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Around The Sun: 4 - Rules Of The Road In Asia

Steve Harrison, writing with gusto and bubbling humour, concludes his four-part guide to the roads, and their users, in Vietnam and Cambodia.


Police in Vietnam are totally different from the police in Cambodia and the two should never be mistaken for each other. I have driven many miles, sometimes drunk, sometimes exhausted, sometimes slightly out of control, I have run many red lights and stop signs, I once even did an illegal right turn at a traffic red light in front of four police cars, each one filled with policemen.

The police cars followed me, turned on their sirens, then when they got alongside me and realised I was white they smiled and waved at me, one after another.

The police in Vietnam speak little or no English and figure youíre a tourist and should therefore be given a wide birth. Any encounter would involve a lot of embarrassing silence and incomprehensible paperwork.

The Vietnamese police treat foreigners with indifference and generally avoid contact with them. Personally I hope the situation never changes.

In Cambodia the situation is the reverse. Those guys speak enough English to be able to say money. Thereís the regular police and also the military police. The regular police wear sand-coloured uniforms. If they see a white guy riding a motorcycle they try to stop him on some trumped up offence. They will radio ahead and organise and an ambush.

Regular police, even though they have large motorcycles, will never pursue you. Another white guy will be along shortly, perhaps with deeper pockets.

Military police in Cambodia though are very different. They look serious, and they are. They wear olive green uniforms, with military helmets and a black leather armbands that clearly say MP. These guys always carry AK47ís. If they signal you to stop, you should stop. If you donít stop they will fire and only occasionally do they miss.

Under all circumstances you should always carry small change in one pocket of your trousers and notes in the other pocket. Should any of the police grab you for an offence the amount you have to pay will be directly proportional to the amount of money you reveal that you have. If you ;roduce a US $100 bill, that will be the fine. If you are smart produce the equivalent of US $1 in local currency (four 1,000 riel notes). You will then be fined the equivalent of US $1, and you may be able to get that reduced to 3,000 riel.

They may keep you hanging around hoping you will get bored and produce more money, but eventually they will let you go. A smart friend of mine who lived in Cambodia several years and spoke the language always carried a novel in his back pocket. Any confrontation with the cops and he would sit down on the sidewalk, take out the novel and start reading from page one. The cops soon figured he could outlast them in the patience department and would shoo him away.

If you drive around in Cambodia during the day with your lights on you are breaking the law and liable to an on-the-spot fine. Only Royalty and dignitaries are allowed to drive around with lights on during the day.

To sum up, dealing with the cops in Vietnam is a non-event. In Cambodia it can be a little more challenging and confrontational. And remember always stop for the MPís.


What can you carry on a regular 110 cc step-through motorcycle?

Anything and everything.

Itís not unusual to see the husband driving; the eldest kid standing in front of him, knees up and elbows resting on the handlebars, behind him the second child, then his wife sitting directly behind, carrying their youngest child at her bosom. Thatís only five people. I once saw eight fairly grown up folk riding one motorbike, and it appeared to be something they did everyday, not as a one off for the Guinness book of world records.

While driving from Danang one day I was held up onnarrow roads by what I thought was a pick-up truck with the back doors wide open. There was a wardrobe, a double-seater sofa, a big television, a bed and assorted linen with pillows. To cap it off there were dozens of boxes about average suitcase size, all tied together with ropes, elastics, string and bits of wire.

The thing was wandering all over the road and I had to followed it for ages before I was able to pass. When I did pass I was in for quite a shock. It was a 50cc Honda motorcycle. The driver was crammed right up against the handlebars. Sitting behind him were two dozing grown-up female passengers. Their heads drooped to one side, one to the left, the other to the right, then they would jerk, and flip their heads to the other side, both in perfect unison. No wonder the driver was wandering all over the place.

Obviously they had travelled many miles and had a lot more ahead of them, complete with what appeared to be everything they possessed. How many metres do you think a vehicle like that would get if it were driving through Sydney or Manchester?

Motorcycles carry literally everything and are the main means of getting things to market. A hundred live ducks? No problem. Four live heavy-weight pigs in wicker baskets? Can be done. Even a full-grown cow.

One day in Saigon I saw a Honda 50 cc pulling several hundred pounds of ice on a cart. The bikeís back tyre was so flat it was running on the rim. When the rider tried to set off four people had to give him a shove to get him going.

Heaven knows what the driver would have done if had had come to a stop when there was no-one around to give him a shove. But Iím forgetting. Everything is in the hands of Buddha.

Motorcycles seem to be able to cope with everything that the human imagination, or lack of common sense, can throw at them. May the small motorcycle rule Vietnam for ever. Amen.


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