While I cannot confirm whether Laos is in fact the ‘Land of a Million Elephants’ (as we, in fact, saw only two), undoubtedly Vietnam is the Land of a million (and the rest) motorbikes. The quantity of motorbikes on the road at any one time is outstanding: it is by far and away the most popular form of transport.
This presents a bit of a challenge when crossing roads. Unless there are traffic lights (which are relatively few and far between) and unless these traffic lights are ones which people have decided to obey (an even rarer phenomenon), the traffic never really stops moving. True it slows but it won’t stop unless it really has to. Therefore being faced with what looks like a ceaseless wall of oncoming traffic is all rather daunting to say the least if you are the proverbial chicken trying to cross the road (for whatever reason). Especially if it is a wide road comprising of several lanes of traffic.
So what do you do? Actually what you don’t do is start and then stop: once you’ve committed to going, the most important thing is to keep going at a consistent and steady pace with no sharp movements (e.g. changes of direction or pauses) and you will probably be ok as everyone will anticipate what you are doing and swerve around you as necessary. The hardest bit is stepping off the pavement into a wall of traffic but once you are on the road, just keep going. And don’t run either, just keep your cool. And of course, don’t forget to look both ways as there is usually someone cutting a corner somewhere which means he or she is driving the wrong way down the carriage-way.
We’ve seen this sort of driving a lot in Asia, in particular how one road user is required to anticipate what the next is likely to do and make appropriate adjustments. For example when motorbikes come out from side roads or building entrances, they don’t seem to check first that the road is clear but instead just shoot out and expect any traffic on the road to move if required. This of course is opposite to our standard approach in the UK and I found this a bit challenging when we were on push bikes ourselves. Sometimes we were a little surprised by a motorbike suddenly shooting out just in front of us requiring us to move over and make room regardless of what might be coming up behind us.
And as for crossroads (where there could be up to 6 roads crossing not just 4), given that there are no road markings, the question of who had priority seemed to be entirely up for grabs. The answer probably is that no one has priority and you just have to hold the faith and go for it (especially if you need to make a turn across the traffic) and just hope that everyone is watching and that their anticipatory radar are all working properly! Again the trick seems to be just to keep moving at a consistent pace.
And don’t be fooled into thinking that the pavements are safe and traffic free: far from it. When pavements aren’t being used as an extra lane for the traffic, they are used as parking areas for motor bikes and this is evidenced by the fact that almost all of them have sloping edges allowing bikes to zoom up them without having to slow that much and pedestrians just have to remain wary. You also quite often see motor bikes taking a sharp turn off the road up onto the pavement and right up to some sort of stall with which they transact with the driver of course remaining seated on his bike throughout the process. I am sure if the aisles were wide enough, they would happily drive right into mini marts and complete their shopping without dismounting.
And the obsession with motorbikes has spilled over into cultural references as well. When we visited My Son, our guide pointed out the statue of Nandi (which is always found outside of temples dedicated to Shiva), referring to Nandi being Shiva’s faithful motorbike (traditionally, Nandi is referred to as Shiva’s faithful mount). It seemed very appropriate though in Vietnam.