Sunday, July 18, 2010

Driving to Ben Tre

When embarking on the 2 hour mission to Ben Tre yesterday, I thought about the potential risks involved in driving a motorbike on the roads of Vietnam. Due to the engine size of my Suzuki, speed certainly isn't one of them, but there are multiple dangers on the roads here. So, let me talk you through them.

Pot Holes

Vietnam's roads are at best described as patchy. Some of them are long, straight and smooth (though not without their own problems) but most of the time they are uneven with gigantic potholes. Just outside HCMC, on the major highway that connects Ben Tre with VN's second city, there are huge creators in the road. To make things worse, now is rainy season, there is a whole bunch of construction going on and, of course, the sheer volume of heavy goods traffic. Yesterday, there was a pretty heavy downpour with torrential rain and plenty of nature's fireworks. By the time we had reached the highway, the potholes were underwater. This meant we had to guess where they were, and without knowing the size of the drop or the uneveness of the creator it didn't seem like the safest of places to be! However, onwards we went following the people infront who at least gave me a little indication of what was to come!

Aquaplaning

As previously mentioned there are some 'good' roads in VN. Unfortunately they didn't appear to have thought about the drainage. Nguyen Van Linh is a fine example. Here, to the casual observer, is a fantastic piece of tarmac. However, in the midst of rainy season, is has large lakes in the middle of it. Fortunately I had the foresight to put my racksack into a plastic carrier so it didn't get soaked, but the planes of water makes driving extremely dangerous for a number of reasons. Firstly, you can't see any obstacles that may be lurking underneath. Secondly, braking becomes much more difficult and if you have to stop suddenly, the lack of grip makes controling the 2 inches of rubber separating you from the concrete a wee bit tricky. Finally, peoples' driving lines become erratic as they try to find the dry/drier areas of road. A message to the fine local government officials, consider drainage when building roads!

Lack of traffic rules

While Vietnam claims to have traffic laws, they either are recklessly not adhered to or simply not enforced. Apparently red lights don't mean stop. They mean consider stopping if you want to but not feel obliged to. If you're on a one way street, this symbolises driving against the traffic if you so desire, so long as you beep your horn as often as possible. Wearing a helmet is compulsory but there is no minimum requirement of their quality. For me, a lid here will catch my brain should I have an incident rather than offer any serious protection. The rule of thumb here is if you're in the biggest vehicle you have the right of way. To elaborate, if you drive a lorry, you wait for no one! If you're a bus, you stop for HGVs but not for cars. If you are in a car, beware of buses and trucks, but you needn't worry about motorbikes. If you're a pedestrian .... good luck!!

Crazy bus drivers

Similar to the point above, bus drivers just don't seem to care about anyone else on the road. If you here a bus horn, you get out of the way as quickly as is humanly possible. Not only do they drive ridiculously quickly, they cut across traffic almost at 90 degrees before breaking far more sharply than an F1 car! There are millions of buses on the journey to Ben Tre so I always feel anxious when visiting the inlaws.

Others

All being said, it's not actually that dangerous. Most of the drive is pretty smooth. The potholes are avoidable and not that deep apart from on one section just outside HCMC, most drivers don't want to die so drive pretty sensibly, and for most of the year it doesn't rain. Of course there are the young boy racers who weave in and out of traffic, fatigee as 2 and half hours on the motorbike is quite tiring, and simply loss of concentration for a few seconds could end in tears. I'm always vigilent in trying to predict what's going on in front of me but it's easy to let the mind wonder!

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