Saigon’s Wild Streets: A Driver’s Perspective

By: Patrick Gaveau

For 10 years I have been a fervent daily observer/experiencer of transportation issues in our city. I began while driving my unregistered 250cc motorbike without license and now “drive” a legal car with papers from/to home everyday. What used to take me 15 minutes in full speed, now takes about 45 minutes in “slow” mode.

My favourite time was during Tet when HCMC's streets were emptied for a week. It was then the best time of the year to drive around to uncover what could not be observed the rest of the year. Today, these “cool down” phenomena last a day or two and many small street vendors remain open. Not the same really.

Back then; we rode dangerously as helmets were optional. That entire free spirit changed abruptly on January 1st 2008, a turning point for us all. I still wonder how did the government managed to implement such important safety legislation within a day!

In those days, police rarely stopped “white foreign” faces, too afraid of miscommunications. Since then, lots of English speaking training was conducted and we, “the Expats” are not treated so differently anymore.

In 2006, traffic “rules” were mainly applicable for “blindsided ladies” who could not see too well. And yes, police street presence was less significant. Except, of course, for the 30 days leading to Tet where a bonus fine was to be collected by police to continue to “protect” us against the lawless drivers. This behavior is now active year round.

Back then traffic congestion was certainly nothing like it is now, as cars were available to the elite mostly. Nevertheless, the main axes were already too crowded with bikes all over, especially at peak hours. So much then, that traffic often took place on the pavement too. These pavement drivers continue to fay their way on unauthorised territory, but more rarely these days.

Today, the leading streets are further saturated, regardless of numerous road improvements and the newly built bridges. Apart from the peak hour’s ever present congestion, you may have noticed that driving in the city center between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. now requires a certain degree of insanity.

The rare times that I do visit the city at these odd hours recently felt like a fashion show. Honda HD, Piaggio and the likes are often driven by well dressed pretty looking boys held tightly by young, lovely long-legged ladies wearing shorts and high heels. Showtime for many; a kind of status empowerment exercise that reminds me of Cannes.

In the past, roads were too often flooded; especially during the heavier Monsoon seasons. This resulted in serious street damages across the city. Flat tires occurred more often, but not all could be blamed on the quality of streets. Much was due to planted nails that finance the nearby tire repair shop business activities. 

Traffic light synchronization is and has always been weak, and much of our daily traffic congestions is the result of that. Other constants include the fact that when a foreigner has an accident, he is always responsible for paying the bill regardless of responsibility. Another steady matter is road signage for directions. It was and remains mostly inappropriate and ineffective, and a special mention is awarded for street address numbers, which most of the time follow no logical order.

Some of the above listed issues can be used as a to-do list to effectively begin to improve traffic and transportation in our city, at least for the short term. If not, we may have to suffer hell for an extra 20 years or so until all metro lines as well as other public transportation methods are fully operational.

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