Sunday, 4 October 2009

The Amazing Race 15, Episode 2

Cai Be (Vietnam) - My Tho (Vietnam) - Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam)

Once again this week The Amazing Race managed to come up with tasks that were genuinely characteristic of the places the racers were visiting on their trip around the world, in this case Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. One task required the racers to learn a skill that local people take for granted, but that new visitors find unexpectedly difficult: crossing the street. The other major task was one that tourists don’t usually have to tackle, but that provides an eye-opening lesson: breaking down discarded electronic devices for recycling.

Crossing the street

Think you know how to cross the street, the way your mother taught you? If you’re used to streets where most of the traffic consists of four-wheeled and larger vehicles, which stops intermittently on signal to allow pedestrians to cross at intersections, think again. At first glance, it’s less than obvious what to do in a place like Vietnam where:

  • Almost all the of the vehicles are two-wheeled (or occasionally three-wheeled rickshaws), mostly motorbikes and bicycles in a mix varying depending on the wealth of the city or town (overwhelmingly motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi, but with a higher proportion of bicycles in poorer areas in the provinces); and
  • The traffic is essentially continuous, with traffic circles at many intersections, few marked crosswalks, and limited observance of traffic signals.

Basically, imagine a city with three or four million Boston drivers (or worse) on highly maneuverable motorized dirt bikes that can, and do, drive everywhere including on the sidewalks. How do you cross a street with traffic like this?

It helps to be a Bostonian, of course. I remember how amazed I was, at age 20-something,when I realized while travelling in Seattle that there are places where “jaywalking” is a crime, not just a descriptive term for “crossing the street in mid-block”. But there’s more to it than this. The key realization is that you have to cross through the flow of two-wheeled traffic, rather than waiting for a break in traffic. And since on most Vietnamese city streets there is never a “break” long enough to get entirely across the street, it’s pointless to wait for such a gap, and counterproductive and dangerous to hurry across the road.

Unlike wide four-wheeled vehicles, which are trapped in lanes and can’t avoid a pedestrian in the middle of their path, individual two-wheelers are narrow and have enough horizontal maneuvering room, even in densely packed traffic, to enable them to go around an obstacle the size of a person in the road, if they see the person ahead and can anticipate where they will be. So the key steps in crossing the street in Vietnam are:

  1. Before you step off the curb, make eye contact with the next approaching (motor)cyclist closest to the edge of the road, and make sure s/he sees you and has room to avoid you.
  2. Once you are out in the river of traffic, keep moving at a steady pace so that approaching drivers can predict your position and steer around you. No matter how frightening you find it to have motorcycles whizzing past simultaneously inches in front of you and behind you, resist any temptation to change speed suddenly. Either bolting forward or stopping short is almost certain to get you run down.

Easier said than done, especially at first, and the racers were given no clue about how to cross the street (or even that it would be difficult or required a different technique than back home in the USA) when they were assigned a task that required maneuvering cargo on carts along a route that crossed a busy street. Some of them were shown holding up traffic on the entire street for their partners. More or less the equivalent in L.A. terms of stopping traffic in all lanes of Wilshire Boulevard rather than waiting for a pedestrian signal. They are lucky that in general Vietnamese people are so generous and tolerant towards foreign guests.


The combination of material poverty (a legacy of French colonialism and the American War) and near-universal literacy (a legacy of Communism and, sadly, declining along with it) and a more educated mass workforce than many other countries makes Vietnam one of the world capitals of recycling. Everything no longer wanted is re-sold or collected for re-use, even “night soil”. As I wrote in The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World ,

Northerners may have something to teach Southerners about technology, but we also have a great deal to learn. The world’s most skilled mechanics aren’t the Northerners who can afford to throw something away and buy another if it’s “too much trouble” to repair it. Southerners are — by necessity — the world champions of ingenuity, improvisation, repair, rebuilding, scrounging, adapting, and making-do. These are all alternative names for recycling. Forced to make a long journey in an unreliable, randomly chosen old vehicle, with few tools or spare parts, I would unhesitatingly choose a team of Vietnamese or other Third or Fourth World mechanics as most likely to get me where I wanted to go.

But eventually some things can no longer be repaired or re-used for their original purpose. Then its time to .. did I hear you say, “Throw them away”? Are you crazy? Who could afford to do that? (Answer: People in the USA, not in Vietnam.) It’s time to take or send them to someone who can recover as many valuable materials as possible from them for re-use in making other new things. And where is this place, “away”, of which you speak? Often, the world’s “away”, where it sends its refuse, is a place like Vietnam, especially when breakdown and recovery of component materials is labor-intensive and/or dangerous.

Ships, for example, are run aground on beaches in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India where men with handheld cutting torches reduce them to pieces small enough to be carried by gangs of laborers and trucked to smelters where they are melted down for new steel, like an army of ants nibbling on the body of a beached whale, while a secondary army of scavengers picks over their fittings and components.

Televisions, computer computer, and other CRT’s — perhaps a hundred million of them a year, at the current peak of the transition to flat-panel displays — are sent to China and, yes, Vietnam, where the tubes are smashed open to remove the wire coils and other components (and incidentally but inevitably, release the mercury, lead, and other poisons within the tubes) before the glass and other components are smelted for re-use.

The racers were given a slightly different (and much less toxic) task, breaking apart irreparably damaged or defective VCR’s to separate the plastic, ferrous metal, copper, circuit boards, etc. for reprocessing.

The real difficulty, of course, isn’t in smashing a few old VCR’s — most of the racers seem to find a bit of atavistic pleasure in it — but in imagining what it’s like to that job all day, every day, for a working lifetime. At times like these, I’m reminded that my greatest privilege as one of the the world’s economic and political elite, a citizen of the USA, isn’t just that I get to travel. It’s that I get to come home to a place so far removed from these consequences of my lifestyle.cgi=product

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 4 October 2009, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

This is a great time lapse video of Hanoi traffic

Posted by: David Derrick, 8 October 2009, 09:44 ( 9:44 AM)
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