Friday, November 2, 2012

Man on a wire

It's hardly a conventional selling-point, but one of the great pluses of a road trip in northern Viet Nam has to be the entertainment value of the traffic and sundry maintenance that goes on along what is laughably termed the main road. Here, for example, is a lineman engaged on some cable-related task with I'm hoping some sort of harness attached, though I wouldn't necessarily bet on it. He was hanging above a two-lane carriageway supporting at least four lanes of assorted vehicles as we headed north out of Hanoi for our upcountry hike and chunder (as it turned out) - and, when we returned three nights later, lo! There he was again; or still, even. But at least he wasn't a smear on the tarmac.

And then there are the fantastic loads carried on motorbikes. In a country of 85 million, there are, our guide Duke estimated, about 21 million motorbikes and scooters (many Vespas, I fondly noted) which are the sole vehicle for the huge majority of families. So when something has to be transported, it's lashed onto the back of the bike with straps and string and what must be some pretty serious knots, as well as plenty of ingenuity and lateral thinking, and then away he goes, puttering along dwarfed by the load, often perched uncomfortably on the petrol tank, and somehow - though, as we saw, not always - without coming a cropper in the crush of free-form traffic swirling around an obstacle course of treacherous potholes.

The constant hooting and tooting that goes on is entirely non-aggressive, being more a shorthand for 'I'm here' or 'May I pass?', and we didn't see a single episode of road rage in all the hundreds of kilometres we travelled, despite the outrageously idiosyncratic manoeuvres that frequently occurred (overtaking on the wrong side, even driving the wrong way, that sort of thing). It's made driving back here in Auckland seem a Zen-like experience: so quiet and calm, so detached from other people, so orderly. And that's something I never thought I'd say.

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