When I told a friend I was heading to Ho Chi Minh City, the biggest city in Vietnam, he said something I did not quite understand.‘‘When you cross the street, just keep walking like a boss and, whatever you do, don’t stop.’’ I wondered what could be so difficult about crossing the street. Was he pulling my leg?
But on my first day in the city I understood.Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City is like nowhere else on Earth.
The bustling metropolis with a population of 10 million is bursting at the seams with people on the move, but their mode of transport is very different. There are only a handful of cars, and most of the residents get by on small, cheap scooters.
Traffic lights are few and far between, and any road rules are much more lax, so the always-crowded streets are a constantly congested mix where people toot their horns every few seconds. Which makes crossing the street a challenge.
Even at a pedestrian crossing, people do not just politely stop and allow you to cross.When it was time for my first attempt at crossing the street, I’ll admit I was terrified. What if I crossed at the wrong place and I got hit? What if the bikes wouldn’t stop for me? As I made my first few steps across the ‘‘pedestrian crossing’’, the bikes just a few metres away did not seem to be stopping, or even slowing down. It was like I was invisible.
I scurried back to the side of the street where I started, and more than a few locals were amused by my spectacular fail. Surely I could not spend my entire time in the city confined to one block, so I knew I had to battle my fears and beat this.I watched a few locals navigate their way across.
No matter how close the bikes got to them before they stopped, they never seemed fazed, and no matter what they just kept on walking.
Looking back, I realise that each time someone crosses the street is like a game of chicken. The pedestrian and motorist are involved in a battle of wills to see who has right of way. But when it comes to the pointy end, although they make you work for it, the motorist will always stop.I thought back to the words of my friend — walk like a boss and don’t stop — and tried it again.
With dozens of bikes and cars on either side, I put one foot in front of the other and just kept walking.As the bikes came closer to me the horns tooted, but eventually they slowed down and stopped about a metre away.
I made it halfway, but as it was a two-way street that was only half the battle. I needed to keep going and I could not stop. I felt like Moses parting the Red Sea as this angry mob of traffic stopped to allow me to cross.
I had conquered the savage beast and I felt invincible.Over the next few days, crossing the streets got easier, but the fear was still there.
Occasionally I would spot a tourist going through the same agonising ordeal.
It might seem trivial, but the simple crossing of the street is a bit of a rite of passage for any tourist to Ho Chi Minh City.
The millions of scooters that fill the city are only a relatively new addition. What used to be a city of bicycles gradually changed as the economy grew and the people had more disposable income.
Cars are still out of reach for most residents, but in a few years that could change. And then it could change again. But right now, Ho Chi Minh is a city where the scooter reigns supreme.
Have you travelled to Vietnam? Share your tips and tricks below in the comments.