There is a dull roar that hangs over Vietnam. From north to south, in the highlands and in the delta, in small towns and especially in big cities the inescapable sound of a million scooters fills the air.
Scooters are everywhere. People don’t walk anywhere, they just jump on their scooter and ride to where ever they want to go even if it’s just a few doors down. It’s like the scooter is an extension of their body, an extra set of legs that gets them where they want to go more efficiently. The roads are filled with them and rush hour is an indescribable chaos of buzzing and honking that I have been unable to capture in any photograph. People can drive scooters into places that I would have thought impossible…while walking through a narrow, winding lane, or through a packed morning market, there is every chance that the unmistakable sound of a scooter will come up from behind and a polite ‘beep-beep’ will request passage.
Parked scooters take up every available space that isn’t used for driving…sidewalks are un-passable, lanes are choked and even the smallest of establishments has a young fellow acting as a parking valet to manage the ‘parking lot’. They are parked anywhere and everywhere and at night are tucked into their home parking spot in the main room of the house right next to the TV and the sleeping mat just like a member of the family.
Scooters are a multi purpose vehicle here. They are family vehicles ferrying mom, dad and kids around…the school near where we are staying is surrounded by parents on scooters picking up their kids after school…a little different than the family sedans and SUV’s in the parking lots at home and yet it all looked the same once the kiddies came out, greeted their parents and siblings and jumped on for the ride home.
They are moto-taxis, which we used and loved…it was exhilarating being on the back of a bike driving through the crazy traffic. With an experienced driver at the wheel it wasn’t scary at all and we could really get a good sense of how close it all is. Sometimes we even use them with our big packs…the driver holds the pack in front of him and we hop on the back with our smaller packs…after what I’ve seen scooters capable of carrying I had no trouble feeling safe!
They are delivery vehicles for all manner of things…construction materials, beer, ice, large mirrors, propane tanks, ladders, you-name-it. They are farm tractors, school buses, and moving vans…I did not get a picture but the best I’ve seen was a full sized, heavy, carved wood sofa with a set of stools and table atop it on the back of a scooter driven by an old man….amazing!!
Riding is instinctive, set into a person at a very young age as they ride up front on the scooter in front of mom or dad on specially adapted seats…there is nothing cuter than seeing a toddler looking out over the handlebars holding onto the mirrors with a huge grin on his face. Unlike at home where a youngster slowly graduates from riding in the backseat to riding in the front seat of the car, here a youngster graduates to being able to stand in front of the driver to, eventually being big enough to ride behind the driver.
Driving here makes sense despite the initial look of mayhem. It’s a cooperative environment (rather than the competitive environment we have at home) and everyone takes responsibility for looking out for everyone else. People look ahead and deal with each obstacle as it comes…dodging and weaving expertly around other scooters, buses, bicycles, pedestrians and whatever else may come up. It appears to be like walking through a large crowd…sure everyone is close but we generally don’t run into other people…it all just flows.
Crossing the road in that mayhem may sound like an exercise in stupidity as there are no crosswalks and few traffic lights but, actually, it is simpler to cross the road here than at home…just step out and keep moving. That’s right, don’t wait for a break in traffic, certainly don’t wait for anyone to stop (because no one will), and don’t do it half-heartedly…just slowly step out and join the flow…watch the first driver change course, focus on the next one and watch him change course, then the next one and the next one…slowly, slowly the other side of the street is safely reached even through the craziest traffic in the biggest traffic circles in the city. While I certainly wouldn’t want to say that playing in traffic like this is fun, I will say that it is highly amusing.
I love scooters, and I love how much they are a part of life here. I love how even driving here is a public event…people are out in the open instead of hidden behind metal and glass, people have conversations among bikes, and there is a personal nature to the traffic. I’ve talked to people who have been in Vietnam before and say that as recently as 5 or 6 years ago the streets were filled with bicycles instead of scooters. I can see now that cars are encroaching more and more and I wonder if in 5 or 6 more years that cars will be more prevalent than scooters. In my book that will be a shame.