Vietnam’s new war

Within a week of arriving in Vietnam, I’d seen two fatalities. Within a couple of months the tally was five. Vietnam has the second highest road mortality rate in South East Asia, after Thailand. Both comparable with the worst in the world.

After cycling in the country for almost three years, the reasons are clear. Vietnam’s unique road customs are not adapting well to the increased level of traffic.

Right of way has a different meaning to standards that are the norm in the rest of the world. The biggest vehicles rule. Cyclists and pedestrians have no standing. Motor cyclists have little more.

Intersections are mostly unguarded, even when they are blind. Only rumble strips act as a warning that there is an intersection ahead, and to anticipate vehicles coming into your path. Accidents are common.

Indicators are purely decorative. Movements are used to show intent. Drivers do not wait for a break in traffic to cross opposing traffic, they just slowly move into the path of oncoming vehicles. Taking one’s eyes of the road is dangerous.

But it is common to see drivers of both cars and motor cycles texting and driving. No problem.

Even vehicles traveling in the same direction are a hazard. As a matter of course, motor cycles and cars will overtake, cut in front, and then slow down. Incidents that would precipitate road rage anywhere else in the world, are the norm. It is not unusual to have a vehicle overtake, cut in front, and apply brakes to make an intersection. Like untrained dogs, motorcycles will come off the pavement into heaving traffic, the rider not even looking at the vehicle flows to assess the level of risk.

I have seen a little old lady hurled through the air by a huge Harley as the rider insisted on passing a truck in the gap between the sidewalk and the traffic. The rider did not care to stop.

The authorities have addressed the issue of Vietnam’s poor road mortality statistic. Previously the bodies were covered, and left on the road until the forensic investigation was complete. Now, they are whisked away to hospital, where they are classified as something other than a road fatality.

Living in Vietnam is an unforgettable experience. That’s if you live.