One recent night, very late, I was walking through the city centre heading home when I came across an almost surreal sight.
Picture an empty intersection – no-one moving, not a single car or motorcycle (a rare event in itself in Saigon!). Empty but for two Vinasun Toyota taxi wagons locked in a late night kiss. It was eerily quiet and I felt like I’d walked onto a movie set. If I was in another continent, I’d have expected to see a tumbleweed rolling through the frame at any moment.
So here they were: two vehicles with mashed front quarters interlocked, neither having yielded to the other at the intersection, each calling the other’s bluff until it was too late for one to back down.
There was a small group of people standing in the shadows of an awning on one corner discussing the scene. I’m not sure if the two Vinasun drivers were amongst them: it’s possible they were unconscious. Not from the collision, which wasn’t really that serious, but from the punch-up locals tell me inevitably ensues when these highly competitive taxi drivers come to vehicular blows…
One could write a short book about taxis in Saigon. They have their good points and their bad.
On the bad side there are a lot of shark operators here, though their fleets are thankfully small compared to the good ones. These cowboys are probably the single biggest cause of tourist antagonism in the whole city – marginally ahead of complaints from those visitors who don’t understand that pedestrian crossings in Saigon have no common purpose with the identical looking ones back home…
On the good side taxis are incredibly cheap. Flagfall with the biggest operator – Vinasun – has just risen ‘sharply’ from 10,500 dong to 11,500. That’s 52 Australian cents in total. I forget the flagfall in New York, but in Sydney, the world’s seventh most expensive city in which to live, the standard rate is $3.50. That’s how much you pay just to climb in the cab. And the taxi operators are pleading to raise the prices further!
That said, to a Vietnamese person, taxis are expensive. Locals compare a 30,000 to 40,000 dong fare from my apartment in District 4 to downtown (five to 10 minutes depending on traffic) to a 4000 dong flat fare on an air conditioned bus, a ticket that takes you literally half way across the city. Again the conversion: A$1.36 to $1.81 verses 18 cents. No, that is not a typing error! 18 cents across town by bus! And they’re near-new air conditioned Hyundais (unlike half of Sydney’s 20-something year old rusting fleet).
But back to the late night kiss. The small group of witnesses and, one assumes, the two drivers, were waiting for the police to arrive. But the scene seemed so inevitable. It was an outcome I could not believe I had not seen earlier in my time here. Many times as a passenger in a taxi darting about the downtown District 1 I’ve marvelled at how taxis have missed other taxis. Or motorbikes. Or bicycles. Or pedestrians. Some drivers have respect for their passengers, other road users and the infinitely flexible road rules which apply here. But not all…
Others behave like reincarnated Kamikaze pilots determined to achieve their mission of getting their passenger from A to B with no regard for anyone else on the road or elsewhere.
In the most hair raising of many ‘moments’ in taxis here, one freshly qualified lunatic was in a race against another taxi approaching from the other direction, both turning into the same lane. Fair in the middle of said lane – on one of those strips of painted white lines – was a solitary pedestrian. Looking with rapidly widening eyes at these two taxi racers fighting for the patch of seal he was occupying.
In the end all three stopped. My taxi on the wrong side of the median strip blocking traffic coming in the opposite direction. The other taxi’s front bumper a bee’s-width from the pedestrian by now paralysed with fear. But the other taxi had won the right to be first in line for the lane when the whitened pedestrian cleared the way.
My taxi driver had not finished. He reversed back and raced off after the other taxi – which I recall was from the same company – tooting his horn and raising his fist then at the next intersection, then cutting him off while turning from Nguyen Hue onto Ton Duc Thang. More gesturing, tooting and general teenage-style aggression.
Soon our taxis took different paths, but my guy was by now well fired up. He cut off a motorcyclist he should have given way to on my right, whose handlebars nudged the taxi. He swore (I assume – I don’t know enough Vietnamese to be sure but his lips moved while he blasted his horn and struggled to stay upright.)
When we stopped at my apartment I nearly swore, but settled for a glare, well aware this guy had anger management issues and watches enough American movies to understand four letter words in English… He did not get a tip…
Of course not all taxi drivers are idiots like this. To drive a car in Ho Chi Minh you have to be a little aggressive otherwise you’d never get anywhere. But that does not mean you have to drive dangerously.
Another issue with taxis is their route knowledge. Ho Chi Minh is a large, spread out city and no-one expects every driver to know every street in every district. But that’s why God invented maps. And more recently the GPS.
Alas, taxis here come equipped with neither.
Every Vinasun Toyota wagon comes fitted with an LCD screen playing movie previews, advertisements, clips from a European ‘Candid Camera’ style show and other things to amuse passengers in the back. But not even the simplest of GPS device.
Last night I set off from home to a restaurant in District 6 to attend my cute niece’s first birthday party. I had the address on my iPhone in its very own Note page. The driver read it, nodded, smiled and off we went. (Thao was with me, so language was not a problem, this time). Eventually we get to D6 and pull over to the side of the road. So the driver can get out and ask directions, as the meter ran on.
He gets back in the car and Thao translates the good news: we’re just five minutes away.
Five minutes later we come to a stop. Not at the restaurant, but so the driver can again get out and ask directions… Turns out our destination was just around the corner.
Two nights earlier it took a consultation between three taxi drivers outside my apartment tower to work out how to get to a function venue hosting an Internations event, just outside D1 in D3. It was at the Ly Club on Nam Ky Khoi Nghia – one of the main routes from the airport to downtown. About three blocks from the popular Barbecue Garden restaurant. Hardly an obscure address.
So why did my driver then take me half way to the airport before eventually understanding my rapid gesturing urging him to do a U-turn and head back to the city. A trip that should have cost 50,000 dong had climbed to 136,000 on the meter. I handed him 100,000 to save an argument and he accepted, apologising as best he could.
One thing about Ho Chi Minh City… you learn not to take life too seriously.
For every lunatic taxi driver there is a pleasant, friendly one who tries to engage in conversation.
For every driver who can’t read a road map and fruitlessly tries to demonstrate navigational skills he lacks, there’s on who knows a shortcut I’d never have discovered (like the guy who circled Bitexco Tower this morning to get me right outside Saigon Centre without taking one congested main street).
As for the late night kiss: Bent and buckled taxis are everywhere around Ho Chi Minh City. But the good thing is, the roads are so congested that if I am ever a passenger in a taxi involved in such an accident, it’s unlikely I’ll be injured. Because even the lunatic racing his colleague wasn’t driving fast enough to cause any real damage – except to the hapless pedestrian of course…