Survival Tips for crossing busy roads in Vietnam.

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?!

colourful motorcycle helmet

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.

  1. Look into the oncoming traffic (ok obvious so far)
  2. Spot what best resembles a gap (this might take a while with 37 million registered motorbikes in the country)
  3. Once you commit step out – and for goodness sake – don’t stop. You can’t stop now!
  4. Keep going at a smooth and constant pace. Look at the traffic if you like but you don’t have to.
  5. The scooters will flow around you like water passing around a rock and into an eddie.
  6. You won’t die
  7. How awesome!
  8. Repeat…
man wearing mask on scooter Vietnam

See… there was nothing at all to be frightened of!?

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.

local riding scooter Vietnam

man asleep on his scooter Vietnam

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

 More Information.

  • 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.

 

 

About Saxon

I'm passionate about travelling, music, photography, blogging, 'Social Anthropology' (the posh term for people-watching) and creating content. I travel to learn and observe to understand. My dream day would look something like this.... A bottle of red (or two), fresh baguette (or two) & wedge of Camembert (or two), a balmy Paris September eve spent people-watching in fine company on the banks of the Canal St Martin.

There are 32 comments

  1. Martin

    The locals might look cool, calm and collected but I can say with certainty that they aren’t all as relaxed about driving (especially in Saigon) as they seem. Though they are all absolute pros at the moped/motorbike poker face :-).

    The photo of the older gentleman reclining on his bike is superb by the way!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Saxon

      Thanks Martin. Have you spent a bit of time there? It does make sense that they aren’t super chilled in that chaos – but wow what poker faces they have 🙂 Cheers

      Like

      1. Martin

        Haha yeah, my girlfriend is Vietnamese and we spend a lot of time in Saigon. They are certainly more relaxed than the Westerners but also complain about the traffic (and the cops!) a lot. They aren’t really in to the big displays of public emotion so the poker faces come very naturally I think! Great article, one of my favourite things is watching fresh tourists work out how to cross the roads (not in a mean way, just in a I remember the feeling way!).

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Tonkin Travel Vietnam

    Hahaha! just found your thread so cute and funny. it turns the traffic madness in to an interesting topic. You’re rite. My clients often complain that traffic in big cities is like playing an X game. My only advice: just keep going with slow pace and make some noise if needed (for attention only, not shouting :)). They all watch you even how busy they are. Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sarah

    Oh I remember my first time crossing the road in Ho Chi Minh.. I had to hold my sister in laws hand – I was 34!!! It was one of the scariest things in my life BUT once you do it once, you’re a freaking pro haha. Plus, at some of the busier crossing points (like outside the Ben Thanh market) there are tourist police, who will stop traffic so us ‘white folk’ can cross safely 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Saxon

      Oh how cute – holding hands. I think on that first crossing I would have paid about 10 billion Dong for a tourist policeman. Is that about 4 dollars? We’ll have to do an Asian #Travchat this year I think!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sarah

        Haha yes, I was rather pathetic. But you are right. Don’t hesitate, don’t think about the fact you’re about to throw yourself into oncoming traffic. Once you’ve taken that first step, you’re officially committed so go with it. I’ve only ever been to Vietnam so not sure I’ll be able to contribute too much to an Asian #Travchat but I can give it a go 🙂

        Like

    1. Saxon

      I’m impressed!! It’s funny how orderly the disorder is with the traffic. I remember being scared stiff crossing the road the first time too. It all just works doesn’t it. Not sure I’m up to going solo on a scooter in HCMC yet though haha

      Like

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