There I was. A nervous wreck. Mere hours off the plane and standing on the corner of one of Saigon’s busiest intersections. It was my first trip to Vietnam and I felt greener than a pod of baby peas.
If the humidity wasn’t enough the thought of tentatively pressing that first toe out into the chaotic maelstrom of traffic was making me sweat bullets. But I knew I had to go. After all I’d had a good life. I thought – they still talk about James Dean don’t they so maybe they’ll talk about me after being conjoined to a Vespa at velocity?!
With a deep intake of breath (Bad idea in larger Vietnamese cities by the way. The locals wear masks for a reason!) I prod my fidgeting foot out onto the road. The traffic lights were in my favour but I didn’t really know if a red light here was a ‘rule’ or more a ‘guideline’. My mind wandered back to travels in southern Italy where the locals tended to view the light colours as…
- Green – Go
- Amber – Speed Up!
- Red – Caution
But regardless I went…
I was walking. I was actually crossing. This felt so triumphant. I puffed out my chest with pride. Exhaling also seemed much safer than inhaling. And before you could say Accident & Emergency I had made it.
Vietnam Traffic. Turns out it probably won’t kill you.
Crossing the road in Saigon as a new-comer to the city really does put you out of your comfort zone. Not just a little outside but more like ten suburbs away. But the more you do it, like most things, the more comfortable it becomes.
Incredibly after such tumultuous beginnings, and within a few hours only, I was completely at ease with the heaving throng of traffic. But there is a secret.
There is calm within the chaos. Finding the sweet spot.
The key to crossing Vietnam traffic is to set one pace and keep it the entire way across. Of course at the traffic lights you should be fine but you will find that you will often need to traverse without these at hand. So here’s what to do on those occasions.
- Look into the oncoming traffic (ok obvious so far)
- Spot what best resembles a gap (this might take a while with 37 million registered motorbikes in the country)
- Once you commit step out – and for goodness sake – don’t stop. You can’t stop now!
- Keep going at a smooth and constant pace. Look at the traffic if you like but you don’t have to.
- The scooters will flow around you like water passing around a rock and into an eddie.
- You won’t die
- How awesome!
Nearly 40 million scooters in Vietnam. Oh you’ll notice them!
Friends, in my opinion there are some things that Europeans, Caucasians, ‘White-Folks’ (choose the term that least offends) just don’t do very well. Tai Chi is one and riding scooters in places like Vietnam is another. From what I have observed they always seem to have expressions ranging from mild trepidation to abject terror. Red faced, sweating foreigners always seem in such stark contrast to the ice-cool laissez-faire locals who make threading through the traffic chaos look as simple as getting out of bed.
Another cultural difference I noted in Vietnam is that a toot or a beep isn’t a manifestation of gridlock road rage rather a token of genuine helpfulness.
‘Just letting you know I don’t wish to deposit myself, this scooter & my cargo of chickens up your bottom. Move please. Toot, toot, toot’
There are approximately six million scooters in Saigon alone servicing its eight million inhabitants. It is the mainstay form of transportation due to the prohibitive cost of buying & running a car for most local families. You will see riders freighting unfathomably massive loads of cumbersome wares without so much as batting an eyelid.
It’s also very common to see three, or in some rare cases, four members of the same family perched expertly atop a scooter which I have to presume is hidden somewhere beneath their precisely placed local bottoms.
It’s so extraordinary for us yet so utterly ordinary for them. These cultural differences are why I love to travel. How about you?
Vietnam Traffic Gallery.
Click an image to enlarge. All images © Saxon Templeton
- Official Vietnam Tourism website
- And speaking of sweating foreigners on motorbikes in Vietnam. Top Gear Vietnam Special.
- There are many travel companies that will give you a tour on the back of a scooter or motorcycle. That’s a great option in my opinion. Just use your favourite search engines folks.