How does a tourist cross the road in Vietnam?
If you’re waiting for a punchline, there isn’t one. It’s not a joke, you see. Just how the hell are we supposed to cross the road in Vietnam?
Before going to Vietnam, I read that traffic was supposed to be pretty crazy. It was even supposed to be crazier than Bangkok traffic, which just doesn’t seem possible. Bangkok shares the road with buses, tuk tuks, taxis, pedestrians, motorbikes, elephants, and bicycles.
Days before leaving, I tried to prepare myself. I was Googling: “crossing the road in Vietnam.” The results just led me to YouTube videos of annoying white tourists (usually drunk) dodging traffic. It didn’t really put my mind at ease, nor did I learn any tricks or tips.
We arrived in Ho Chi Minh in the evening, and took a taxi directly to our hotel. I got to experience the traffic for the first time in a relatively safe zone. I was looking out the window searching for pedestrians to see what they did. I hardly saw any. I hardly even saw buses. Everyone just seemed to be on motorbikes while constantly honking their horn.
According to one of our tour guides, Vietnam is a country with nearly 40 million motorbikes! Needless to say, it’s the main mode of transport in the country. Safety, however, doesn’t seem to be much of a concern. It wasn’t uncommon to see a family of four with two ducks riding on one motorbike. Like the rest of Asia, drivers in Vietnam often use their “best judgment” when it comes to driving rules and etiquette. With motorbikes ruling the road, pedestrians hardly have a chance at crossing the road.
The first time we came up to a street, a man selling coconuts in a weird contraption came up to us.
“Hallo! Where you from?!” he asked.
“I’m from America. He’s from England,” I said.
“Oh! Very nice! Here, young man, do you want to hold this?”
This being the weird contraption with coconuts on them.
“Hah. No thanks,” Daniel said, knowing where this would eventually lead to.
“Come, come. Let’s cross the road!” he said, hoping to keep the conversation going so we’d finally give in to the overpriced coconuts.
Thank god! A local to help us cross the road. Let’s see how he does it.
The local man with the weird coconut contraption put up his right arm to notify the traffic of our existence. His left hand was motioning to us to follow along. We acquiesced. My heart was pounding, but I felt a little bit better knowing that if we were to get hit, the man with the weird coconut contraption would be hit first–and the coconuts a close second.
Thus we began making our way across the one-way street, and the weirdest thing happened: the motorbikes moved around us like water flowing around a log.
“Are you sure you don’t want to hold my coconuts?” the man asked Daniel once more.
“No, no, that’s all right.”
Giving up on us, we departed ways. We went left toward the museum. He went right to harass some more tourists.
Daniel and I crossed a few more roads that day. We made sure to take the coconut man’s lead: wait for a break in traffic, walk forward slowly and steadily, but never stop. Motorbikes should simply move around you. I got this shit!
I learned that the best way to cross the road in Vietnam is practice. After all, practice makes perfect. I was, however, still certain every time we were about to play a real-life version of Frogger, it would be the death of me.
Each day before we left our accommodation, I found myself asking Directional Dan how many roads we had to cross to get to our destination. (Obviously the fewer, the better.) He once suggested we go down by the water. I agreed and asked him the usual, “How many roads do we have to cross?” He reckoned it was only a five minute walk–maybe three roads to cross.
We had been walking for nearly four and a half minutes, but still hadn’t yet crossed one road. Maybe Directional Dan miscalculated the estimated time of arrival. That’s when we saw a massive roundabout in front of us. Oh, no.
“Please don’t tell me we have to cross the roundabout?” I asked frantically.
“Yeah, but it will be fine,” Daniel replied while trying to sound confident.
“No way! There’s no fucking way we can cross this roundabout!”
“Well, let’s just wait for a break in traffic.”
“A break?! We are at a roundabout! There’s not going to ever be a break!”
Suddenly, Daniel grabbed my hand and we started making our way over (slowly, but surely). I resisted the urge to squeeze my eyes shut. I opted to squeeze his hand instead. If there’s one thing you can’t be when crossing the road in Vietnam, it’s indecisive. Daniel told me 243 times during our Vietnam trip that my indecisiveness would be the cause of us getting hit.
We crossed road one, and now we were in the middle of a roundabout. Sticking out like a sore thumb, here were two white tourists standing in the middle of a Motorbike Sea, waiting for the ocean to part like Moses. Seven minutes later, we somehow managed to cross roads two and three to see the unimpressive waterfront.
With the help of Daniel holding my hand to cross the road, I survived the rest of my trip to Vietnam. (Surprisingly enough they didn’t have a t-shirt that proudly declared the achievement.) And I never thought I’d be so thankful to be back to crossing the streets of Bangkok, but I was.
Photos by and . Both published under a license.