Thursday, July 28, 2005

Have Horn, Will Travel

Vietnam is a very crowded country. You only have to look at its roads for proof: they are swarming with mopeds and bicycles flitting in between lumbering buses and lorries. Traffic rules and regulations theoretically exist (someone assured me that one has to pass a driving test in order to drive, but I don't believe him) but are never followed, with people driving wherever they can find space on the road. And although they don't seem to follow any traffic laws there is an intricate series of hand gestures used by drivers to warn their comrades as to the whereabouts of any traffic police. But the defining aspect of Vietnam's vehicular culture is the importance of the horn. Ostensibly it is used by vehicles to warn others that they plan to overtake, and that they should move away from the middle of the lane that they are hogging like spoilt children unless they want to get run over. Please. Now. However, it seems that blaring horns are now used to mean anything from "look at my lovely, new car" to "where are the brakes on this thing?". I'm sure that there are even people who have their horns wired up so that they are continually sounding. Indeed, there's apparently a saying here that even the blind can drive, all they have to do is follow the sound of the horns. All this motorised madness means that just crossing the street here can be a daunting prospect for the uninitiated, but worry not, there is a secret. All you have to do is look straight ahead and walk calmly and purposefully, without ever changing pace, across the road. The oncoming traffic will part and twist like a fast-flowing river to accommodate you. If the sight of motorbikes missing you by inches is still too scary then wearing a blindfold helps!

Now, I wasn't going to let myself be outdone by any blind man so, whilst in the northern town of Ninh Binh, I hired myself a scooter and set off. Although the town itself is a bit of a dump, the plains to the south hold one of the most beautiful areas of natural scenery that I have ever seen. The cliffs and caves of Tam Coc look as if some mischievous, wandering god dropped these giant, sharp, limestone cliffs right in the middle of somebody's paddy fields. Adding to the magic of the place is the way in which you visit the area: peacefully gliding along in a rowboat, which many of the women who man them still row in the traditional fashion, using their feet.

Getting out and about on a scooter allows you to see much more of the countryside than is normally possible when one is subscribed to taking the bus along the main roads. By taking the small backroads you see the small, typical, dusty towns and the women, bent over, working in the paddy fields, only their conical hats visible. The area around Ninh Binh also seems to be one of the main centres for Christians in Vietnam (Vietnam has the second highest Christian population in Southeast Asia, roughly 10%, after the Philippines, a fact that was used by the French as an excuse when they originally invaded in the 19th century), and so one sees many churches about, mainly in a neo-gothic style. Very run of the mill on might say, and I would agree, if it wasn't for Phat Diem. This church looks like a Chinese palace and so seeing JC and Mary along with various Latin phrases dotted around makes it all the more interesting.

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