Friday, April 25, 2014

On the road again .....

ON the road in SE Asia

After two weeks in Vietnam I think I have finally got a handle on their road rules.  Those of you who have visited this part of the world will undoubtedly have similar memories, those of you who have never been to Vietnam or Cambodia … well… don’t say you were not warned!

Starting at the bottom.. the humble bicycle.. usually clapped out and owned by those whose circumstances do not offer any other alternatives.  Fitted with a small basket at the front they are the usual means of transport for older primary kids. They can accommodate 2 passengers in addition to the rider if absolutely necessary.
Women in Vietnam value 'white' skin so riding attire often consists of a jacket (to cover the arms) a hat and a dust mask.

Bicycles can also be fitted out with additional carrying capacity in the form of platforms at either end to accommodate baskets and trays for the transportation of goods.
Be advised that when these additional platforms are added, it is not actually possible to actually ride the bike.

Rules for bikes appear to be:

·         Ride on the side of the road, taking care not to have the crapper scared out of you by any larger vehicle that blasts its horn 10feet behind you – just so you know it’s coming (bikes do not have rear-view mirrors)

·         In the absence of indicators, there is no need to signal – simply aim for the street / driveway you wish to turn into, pedal into the middle of the traffic and ride blithely across the oncoming traffic and into your intended destination street/driveway. In heavy traffic you should indicate your intention to turn by wriggling your fingers by your side, on the side you wish to turn to.

 Since they are pedal powered, cyclo’s (pronounced sick-low) come next… think pedal powered rickshaw for the uninitiated.  They are a tourist trap if ever there was one.  Everywhere you go in any city that tourists frequent,  you are offered “cyclo sir! … cyclo madamme!” .. the unwary fall for these solicitations and because they generally only take a single passenger, you see them part way through their ‘one hour tour’ looking half-way between bored and embarrassed.


Motorbikes – come in a wide variety of styles – at the bottom of the desirability ladder are the old and almost completely crapped out Chinese made bikes held together with wire and plastic raffia packing twine.  They do not have a ‘boot’ but can accommodate up to 4 passengers

Slighty up the range are the electric bicycles – generally ridden by early teens whose parents obviously do not trust them anything with a real engine.  Some pedalling is required and these bikes can accommodate two school age kids providing no-one takes any books home.

Next in line are the myriad of scooters… from the jaunty little vesper-like ones, usually pink or red and ridden by the fashionistas among the late teen and early twenties girls… often with matching helmets (complete with shaping at the back so you don’t squash your ponytail)….
And to maintain their dignity, the fashionista in a skirt invariably has to ride side-saddle
Women in Vietnam value 'white' skin so riding attire often consists of a jacket  with build-in hat and dust mask.  A fitting helmet is optional the sturdy family sedans with room for a kids seat at the front.  Scooters and small motorbikes are the lifeblood of cities like Saigon, Hanoi, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap – and just about everywhere else in this part of the world.  There are about 3 million motorbikes in Saigon and at any one time you can expect to see 75% of them on the road! Comfortably carrying two, although three is quite normal and at times the whole family including little kids will cram onto the Honda for a trip to the shops.
Kids car seat .. the Vietnam version ... it looks more like a kitchen stool to me!

Doing your homework ... on the way home from school

"Yes mum I'll pick up some noodles"

"Yes dear, I remembered to pick Mary up from school"

Then there are the motorcycle work utes…. used to carry almost every conceivable package, tin, sack, small animal, household appliance or building material.  They’re rarely washed (unlike the fashionista’s scooters which are lovingly cleaned by adoring boyfriends or the hired help on a daily basis) and often have some kind of additional contraption attached to facilitate the carriage of goods.


Any good tradie generally has an apprentice, and in SE Asia, the apprentice’s job is to ride pillion holding whatever building needs delivering.  The fact that sometimes he is unable to see where they are going or what is coming is irrelevant.

Of course there are some goods that require more than a ute and cannot be transported without the addition of a trailer….pulled of course by a motorbike of some description – usually old.  The people of SE Asia are an ingenious bunch and cobbling together a tow-ball for a motorbike is childsplay.

Motorcycle road rules in this part of the world are quite confusing at first glance.  To the casual observer there do not actually appear to be any, but on closer inspection there seem to be about 4.

1.       Ride on the right side of the road unless:
a)      You exiting  house/shop/office and are already on a footpath in which case you can continue for up to 50m
b)      You need to turn left in which case you may drift to the centre of the road and into the oncoming line of traffic approx. 100m before your turn-off

2.       Helmets are (supposedly) compulsory, except when…

a)      It is hot
b)      You are a pillion passenger
c)       You do not want to get ‘helmet hair’ (particularly important for the fashionistas)
d)      You are carrying groceries or building materials

3.       Traffic lights and signals are to obeyed at all times… unless

a)      You are turning right in which case it is perfectly fine to simply continue round the corner
b)       There are no larger vehicles lined up at the other red light waiting their turn to cross the intersection
c)       You are in a hurry… in which case riding straight through is perfectly acceptable


4.       Your horn is your most important piece of equipment.  Ensure it is working at all times and use it! …. Particularly when:

a)      You are entering any intersection
b)      You are approaching another vehicle
c)       You are approaching a pedestrian
d)      You are approaching livestock


Cars, like motorbikes, fall into three categories and as elsewhere in the world are often a status symbol. 

In Vietnam there did not appear to be that many ‘old clapped out cars’ .. obviously they are shipped off somewhere like Cambodia.

The car market in Vietnam is, not surprisingly dominated by Japanese and Korean makers… Hyundai, Toyota, Kia and the ratio of cars to motorbikes would run at around 1 car for every 57 motorbikes.  Parking is an issue – you really can’t just park your car on the footpath and you certainly cannot bring it inside the house at night.
...or park on the footpath
The Toyota Camry is the most popular car in Cambodia, used as taxis (but generally without any taxi-like signage)  and private vehicles, the older they get, he more people they are expected to accommodate.   Seeing a family of 7 or 8 (who no longer all fit on the Honda Dream) squeezed into an old Camry is not unusual.

Black Audis are the vehicle of choice for the newly financially enhanced.  It used to be Lexus (and particularly 4WD ones) but clever marketing from Audi appealing to the smart businessman who wanted to ‘stand out from the rest’ has resulted in so many black Audi’s that these guys now no longer stand out.  The big black Audi’s are the Vietnamese version of a com-car.  In Cambodia government officials still drive black Lexus 4WDs.
The Bulgarian PM's com-car motorcade

Owners of cars like Mercedes AMG’s park wherever they like! And it is perfectly OK to block all other traffic in the street.    No road rules apply to them either.


Road rules for Car drivers in both Cambodia and Vietnam are relatively similar, and some of the bike rules apply equally.

But, to start with the most important things for a driver to know is getting the car moving and the selection of gears.

As far as getting the car moving is concerned…...  First gear is entirely optional, and if engaged at all, the aim is to get out of it as quickly as possible, under 0.5 of a second being optimal.  The fact that the car splutters and protests is irrelevant.  Once second gear is selected, third becomes optional and the objective is to get to 4th gear and then 5th before the vehicle is travelling faster than 40kph.

Once the driver has the car moving and has eased into the traffic.. generally following the bike rules (1a & b – driving on the right side of the road and turning left,  3a – traffic lights,   and 4 a to d – the use of the horn) the next skill to be mastered is the overtaking manoeuvre.  Contrary to  best-practise in other parts of the world which indicate the driver should not overtake a slower vehicle of equal or larger mass with traffic coming in the oncoming direction, this is not how it is done in either Vietnam or Cambodia. 

The overtaking manoeuvre is accomplished in two parts.  Firstly the driver is required to drive up to and be as close as possible to the rear end of the slower vehicle they wish to overtake.  This is particularly important if the slow vehicle is something like a truck.


Once in place for overtaking, the driver is required to drift into the oncoming lane to see what, if any oncoming vehicles are visible.  If there are no vehicles of equal or larger size, the driver gently coaxes a little more than 40kph from the accelerator and moves across the centre line to pass the slower vehicle.  Once the rear of the vehicle is marginally in front of the slower vehicle, the driver will swing back into his own lane – expecting the driver of the slower vehicle to brake and make a larger space to move into.  Please note the onus is on the driver of the vehicle being overtaken to create the space for the overtaking vehicle.

step 1 .. move right up the @ss of the vehicle in front
step 2 swing into the other lane and see if anything is coming .. blow horn simultaneously
step 3 plant foot and ignore the complaints of your engine as you try go from 40k/hr in 5th gear to fast enough to overtake..

OK... nothing coming ... lets go!

All this must be accomplished with one hand on the horn in accordance with motorbike rule 4a to d.

Moving up in size to trucks.  Major cities did not seem to have lots of clapped out very old model cars – no 1980’s models etc, but old clapped out trucks was another thing all together.  Everywhere you went you saw these old clunkers – held together with god-knows-what and certainly not capable of passing any Australian road-worthy certificate.


And next in size are buses … and what a range there is.  Bashed up old minibuses carrying way too much cargo or way to many people, new ford transit buses fitted with 14 seats (plus the option of 3 fold down seats) carry tourists places like the Lao Cai train station to Sapa in a modicum of comfort.  Bigger (but certainly of the clapped out variety) buses ply the roads around the ‘suburbs’ of cities like Ho Chi Minh &  Hanoi  and newer and less crappy ones ply the routes between major tourist hubs.  Some have seats (with and without knee room) and others are the bed-buses which travel the long distance routes for the budget traveller who wants to save on time and/or a night’s accommodation charge.
When your lounge chair won't fit in the luggage bay, just tie it to the roof

Long distance bed bus ... not on my 'do do' list - due to a higher than normal centre of gravity, tipping over is a regular thing.

Middle sized buses run between places like HCMC and Vung Tau

Knee room is a foreign concept in Vietnam

Between shifts, the driver just sets up his hammock in the cargo bay


Road rules for buses & trucks are an extension of those for cars… if you are big you have right of way – everywhere, every time. 
I will assume that since this big truck in front of me is overtaking, then it will be perfectly safe for me to do the same  ... and I know the oncoming motorbike will get right out of my way!
  ~ ~ ~
And lastly, trains …. There is effectively one train line in Vietnam … it goes from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi and for much of the distance there is literally only one line. Trains are painfully slow. Trains go from Hanoi to Lao Cai (on the Chinese border) for Sapa  and again, it is a single track –  Trains pass each other by waiting at stations and in sidings. German train travellers used to a state of the art system would have conniptions … because the only thing trains in Vietnam have on common with trains in Germany is that they appear to leave on time ..

Hanoi Central ...

Level crossing in Hue ... no flashing lights though
So there you have it ... road travel in Vietnam.. I finally figured out their rules but do I want to drive/ride there ... no bloody way!

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