Tootle Him With Vigor

Posted on March 14, 2010 by


(An old piece I ran on my other blog.)

Jan. 5, 2005

Near-death Experiences on the Roads in Vietnam

“I know you won’t break the rules; there aren’t any.”
– Dr. Dealgood, ‘Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome

If you ever need a sharp reminder of your own mortality, take a quick jaunt on Vietnam’s roads. And if you don’t invoke the name of a deity at least once, I’d be very surprised.

There are 3 factors involved in driving in Vietnam:

1. Maximum speed.
2. Use as much of the road as is deemed necessary.
3. Sound the horn at every available opportunity.

The third one, for me, was one reason for me thinking that this is the noisiest and most intense country anywhere.

My favourite example of mangled English comes from a dodgily translated brochure for a car rental company in Japan.

“When passenger of foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage then tootle him with vigor.”

This is something the Vietnamese drivers have taken to heart. It’s considered very courteous driving practice to indicate your presence to all & sundry (I doubt this includes neighbouring countries, despite common opinion). This is done by “tootling with vigor” as you approach someone. Hence, even the smallest of towns can end up sounding like downtown Manhattan. The ubiquitous Honda Dream motor scooters aren’t too bad, but with a thousand of them it can be a bit daunting. They, at least, have a relatively subtle “beep beep” horn. Some of the larger trucks & buses sound as if they have the entire brass & woodwind section of the London Philharmonic Orchestra installed behind the grille.

My first night in Vietnam was spent sleeplessly in the town of Dong Ha, where the north-south running National Highway One intersects with Route 9 to the Laos border. Dong Ha seems to be the major venue for World Championship Vigorous Tootling contests, which start at about 5am and seem to abate at roughly 10:30pm. And it’s the same everywhere in Vietnam.

The tootling can get very vigorous indeed when overtaking occurs. Watching vehicles overtake in Vietnam is a very fun & exciting spectator sport, provided that you are at a respectable & safe distance. For this purpose, I recommend Mars.

If you’re unfortunate enough to actually be in one of the vehicles involved in such lunacy, this is when things start to get rather religious. especially if the overtaking is being done on a blind curve going up a steep mountain road while it’s raining. And it will be. Has been, even. The overtaking vehicle sounds it’s horn constantly while passing, and any oncoming traffic in the other lane will pull off the road as far as possible without any actual reduction in speed. Unless the oncoming vehicle is bigger than you, in which case your driver will jump on the brakes and duck back behind the vehicle he’s trying to overtake. This will be done at the last possible nanosecond, giving you ample time to count the number of bugs on the windshield of the truck you nearly had a head-on with.

And the truly frightening thing? They say it’s safer than flying with Vietnam Airlines…

Posted in: Travel, Writing