Traffic signals are odd in this country. At intersections, green lights appear simultaneously on both sides of the road, and once the green is on, vehicles scramble to drive in multiple directions at the same time, often getting stuck in the middle.
To give you a quick example, consider the intersection of Cach Mang Thang Tam and Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Streets. Vehicles going down Nguyen Thi Minh Khai toward Nguyen Van Cu and those heading in the opposite direction both get the green light at the same time. The result is chaos.
Interestingly, the police have imposed some restrictions on vehicles turning into Cach Mang Thang Tam rather than make the lights more logical.
Imagine how much easier it would be for everyone if vehicles coming down Cach Mang Thang Tam from District 10 got the green first, then those going down Nguyen Thi Minh Khai toward Nguyen Van Cu, and then those down Cach Mang Thang Tam toward District 10 … You get the drift?
I’ve never seen signals operate any other way outside Vietnam.
When I first came here and saw the traffic lights, I did a double take but thought it would be fixed soon, but 15 years later I am still waiting.
The situation in my country, India, is, if anything, worse because everyone has cars these days. But at least in one city, the lights are synchronized so that if you travel at normal speed, you will never encounter a red until you reach the end of the road.
The authorities fittingly call it the ‘green corridor.’
Imagine traversing the length of Dien Bien Phu without having to stop at a single red light.
I’m sure many people are, just like me, frustrated that at a traffic signal, their green light only lasts 20 seconds but their red lasts double that.
On the grid, especially in District 1 and District 3, east-west roads are blessed with long greens, while on north-south roads, vehicles have to whiz past lights if they don’t want to get stuck. One wishes the lights get equal treatment.
Driving one nuts
The way people drive surely contributes to the traffic woes in Ho Chi Minh City.
Often they seem unfamiliar with road etiquette like making way for smaller vehicles or simply don’t care. How often do we see people going in the wrong direction on narrow carriageways? Driving in the wrong lane also seems a matter of course.
I frequently despair at the lack of common sense on the road. How many times have we seen one joker on a motorbike block a busy junction all by themselves?
The impunity with which people flout road rules is almost palpable.
A woman is seen jumping the red light on Pham Van Dong Street while many other stop at the light. Photo: Tuoi Tre
In my hometown, driving under the influence was very common in the evening. Until a couple of years ago, that is. Now, by 8:00 pm, there are officers everywhere on the streets with breathalyzers, and people no longer dare drive after drinking.
In Ho Chi Minh City, enforcement of road rules seems a bit lax. Issuing a lot more tickets might work wonders, and if someone flouts the law with a child in their vehicle, the fine should be doubled or tripled. Children learn early in Ho Chi Minh City that it’s OK to do whatever they please on the road. For proof, simply stand outside any school at 5:00 pm.
While the authorities are at it, they should also educate people about traffic laws, especially children.
An educational film I saw decades ago on TV in India sticks in my mind. About a minute long and animated, it exhorted people to be “defensive” drivers. The punchline was, “It may not be your fault, but it’s your accident.”
I am careful on the road to this day because of that video. Who knows where the next idiot on a high-powered vehicle is lurking?
Improving public transport
As everyone and their neighbour know, the way to reduce traffic is by developing public transport and limiting private vehicles. But that will also mean having thousands of buses on Ho Chi Minh City’s narrow roads, thousands of behemoths cutting across the street to reach bus stops.
So why not earmark the extreme right lane for buses? A way could easily be found for other vehicles that need to cut across the road to go to shops, offices and other places. Trucks and other large vehicles could take the bus lane and cars the middle one, leaving the left lane to motorbikes; they could even vary the lanes at certain times. The only thing that limits solutions in my perception is one’s imagination.
That is exactly what they have done in my teeming hometown in India.
Dedicated bus lanes are the solution many cities in the world have opted for, and Ho Chi Minh City is itself planning to build one on East-West Highway-Mai Chi Tho.
To be fair to the authorities, public transport here is improving all the time.
I’ve heard people say it’s easier to travel in this congested city by motorbike than by bus, but I wonder how much of that is owed to habit. Give public transport a try, is what I’d say.
I’m putting my money where my mouth is: I have bought an apartment near the first metro line. Now I can’t wait for the metro to be finished so that I can put away my motorbike for good.
Radhanath Varadan, Indian
Local authorities' response
We do agree with Mr. Radhanath Varadan’s idea of having buses travel in the extreme right lane. But we think motorbikes should run in the middle lane, and also the bus lane, and cars on the left lane. Our center has already proposed this to the Ho Chi Minh City Department of Transportation.
Dau An Phuc, director at the Ho Chi Minh City Center for Public Transport Management and Administration
The Ho Chi Minh City Department of Transportation has installed three-phase signals at some corners like Tran Hung Dao – Nguyen Thai Hoc, Nguyen Huu Canh – Le Thanh Ton, Nguyen Thi Minh Khai – Dinh Tien Hoang in District 1 and some other intersections on Vo Van Kiet Avenue in District 1 and District 5. The reasons for implementing such signals is because those streets do not have many vehicles turning left and the three-phase signals are only applied at certain times in accordance with the number of vehicles traveling through those intersections.
However, one disadvantage can be seen is the waiting time is much longer.
With regard to the ‘green corridor,’ the unit in charge of managing traffic signals in the city used to exploit the model on Vo Van Kiet Street, where there was a low density of vehicles traveling across it.
However, it is very hard to apply the ‘green corridor’ on other streets in Ho Chi Minh City because of the huge density of vehicles moving across them.
Ngo Hai Duong, head of the Road Infrastructure Management and Exploitation Division, Ho Chi Minh City Department of Transportation