Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Ho Chi Minh city

I live in a city of 8 million people.

To put it in perspective, there are as many of my people - Les Québécois, or French-Canadians - as there are of humans living in this city.

I get lost a lot while riding my motorbike.

I spent most of my life in Montréal, a city of 3.5 million. A city where most of the recent growth and city-planning has benefited from western ideology. What I mean is that most of the city blocs are square, the streets are straight. North to South, East to West. One rarely navigates the back alleys by car, and one rarely navigates the streets by motorbike at all. Our minds are built from childhood in a certain way - how to behave in public - and it reflects how we drive.

Driving in Ho Chi Minh city is a big part of the city life here. There is a subway system in the builds, overseen by a Japanese company. People seldom walk or take the bus. You drive your motorbike everywhere, all the time, and what an experience it is.

The city doesn't make sense to my western mind. Go ahead, take a look on Google Maps. Streets twist and turn and snake their way around. Branching off of all these streets are medium to tiny alleys, building a spider-web in all directions where a whole new HCMC experience awaits, if one is curious enough to go venture these arteries. Sometimes you discover a whole new street of its own, only reachable by these back alleys, populated by coffee shops, where the community life seems to be tighter - I'm hoping to move to one of these streets - and sometimes you reach a sort of open space where several restaurants are stuffing tiny tables against each other, where people meet to enjoy delicious snails over cheap beer and laughter.

The way they drive seems chaotic - even after 5 months of riding around Vietnam and 2 months in this city alone. At first glance, it seems that there are absolutely no rules... People drive against the traffic, people merge from side streets without looking, attention is rarely paid to whatever's happening on each side of you - forget about what's happening behind you. Courtesy is an after-thought, almost a sign of weakness.

At second glance, it still seems that there are absolutely no rules. The only one is, expect the unexpected. I rarely get angry since I am always on full WTF mode, but I get a surprise every day. My tires have screeched on a few occasions, my head shook on disbelief, laughter escaped my open mouth more than once.

A few examples.

People seem dead set on passing you on the left, no matter what you are doing. I was in the left "lane" (read, pile of motorbikes), my left signal blinking, my motorbike completely sideways, front part in oncoming traffic, back part in the lane I came from, trying to do a U-turn to catch a back alley. Finally, I see a hole in the human flow and I can go. I release the clutch, give some gas, ready to go - only to break just as quickly. An old man was passing me on the left, a full lane into incoming traffic. We almost collide. He takes the time to slow down and give me the "You're stupid" eyes - a rare event since people seldom get angry here - before going back to his seemingly erratic driving. I am deeply puzzled. How could he not see my blinkers? How could he not think that I was about to go? Why would he not pass me on the right?

The blinkers. Vietnamese people seem to drive quite absent-mindedly. When they use their blinkers they completely forget about them until the next time they have to use them, and so you quickly learn to ignore them. In a tide of traffic, a sea of blinkers are randomly flashing and most of them don't mean anything. I see a lot of people driving around with the stand still down. Some of them are carrying boxes on the seat, not tied up. A lot of cellphone conversations are happening, or friends are driving side by side, talking. They drive pretty slowly. They will turn left or right without looking if someone else is in their blind spot - a quick beep is often useful to let them know you're there but most of the time they still continue to merge without a care.

When it is time to turn left, nobody in the oncoming traffic will slow down for you, unless you're going faster. If you're standing at a red light, it's easier: you just leave a few seconds before your light turns green. If not, you kind of look for a hole in the traffic while slowly easing your way through. I've seen people just casually driving the opposite way of the traffic between two lanes, smoke in the mouth.

This seems to be the road hierarchy: the bigger you are, the most authority you command, because you are the most dangerous (today I saw a bus drive right into a 3-way intersection without ever slowing down) and then it's all about your speed.

In the morning, from 7 am to 9 am, it's rush hour. Cars on the left, motorbikes on the right, with taxis doing whatever the fuck they want and people in a rush weaving between everything. If in a pinch, just drive on the sidewalk... for a whole bloc. During the day it seems to quiet down, as most people are at work or at school and the rest are trying to avoid the sun. Then from 4 pm to 7 or sometimes 8 pm, the rush hour is back, and people are even more aggressive. Then it calms down a little bit, but there's still a lot of people on the road. Families are out for diner or just an outing, 2 to sometimes 5 on one motorbike. Babies are sleeping, held by the mother on the back seat. Young children are stuffed in a high-chair adapted to fit between the driver and the handles. Children strong enough to hold on their own are simply stuffed between the driver's knees and hang on to the handles. Older kids will usually be stuffed between the driver and the person on the back. Helmets seem optional for children - and anyways the ones the adults wear seem to be made out of cardboard, simply worn to avoid a ticket.

I live in a city of 8 million, where every hour of the day or night you can find a tiny restaurant, ran by 2-3 ladies, sometimes all of a different generation, busting out bowls of delicious noodle soup, their tiny booth set in the entrance of a small back alley where young couples and friends gulp down their food while joking. On the opposite side, 2 retired men are drinking iced tea, locked in duel over a board of Chinese chess. A couple is parked in the shade of a tree, sitting on their idle motorbike. The young man is talking on the phone, his beautiful girlfriend, dressed in a tight shirt and short shorts showing off her perfect figure, is delicately resting her chin on his shoulder. You can't see her face entirely because she's wearing a face mask to avoid inhaling too much gas and taking too much sun, but you can still admire her long, straight black hair and her innocent, smiling eyes.

I live in a city of 8 million, where according to a horrible facebook group of disgruntled ex-pats, savages still shit in the street, you can get attacked by armed gangs, the police are on the look-out for easily-targeted westerners and the moment you leave something unattended it gets stolen.

From what I've learned, the person that they've seen shit half-hidden behind a tree in the night is the lady selling you banh-mi - she lives on that small lawnchair set against the wall, this sidewalk is her life. Armed gangs are encountered in the same spot as every other big city in the world, and at the same hours of the night, so use your street smarts and avoid these areas. The police are on the look-out for people without helmets, people driving noticeably faster than the traffic flow, people driving on the side-walk or running a red light... you know, people breaking the rules.

And I dare you to leave your cellphone unattended in any place in the world.

I live in city of 8 million, home to some expats who went looking for a place where they didn't have to play by the rules, but when they get caught in the web, they get angry, they get surprised, they lash out at their hosts who have welcomed them with a smile and a glass of iced tea.

I live in a city of 8 million, where immigrants are not frowned upon because they are taking their jobs, but encouraged and helped, for they come to teach them new ways of thinking, new languages, and new experiences.

I live in a city of 8 million, a true concrete and ceramic jungle, where a moment of inattention in traffic can cost you a trip to the hospital, where a smile can get you a whole different service and where a thousand years of culture is inhabiting every aspect of life.

I love it.