Dancing (with?) the traffic

Found the bikes today at baggage claim in the next hemisphere over, and spent the next 2 hours reassembling them with a revolving audience of 25-30 curious Vietnamese. They ride just as slick, smooth and solid as we left them. They will now define our lives.

Riding through Ho Chi Minh City, we found negotiating traffic here to be more like an improvised dance than the static, ugly stop and go back home. At first we found ourselves sitting on the sidelines, intimidated by the continuous flow of motorbikes until until we forced ourselves to just dive in and move with the current. The traffic rules seem to be that you go on green (sort of), you stop on red (sort of), and you maintain complete awareness of everyone around you, moving as one molecule of many – hundreds – each vehicle reacting in time with the decisions of the next. At home we’re like ants, here you flow like water, and it’s a surprisingly natural feeling.

motorbike traffic at dusk in HCMC

The ~ 6 km ride from the airport to downtown HCMC took 1.5 hours. The minute we pedaled out of the airport’s protected tarmac and onto the city streets, we were instantly in the midst of the noisy swarm of motorbikes that now characterize Vietnamese urban transport. It looks chaotic and insane from the sidewalk, but there is an unspoken organic flow to how all the riders respond to one another – swerving around slow-moving cyclists and yielding to larger cars and taxis. Here, might makes right. A prominent landscape architect once said you have to treat cars like big, dumb elephants. And indeed they move like huge, bumbling, tiny-brained animals – they’re the only offensive element of traffic in Saigon.

So how does it all work? Basically you grit your teeth and thrust yourself forward into/across/against moving traffic, trusting that the skilled riders will flow around you. And they do – merging here is well-practiced art form. When cycling in HCMC you must keep one eye on the road ahead, one to each side, and go by feel and sound with what’s behind you. You truly must dance with the traffic.

We got lost 4 times in the 6km. Wayfinding in this city is not intuitive. There is no grid. Instead, a mix of colonial era city-planning layered with the frenetic growth of modern HCMC has resulted in a street pattern that creates 7-way intersections, strange triangles, and backway alleys. Thankfully the streets are well labeled, so even though we might not be able to pronounce the names, we can at least locate them on a map.

the dense urban fabric of HCMC seen from our hotel windo

It’s hot here. And humid, hmm… We knew that going into this, but did we really? We started imagining the next few months in the humidity and rain of SE Asia, and it doesn’t sound entirely pleasant. We packed cold weather gear for later on in the trip, but it is now obvious that all of it will be sitting, likely rotting, at the bottom of our panniers for months, taking up valuable space before it gets any use. Using a sleeping bag at all sounds miserable, so that means sleeping directly on our rubber sleeping pads, soaking in our own sweat and never quite drying, ever.

Ha! But what a life we live to whine about voluntary discomfort. Right now there is no feeling that anything in life is worth even the smallest complaint. A visit to the War Remnants Museum today solidified that point. Not surprisingly, Vietnam sees the war here much differently than we do at home. Seeing even a small slice of that reality makes you want to cry, and the slap-in-the-face reminder of what our government was – what it is – makes you want to seek re-adoption. But that’s beside the point…

the ugly face of engineered death

We’ve been biking. Starting to read the flow of this city. It feels good, but the exhaust fumes taste like they’re shortening our lives, and the particles sting the eyes. Saw our first normal looking dog today! And then watched it get pummeled by a motorbike (witnessed our first accident).

The food’s ngon (delicious), people are amazing, we’re getting our feet under us and very soon we’ll set off through the delta on the way to Cambodia. Pics and video to come…

3 thoughts on “Dancing (with?) the traffic

  1. Go guys, sorry to hear about the dog but don’t leave any nutricous road kill behind the protein is an important energy source. Buddy

  2. The heat & humidity certainly does sound like another world. Most of the U.S. is hot and burning, but here in the NW we’re still suck in the 50’s! Traffic sounds daunting. Is it all controlled by Darwinian laws, or are there police to give tickets if you run a red light? Glad to hear you’re on your way and that you and the bikes arrived in good order. Happy pedaling! – m&d (great pics!)

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