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October 14th 2018 print

Alistair Pope

Tragedy and Grief in Vung Tau

Traffic in Vietnam is 'organised chaos'. Double white lines are ignored, traffic lights turning red are regarded as suggestions rather edicts, and the reminders of the carnage can be harrowing. I think in particular of a dead little girl and the roadside memorial that chills me every time I ride past

viet motorbike IIMy guess is that she was a late baby, judging by the father’s greying hair, gaunt looks and the dark skin and rough hands of someone used to hard outdoors work. I have never seen the mother. I still see him on irregular occasions about once a week, always at the same place, doing the same things he does every week.

Traffic in Vietnam is “organised chaos”. Double white lines are ignored, traffic lights turning red are just the first step in negotiations for cars and bikes to start or stop crossing junctions. I have a motor scooter, so at first it disturbed me to find almost as many bikes and cars coming at me on my side of the road as travelling on the correct side of a busy road. The one rule that supersedes all others is that the person behind is responsible for not running into the person in front, no matter how insane, erratic or unusual is their non-signalling, lane-changing, stopping or accelerating behaviour.

This essay appears in October’s Quadrant.
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Roundabouts are my favourite traffic sport. The rule is that you pick a speed and a line of attack and then weave, swerve and dodge everyone else as you traverse the crowded road. Somehow it all works and I have witnessed only one roundabout accident, and that was caused by a girl who misjudged a gap and stopped, causing a chain-reaction pile-up of five or six scooters.

I have also had two minor accidents. The first happened when I was passing a parked truck and a plumber walked out from behind carrying a length of pipe with about a metre and a half sticking out in front of him. It took a chunk out of my leg as I passed. He was profusely apologetic, so I let him live. Anyway, I knew the copious amount of blood I had shed would impress Maria …

The second accident was in the tunnel entering the carpark into my condominium. I was T-boned by an old woman going out as she was texting rather than watching where she was going. Try not to dwell too long on the thought of riding a scooter in chaotic traffic while texting, as it can cause migraines.

Anyway, I hit the ground, did a perfect para­trooper roll and was unharmed, except for an unimpressive bruise on my hip. The bike suffered some scratches and a broken logo. She proffered Ð200,000 and an abject apology if I did not report it. I looked at the bike and thought that the repairs in Australia would be somewhere between $150 and $200. I accepted, as I was still basking in my ability to immediately react to the unexpected and do a perfect paratrooper roll after all these years.

I was going to pocket the money and not worry about repairs, as I expect to be run over, knocked off and otherwise damage the scooter on many future occasions so minor scratch repairs would appear to be a luxury. Maria disagreed, and took the bike in for repair. A new logo, all scratches removed, the bike washed and polished all for Ð160,000—so I made a profit! For the record, the Ð40,000 I made equates to $2.60. But a profit is a profit, though I do not intend to try and make a living by repeating such accidents.

Sometime between February and June 2017 there was probably a fatal traffic accident on the bend in the road near the lighthouse I pass every day on my way into Vung Tau for a coffee, lunch or shopping. I know very little about this particular fatality (though I have since seen the wreckage or results of three other accidents on the same blind corner). When we returned to Vung Tau in June 2017 I soon noticed the gaunt man tying ribbons, coloured tape and little toys to two poles he had erected on the side of the road. One day my attention was heightened by the appearance of a tiny, furry koala taped to a lane-divider post in the middle of the road. There are twenty of these heavy-duty plastic posts, but at least ten are knocked over each month as they are a nuisance to drivers crossing the double white lines to overtake on this blind corner. Judging by the toys, dolls and bright colours, my guess is that his little girl, about two years old, was killed crossing the road on this corner.

Every week he returns to replace the toys that have been taken by unthinking passers-by, tourists and the ghoulish, as it does not take much intelligence to work out what this memorial is about. At one point he erected a small Buddhist shrine, but that was going too far and the local council quickly removed it. He has upgraded the ribbons and coloured tape, added some bottles and bells, and still places new toys on the poles every week. Perhaps he thinks, or hopes, that it is the ghost of his child who comes in the night and takes them? He has answered one of life’s great questions about death, as I note that the toys have not changed to suit an older child with the passage of time: time has stood still for this toddler.

It will be some time before I return to Vung Tau, by which time I hope he will have got over the worst of his grief and moved on. There has to be a time limit …

I have a selfish reason for this wish. Witnessing his ongoing anguish at his heartfelt loss every week is traumatising me.

Alistair Pope wrote on British spies in Lenin’s Russia in the June issue.