Motorcycle rivers: traffic in Ho Chi Minh City

An intersection in District One, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigonm.)

An intersection in District One, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigonm.)

Ho Chi Minh City (still referred to by many here by its old name, Saigon) is one of my favorite places to visit. It’s a lively, bustling place (by day and night), it is inexpensive, the food is great, and many of the people I have met there have been friendly and hospitable.

Vietnam is a long, narrow country, anchored at each end by a major city. Hanoi dominates the north, and it is the country’s political capital. Ho Chi Minh City is a much bigger place (population estimates range from just under 5 million to nearly 8 million people) and it is Vietnam’s financial, economic, and manufacturing hub. In this city,  the hammer and sickle are juxtaposed with advertisements for Calvin Klein perfume and Rolex watches; while the Party and the government still claim adherence to the ideals of Communism, the economic landscape sends a very different message here (as it does in China.)

For me (and, I am sure, most visitors) the first impression of Ho Chi Minh City is that it’s traffic is unlike that anywhere else. First, there are the motorcycles. At rush hour (which often seems to go on for most of the day) the streets of this city are rivers of motorcycles, with cars and trucks apparently swept along in the flow. Second, there are the confluences of the rivers, the city’s intersections. As soon as a traffic light turns red, the motorcycle river starts to back up, quickly becoming a dam, apparently held back only by the thin line of the pedestrian crosswalk. As the numbers on the flashing red pedestrian crossing approach zero, the dam begins to crack and a few motorcycles dribble across the line. Then the light turns green, and the dam bursts, disgorging its continents in  a torrent that rapidly picks up speed. Meanwhile, the dam on the now blocked river starts to fill. Making sense of all of this must take a sold background not only in traffic engineering, but also in fluid dynamics.

Somehow, pedestrians manage to cross these vehicular rivers, not just at intersections, but everywhere. The secret of getting to the other side of the road (aside from being born there) is apparently to stride confidently out into the street, and just keep going at a steady pace. Don’t hesitate, don’t dart and, above all, have faith in that the drivers bearing down on you don’t want to hit you any more than you want to be hit. My advice to the novice visitor to this city, though, is to find some local people about to cross the street, and just stick to them as they cross.

Intersections without lights, though, are the most fascinating to behold, as the video below shows. Traffic enters the intersection from all directions, without stopping, and simultaneously. At first glance it seems chaotic, but watch for a while and you will notice that there is some order here, some unwritten and unspoken rules of the road that make this all work.

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