Monday, October 29, 2012


With millions of motorbikes in the city, the downtown rush hour resembles a bee hive.
As compared to the rest of slower paced Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) teems with a fast paced, frantic energy. At no time of day is this more evident than at rush hour, when traffic is taken over by more than three million motorcycles. Walking across the streets during rush hour these days is like taking your life into your own hands.

It wasn’t always so. Until a few years ago, bicycles ruled the streets here. Environmentalists back then were pleased with the city’s low engine emissions, but it wasn’t to last. The turning point came when cheap Honda motorcycles appeared on the local market. These were much cheaper than other Hondas sold here, for one simple reason: they were counterfeit. Many cycles on the road today are actually cheap counterfeits made in China. A genuine Honda runs for around $2000, but a new counterfeit costs as little as $300. The quality wasn’t comparable, but with that cost savings, sales of the faux Hondas took off with a frenzy. Calling them motorcycles is a stretch too. With their bulky frames, small wheels, and 100cc engines, Americans would call them scooters. The Vietnamese refer to them as, ‘mot-a-bikes’.

A restaurant I patronize overlooks a major downtown intersection. From my high vantage point, I look down on a constant flow of chaos. The mass of motorbikes below resemble a swarm of honeybees. Their tendency to drive too close together often results in motorbike collisions, one of the leading causes of death in Vietnam. Just a couple years ago, almost nobody wore a helmet. These days, with increased enforcement and a public education campaign, more than 90% of the city’s riders are wearing helmets. Fatality numbers are down, but in rural areas, those wearing helmets are fewer in number. An odd contradiction, is that countrywide, even when adults wear helmets, children riding with their parents on motorbikes rarely wear them.
Vietnam finally has a helmet law. As seen at left, the US Army helmet style is strangely popular.

The most surprising style of helmet motorbike riders wear, are US Army helmets. After the surrender of the ARVN in 1975, there were hundreds of thousands of these helmets left in Vietnam, and motorbike riders snatched them up. Since they don’t have a lot of padding, these wouldn’t be considered safe for a motorcylist in America, but they are accepted here. Some helmets are US original, others newly made here. The old GI style helmets are still popular enough, that someone in Vietnam decided to continue manufacturing them.

Aside from helmets, traffic safety is not a high priority in Saigon. It’s a common sight to see motorcyclists talking on their cell phones as they drive. Adding to the numbers, are motorbike-taxis, known as 'Xe om', the cheapest way to get around town. It’s common to see Vietnamese overload a 100cc motorbike with four or even five people. This isn't legal, but it gives the traffic police the opportunity to extort bribes.

I know a local staffer of the organization Handicap International. She once told me, “Before we make prosthetics for people who lose leg from landmine. Now, we make more for people that lose leg from mot-a-bike accident.”
A common sight in Saigon: an overloaded mot-a-bike

Given the heavy traffic and lack of enforcement, it’s not surprising that HCMC is one of the world’s worst cities to be a pedestrian. Most sidewalks are uneven, and are often totally blocked by merchandise, or parked motorbikes. This forces pedestrians to step out in the street, into the path of more motorbikes. Pedestrian bridges, which would greatly improve crossing the streets over this mess, are almost non-existent.

At rush hour, when traffic is heaviest, impatient motorbike drivers often drive on the sidewalks, brushing by unsuspecting pedestrians. This caused my buddy Kenny, the Vietnam War vet I know here, to lose his temper one day. When one of these reckless bikers nearly knocked Kenny over on a sidewalk, he took matters into his own hands. Literally. “I shoved him, picked up his motorbike, “Kenny told me, “and threw it out into the street.”

Looking at the never ending stream of rush hour motorbikes, you get a sense of just how crowded this city of six million is. More economic migrants arrive from the countryside every day in search of better jobs. The population density isn’t just noticeable here, it’s a national problem. With 91 million people, Vietnam’s population is more than double what it was during the war years. It's by far the most heavily populated country in Southeast Asia. A rather sexist Vietnamese retiree once told me, “Vietnamese lady are very good baby maker.”

Seeing Vietnamese women driving motorbikes, I noticed them wearing rather curious clothing. They often wear wide hats, sunglasses, a facemask, and long gloves going up past their elbows. Every inch of skin will be covered from head to toe. This isn’t for any religious reason. This is because Vietnamese women are obsessed with having white skin, and want to avoid any tanning by the sun.

In Asia, if a woman has dark skin, it doesn't mean that she's just come back from the beach. Darker skin here means that you are a farmer, or a laborer that works under the sun. Traditionally, they are regarded as lower class. Female farmers wearing traditional conical hats will sometimes be covered in clothing just like these motorbike drivers.

It’s no surprise that the biggest selling beauty product in Vietnam is skin whitener!

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