I moved to greener pastures. And by greener, I mean most of the buildings here blend with the sun that is engulfing the streets and masked motorbikers. Everything here is yellow and a warm kind of grey. I moved to Saigon and now I am turning a darker shade of beige, too.
Everyone will tell you that driving here is easier. “Hanoi is so aggressive,” they say, “it’s much better here.”
I call bullshit, and my proof is the left turn.
I’ve made lots of left turns on lots of different bikes on lots of different roads in (now) two cities. Left turns here are perilous, flying past you and moving in slow motion at the very same time – like in one of those coming-of-age Sundance movies, standing still while everything around you moves in double time.
Most days, I sit motionless in the road, watching motorists buzz past avoiding eye contact – because eye contact signals a willingness to stop, something nobody has any time for. Most days, I nudge forward while everybody else misses me by two inches.
There is a major road near me, Hai Ba Trung, that I spend about twenty minutes a day navigating. As a learned once in a trivia match among other disinterested expatriates, Hai Ba Trung is named after a female. This is ironic – this road has a definitively masculine aggressiveness. It is vast, and on one road you watch the city change from foreigner-friendly to a traffic jam of warring cultures to a heaving, sweaty Vietnamese marketplace and back again.
My turn is an insignificant one – a little road whose name I can’t even pronounce in my head that runs at a slanted parellel. There is no light or signal, and turning is a run-at-your-own-risk venture into the oblivion of an oncoming stampede. To descend into it is to take in gulps of exhaust fumes and squint your eyes in the settling of pollution. You must not hesitate. To turn is to go boldly or to not go at all, and so you click into first gear, shoes already toeing the foot brake, and take shallow breaths.
After finding another, more experienced, driver to hide behind as a buffer, you slide forward. Immediately the river parts, and the orchestra of rattling exhaust pipes close behind you.
You are in the thick of it now, and if you stop inching forward, you have already lost. Foot planted firmly on the brake but never coming to a complete stop, your other foot taps along the asphalt, holding your balance. A few more motorbikes skim behind you, and now the rattling is gathering behind you, urging you forward.
If you make the mistake of jutting forward too confidently, an old man on an antique Honda will squeal and swerve, swiping your back tire. If you hesitate too long, a woman completely covered in a face mask and elbow-length gloves will throw abuse at your with her horn. There is a finesse – and a skill – in finding the right speed. If you do, you wade through the river as it parts naturally around you, like a stream.
If you don’t, the roaring rapids pound at you while you struggle against the current.
Vietnamese drivers are like boy scouts. All of them have had so much practice crossing these rivers that they do it without much thought at all, sometimes without even bothering to look. With some practice you begin to get it, too, and when you finally manage it without ever putting a foot down, you want to stop the bike immediately after and give someone nearby a high-five.
When you miss it, you shake your head at yourself and wonder when you’ll ever get the hang of it.
Even after nine months of driving here, I still hate left turns, and I feel as if each one is my first.