I recently returned from a month in the Philippines and Vietnam, and one of the highlights of the trip was learning how to drive competently in such alien conditions. For example, I spent a lot of time in General Santos, a city of about 500,000 on the island of Mindanao. GenSan has only one traffic light, and it doesn’t work, anyway. The roads are packed with bicycles, tricycles, motorbikes, “cyclos”, cars, and trucks, and the widely varying speeds mean that you are passing somebody, or being passed, every few seconds. And of course, there are people, dogs, kids, pigs, and buffalo wandering onto the road at random. You have to drive with one hand on the wheel and one on the horn, as the horn is used to warn pedestrians and slow traffic that you are about to hit them if they don’t move over. The concept of traffic lanes is a very fluid one, but at least the slower traffic tends to stay to the right. I also did a lot of motorcycle riding on dirt roads in the country.

In Vietnam, you cannot yet rent a car, which would probably be a very bad idea, anyway. But you can rent a motor-scooter if you are brave. The traffic, especially in Saigon, is incredible. What used to be a human flood of bicycles is now the same, but faster, on scooters. If you go too slow, you die. If you are hesitant and unpredictable, you die. If you don’t react quickly when cars and trucks try to squeeze you out of the way, you die. For me, driving in Vietnam was exhilarating, but for my partner riding on the back it was terrifying. Crossing the street on foot is also a mind-expanding experience. Since there are few traffic lights, and no crosswalks, there is only one way to do it. You have to just step out into the middle of the flowing traffic and trust that you won’t be hit. Just keep walking slowly and predictably, and amazingly the traffic flows around you. It reminds me of smoke flowing around a wing being tested in a wind tunnel. I did see some accidents, though. Usually they were motorcycle riders, and since helmets are rarely used, accidents can be traumatic. I don’t know if the lack of traffic lights, laws, and cops makes people better drivers. Maybe it is just survival of the fittest. It is a fun adventure, but I must admit that modern traffic engineering leads to faster, and probably safer, travel.


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