« The Importance Of Friends | Main | 6 - A Strange Place Like London »

Around The Sun: 2 - Rules Of The Road In Asia

Driving and crossing the road in Vietnam require nerves of steel and a sharp awareness of the odds, as Steve Harrison reveals in the second of his seriously humorous article about the rules of the road in the East.


Traffic lights are springing up everywere these days. Green means definitely go (it’s universal). I purposely didn’t say green means it’s safe to go.

If you see an orange then you were too slow to go from a standing start or not going fast enough through the intersection. Red means stop but only if there are police about.

The police, as everyone knows, have a siesta between 11 am and 2 pm, so during these times traffic lights should be totally ignored or regarded as pretty light shows.

Different rules apply to leg-powered vehicles. All cyclists should ignore stopping at traffic lights. Most bikes have no brakes anyway. Anyone moving anything by cyclo - large pieces of furniture, tons of melting ice, 200 ducks tied together by their feet bound for market, three overweight live pigs in baskets, or sheets of tin 15 metres long (never underestimate what can be transported on a 100cc motorcycle) - all these never stop for any reason at all. If you stop how do you get started again?

So the green for go needs to be approached cautiously if you don’t want to get decapitated by colliding with a sheet of steel on the move, or end up sitting in a collective puddle of quacking ducks.

Roundabouts are also springing up like mushrooms. Actually they are just a way of keeping road construction workers busy and spending government money. It is a general free for all as to who has right of way and whether you go around them clockwise or anticlockwise is completely up to the individual depending upon whether you wish to turn right or left.

We mentioned road rule number one was to stay alive. Road rule number two is to remember that the biggest vehicle and the one with the loudest horn always takes precedence. Remember this at roundabouts!

White lines in the centre of roads are also on the increase - dotted white lines, unbroken white lines, directional arrows. These mean absolutely nothing the western mind can relate to. They are probably there because someone saw them in an foreign movie and thought they improved the look of the road. Most road signs originate from movies.

The only purpose the white lines seem to serve is to enable oncoming vehicles to target you in their sights. Remember, the biggest and noisiest vehicles rule the road. Truck and bus drivers seem to use the white lines to see who is in their line of fire, and who needs a good blasting from their air horns. “Get out of my way! I own the middle of the road!’’

Arrows showing the direction traffic should flow should also be disregarded. The traffic will flow, even on a dual carriageway, in the direction which gets drivers to their destination quicker, wrong side of the road or whatever. The essence is to get there faster and use less fuel.

Zebra Crossings, or“Walkways to our American friends, are just pretty decorations on the tarmac. Never, ever, not for as much as a second, think it is safe to cross at one of these. Truck and bus drivers seem to think the black and white stripes can be improved by adding a little red colouring.


In the last 10 years there has been a huge increase in the number of motorcycles in Vietnam. Where once there were only slow moving bicycles now there are non-stop streams of commuters on 110cc Honda Waves, Yamahas, Suzukis or cheap copies of these made in China.

So how do you cross a busy road? The answer to that question is dead easy (and there’s a pun), First and foremost, avoid anything that looks like a zebra crossing, say a little prayer to Buddha and just step off the curb and walk without looking.

The well-accepted theory and universal practice is to walk at exactly the same pace and speed as you would on the sidewalk or pavement, just step out straight into the road, no matter how busy or congested. Don’t pause, hesitate, speed up and certainly don’t run. Drivers will see you, anticipate where you will be when they arrive at a certain spot and move to avoid contact with you.

The trick is not to look at them. If you haven’t seen them but they have seen you, it is their responsibility to avoid you. Conversely, if you peep and see them, then the responsibility shifts to you and you must avoid them.

This practice works fine 95% of the time. In the other 5% the rules change. This 5% usually involves the drivers of large trucks and buses, though some taxi drivers sometimes seem to have the same blind spot in regard to pedestrians. Crossing the road in these cases requires nerves of steel, and 19 out of 20 pedestrians make it safely to the other side.

In the event of being”collected’’ by a speeding truck, bus or taxi, just remember that this was all in the hands of Buddha, and you should have been more reverend and respectful to your deceased ancestors.

On my first visit with my wife to Saigon we stepped out in the middle of rush hour traffic in one of the busiest streets in the city. A guy some ten paces ahead of us was almost in the centre of the road when a motorcycle hit him. He was spun around. The bike wobbled a bit, then disappeared. The unfortunate pedestrian managed to stagger to his feet, continuing his journey with a severe limp.

My wife and I glanced knowingly at each other, then proeeded with confidence. The road had claimed her allotted percentage. We would be among the 19 who made it across safely.

By the way, do not follow the above rules in Cambodia. They drive SUVs there and seem to love to run down pedestrians. But more about Cambodia later…


Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.