Friday, March 24, 2006

A smile for your troubles

Fraught and frazzled, but happy others aren’t complaining, or overreacting, Teddy de Burca Jnr. wonders how long people can keep smiling on the increasingly chaotic roads of Vietnam

At the end of the one-way street of Son Tay I pull around the corner, keeping an eye on the traffic coming from Kim Ma on my right. Both are one-way streets, so I shouldn’t have to suddenly be screeching to halt as a young boy (or perhaps he is a small youthful looking man) is coming the wrong way round the corner. We are lucky. Both of us manage to skid just to the side of each others’ handlebars. We end up nearly face to face – a little tete-a-tete on the side of the road – but our bikes aren’t even touching. My first instinct is to hurl abuse. I am a Westerner of the modern world and we don’t take kindly to being (nearly) run into though we would be equally outraged if it were the other way round and someone started abusing us. But as I open my mouth, ready to vent my vitriol, his face cracks into the biggest smile I have seen since the Cheshire cat made his stage debut.

What can I do? How could I shout and roar if the other person is absolutely thrilled to have had the luck to almost run into a foreigner so early on a Monday morning? The answer is I can’t. His smile is itself a kind of apology. So I smile back and mumble, “can than, nhe!” (literally, “Hey! Be careful”), which he laughs at and repeats to his girlfriend on the pillion (as if she’s the one who should be careful). Then without further ado, he accelerates away, still going on the wrong side of a one-way street, leaving me in his wake. I’ve been here for six years, but I’m still impressed at this flippant attitude towards near serious accidents – but I suppose in a city of so many millions, you’d have to be.

Norman Lewis, the late British travel writer and author of Dragon Apparent, came to Vietnam in the 1950s and while walking down a road in Ho Chi Minh City, in the days when traffic was a novelty, he saw a bus career around a corner and smash into a cyclist. The bike was crushed and the cyclist hurled to the ground. The bus driver bounded out the door and shook the hand of the cyclist, as if congratulating him (on not being killed, Lewis presumes) and the two men beamed at each other and everyone around, as if posing for an invisible photographer. The bus driver clambered back into his vehicle and continued on his way while the cyclist picked up his bike and started the long walk home with his bicycle around his shoulder, still grinning, chuffed that he had a story to tell when he got home and a trophy to prove it.

Now I know this is a quaint and distant image and that these days the reality is the traffic is frenetic and aggressive. Young drivers are provocative and deliberately reckless. As one travel journalist for the Guardian described it: this is the land where people use the “horn not the brakes”.

Though not for Anthony Bourdain, whose love for Vietnam extends to even the motorbike horn, which he interpreted rather fondly as nothing more than a “coming through, coming through, keep doing what you’re doing”. Now this wistful description works for me on a good day, but it hardly works as an umbrella under which all beeps fall. What about the “hey, can’t you see the light just went green?” or the “Clear the path for I am a truck and you shall know me by the trail of the dead”?

If you come from a culture where beeping can result in your nose being broken, this is hard for many to accept. You can try and turn around and complain, but of course, there’s that smile again! (Or perhaps even a hearty chuckle).

But I have seen foreigners lose it, plenty of times, most recently on Christmas Eve in Ho Chi Minh City, when everyone and everyone’s mother were out on the streets. The traffic was a flood of engines and wheels pouring down Hai Ba Trung street. But it wasn’t the season to be jolly for one western chap on his Honda@, who took great exception to the taxi that was also moving for the same chink of space and started kicking the bonnet and hurling abuse at the poor driver who, like everyone else, was just doing the best he could in a dire situation. The driver managed to get away and we both laughed at the overreaction on the stressed out foreigner’s part and agreed “Ong Tay dien”.

But as the traffic breeds like a rash in Vietnam’s major cities and more and more cars, motorbikes, trucks, SUVs hit the roads, how long can people in Vietnam keep smiling at the traffic lights?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Cuoi a? Atom avoi.