Monday, July 4, 2011

Why Vietnamese suck at driving, according to the World Health Organization

 So, at the start of my time here, I marveled at how few accidents there are, and how the traffic seems to work out pretty well, in spite of the sheer chaos of it all.  Well folks, research and experience has proven me wrong.  In fact, the World Health Organization noted that 36% of all deaths in Vietnam, between the ages of 15-29, are accidents.  And that is significant, as something like 80% of the country is under 30.  As a whole, 25% of all deaths here are accidents, in any age range.  For comparison, about 4% of all deaths in the US are accidents (including firearms deaths).  So basically, Vietnamese die like flies.  Imagine all the people you know who have died, and now imagine 1 out of 4 died through an accident.  Most of these are traffic accidents, with drowning followed second (Almost no Viets know how to swim, there are a lot of water bodies here, but most are too polluted or gross to swim in, and it floods all the time here).

Morning rush hour is crazy.  If you don't like the way we drive in Hanoi, stay off the sidewalks...For real.  Sidewalks, if they exist, and are not blocked with parked motorbikes or squatter cafes are a legitimate driving zone here, but with the parked bikes and "cafes", that's only about 5 meters on a hundred meter "sidewalk".    No one knows how to drive here, cars or motorbikes, but the car drivers and bus drivers, due to their sheer size, are the worst.  They are all first generation drivers, so people apply the same rules they do to walking or bicycling to driving a car or motorbike, like blowing red lights, driving on the sidewalk, driving in the wrong lane, and all sorts of madness.  An excerpt from UNICEF's website about traffic deaths in Vietnam sums it nicely (with parenthesis by me) :

- Limited awareness of road safety and its high death toll in Viet Nam  (there is no concerted government effort educate people about driving safety, at all, but plenty of propaganda about the glory of living in the Worker's Paradise, after all they have to have their priorities straight)

- Limited knowledge of traffic rules (the driving test here is this :  Can you drive a figure eight?  Yes?  You pass, that's all.  I'm not joking.  And that's if you actually go through the hassle to apply for a legal permit, as opposed to simply bribing the appropriate person to get a license.  I assume that's the most popular method with the rich car owners.  Although, many of the nouveau riche types in Hanoi can't drive, and instead, have their own drivers)

- Limited knowledge about safe driving behaviour (A very smart thing here is that people drive on whichever side of the road is most convenient at the time.  Head on collisions are the most common accident death here.  People will also pass someone, who is passing someone, who is passing someone, so essentially, the road goes from being a two lane to a single one-way in the course of two seconds.  Not to mention, cars rarely stay in a lane, they prefer to drive down the center stripe, in order to try and pass the motorbikes-even though they are immediately then passed once the whole road slows down because of people practicing the same behavior, but more on Asia's "Me First!" attitude later.  And last but not least, we have the Vietnamese "No Look Merge".  The proper way to merge into traffic here is just to barrel into traffic without actually looking at the traffic first, with the expectation that the people approaching will stop for you.  Sometimes they do, and sometimes that causes accidents, sometimes they don't, and the merger gets run over.)

- Fatalistic view about traffic accidents. Many people do not understand that these injuries are preventable. (This is also very Asian.  They believe strongly in Luck and Fortune.  If your baby got sick, you obviously did not burn enough spirit money to please the ancestors-it has nothing to do with the fact that no one washes their hands.  If you get sick, it's because the weather "changed" by 10 degrees, not because the meat you eat was kept on a hot sidewalk, inches from the sewage filled gutter, all day long.  Not making that one up either, most raw ingredients are sold on the street, and animals tend to be butchered on the street, or in the back yard rather than a proper slaughterhouse, but that's another article.  Anyway,  everything here is "lucky".  There is little sense that you can change your destiny, because in reality, you rarely can in such a stratified society where people die everyday due to "accidents".  Everything seems like an act of the gods, from your economic position to traffic accidents)

- Unsafe traffic environment and poor road infrastructure. For example, traffic warning signs are rare and no safe areas for pedestrians.  (You'll be driving down the road, and SURPRISE theres a gaping hole in the road, umarked by any signage.  You either notice it and don't die, or don't notice, and die/get injured.  And I'm not talking a "pot hole", I'm talking like open manhole covers, etc.  If you're lucky, someone has stuck a tree branch down there, so people will notice and avoid.  Oh, and also, street signs don't exist either.  Also, there are no sidewalks here, so you are forced to walk in the middle of the road as a pedestrian, competing with speeding buses, cars and motorbikes.)

- Use of motorcycle helmets is extremely low in spite of good quality, locally produced helmets.  (The reason for this is obvious for a Vietnamese.  A helmet will restrict growth of a child's brain and neck, and for adults, it will mess their hair up.  I'm not kidding, these are the actual quoted reasons why parents won't let their children wear helmets.  Because traumatic brain injury will only help a child's brain grow, i guess.  Although helmet use has improved here due to crack downs, most of the helmets would make NO difference in a crash, they are basically baseball helmets, ill-fitting with no padding.)

- Poor enforcement of traffic rules.  (Occasionally, I see people pulled over by the cops here, and i wonder, HOW BAD DO YOU HAVE TO DRIVE TO GET PULLED OVER!?  Seriously, do you have to be going the wrong direction, through a red light, weaving, with 7 people on the scooter, while talking on a cellphone  and not wearing a helmet?!)

And I'll just add in one last thing, the honking.  People honk their horns all the time here, it's just non-stop honking, all the time.  This isn't deadly, but it is annoying.  I'm not exaggerating this, wherever there are vehicles here, people are honking just as a way of driving.  Instead of turn signal, honk, instead of looking where you're driving, honk, in a traffic jam, honk, to pass someone, honk, while being passed by someone, honk, if someone in front of you is driving slower than you want them to, honk.   Especially the car drivers, who drive around just holding their hands on the horn, blaring so that all the motorbikes in front of them get out of their way, although the motorbikes outnumber the cars 100 to 1 and are almost always traveling faster because they are more maneuverable through the traffic here. 
But the person in the car is rich, and so, the inferiors on their bikes should move.  And they do, because it's a society of inferiors and superiors, masters and servants.  To illustrate this, ambulances here are completely pointless, as no one moves for them, or if they do, it's to chase ahead of them, or behind them, while if there is a government official, or a VIP in traffic, they get a motorcade with cops  on motorcycles using batons to beat anyone that does not move out of the way quick enough so they can whip through town. Seriously.  It will be an amazing testament to my self control if I make it through two years here without pulling a driver out of his car and curb-stomping him, for holding his horn down as he drives behind me.  I just hope it's not a VIP.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Back Alley Slaughterhouses and Bear Paw Booze

So, I've decided to create a blog for more short posts, just general, every day weird stuff I see over in the Wild Wild East.  I'm aided in this by one of the world's most entertaining newspapers, the Vietnam News.  This is the official English newspaper of Vietnam.   EVERYTHING here goes through the censors first, website, newspapers, magazines (if it's an international magazine, and it has something unpleasant about the Worker's Paradise, they will simply have someone black out the text with a sharpie, FOR EVERY SINGLE MAGAZINE THAT ENTERS THE COUNTRY!  Seriously, that is a whole department of the government here, guys with Sharpies who cross stuff out of foreign magazines), and art too.  All the art galleries must have their exhibits pass the censor's muster before they are allowed to hang anything. 

Anyway, the Vietnam news is great.  Even with the censor's heavy hand, they have some of the most bizarre stories around.   Most of the news is good (they, like media outlets all over the world, are great at lying by omission, they don't make up stories, they just don't tell you the WHOLE story).  But also there are these other true articles which mention horrific things happening here.  Like the percentage of food found to have e.coli bacteria on it (30%!!!) here.  So, without further ado, here are some great headlines from the Vietnam News!

"Shoppers happy to pay for clean meat. July 6 2011"
"Dinh Tu Cau, who resides on Tran Duy Hung Street, decided she had seen enough slaughtered pigs as "pillion passengers" on motorbikes and even dragged along the street without any protection....It's impossible to buy hygienically slaughtered meat in markets, which is the most popular place to shop for food. It can only be found at a small number of supermarkets or food chains scattered around town...Ha Noi's five qualified slaughtering centres can currently only meet about 1 per cent of demand for pork and about 7 per cent for poultry...."
--So, yeah.  You wonder why I get sick all the time?  Even when I eat at western-style restaurants?  That's the reason.  If I had a nickel for every street butcher's wares displayed on the sidewalk, inches from the sewage filled gutter, which in turn, is inches from the motorbike filled, exhaust choked streets, I'd be a rich, bacteria-filled, man.

--Speaking of meat, here's some more disturbing news I have first-hand experience in.  Keep in mind, most of these animals are endangered.
"Wildlife consumption rampant in HCM City May 25, '11"
"Well educated, middle-aged people and public employees tend to consume wild animal products more frequently than their less educated brethren as well as people of other age groups, a survey has found.  Nearly 51 per cent of 4,062 local residents polled said they have used wild animal products, consuming them as food, drink and health supplements, or using them for ornamental purposes.  Wild animal health products such as bear bile and tiger bone gelatine were taken by 7.5 per cent of people, while 1.5 per cent had used fashion and ornamental products made from wild animals.  Nearly 3 per cent have kept them as pets.  Snakes, wild boars, stags, deer, wild chicken, spot-billed duck, lesser coucal, porcupine, bear, civet, weasel, fresh water turtle, python, and monitor lizard are among wild animal species that are most widely consumed.... The consumption of wild animal products is also related to social pressure, curiosity and emerging habits and tastes.  Others said they brought business partners as a prestige symbol."
--Yeah, that's the way to impress people here in Asia.  The more endangered the better!  And by the way, a lot of this stuff is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine.  I bet they don't teach that at the yoga center TCM classes in Portland.  I got to experience a little Taste Of Endangered when my new landlord, a real nice old Vietnamese grandpa who speaks no English, invited me and my friend in for a drink as I was moving in.  He comes in waving a severed bear paw (Asian black bear, endangered due to the magical TCM properties of their stomach bile) which had been soaking in a jug of rice liquor.  He puts two large teacups full of the stuff in front of us, waves the severed paw (tendons and all) at us, and with the little VNese I understand, I gather him saying that "It makes you strong, good for the man!"  Well, I wasn't too excited about this, but to refuse his hospitality, especially on the day I am moving in, I thought would be rude of me.  So, we drank the teacup of Bear Paw Booze (with little bits of hair and bear parts floating around, yum).

It wasn't horrible tasting, but a double shot of it was more than enough.  Immediately after finishing it, he refilled out cups.  Ugh.  My buddy gave me "please, help me" look, and I felt obliged, since he was helping me move, so when my landlord wasn't looking, I gulped down my teacup (by this point the 'uniqueness' of the taste had worn off, and it was now plain vile), and quickly dumped his into mine.  As for the "makes you strong like bear" part of it, not so much.  I still had 3 trips up 4 flights of stairs, and was ready to puke by the second trip.  A few days later, my landlord kindly gave me a bottle fillled with the stuff (minus any large bear parts), wishing me much good fortune in the new house.  Being a good traveler can be hard on the stomach.  That was the second most disgusting thing I have consumed in Asia so far (the first was raw duck blood and guts soup).