all taste like the distillates grappa or slivovica, but if you've ever let either of these two touch your tongue it's hard to forget the gag inducing after taste that just won't go away. That's durian...it just occurred to me that if you added a cik to the end of durian you'd have the old country spelling of Ellen's surname. Just a coincidence, nothing profound.

For some inexplicable reason, we have no photos of traffic. I'll send one or two at a later date.






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