Ten helpful hints to get you to the other side alive
As I noted in my previous post Saigon: Motorbike Capital of the World, crossing the road in Vietnam at first seems impossible. How to step willingly into an incessant wave of oncoming traffic and not succumb to the flood, is something that not only seems to defy all accepted laws of physics, but which, by general consensus, is also pretty near suicidal. It is something that cannot simply be seen to be believed; it must, by its own adrenalized nature, be experienced in all its near-death glory.
If you happen to find yourself in Hanoi or Saigon in particular, it won’t be long before you are confronted by this timely reminder of your mortality, as the need to make your way across any number of such floods greets you almost as soon as you step from the safety of your hostel and onto those perilous streets. Given that for the uninitiated this is most likely to result in near-death graduating to actual death on the first attempt, this set of heart-stoppingly researched tips on how to cross the road in Vietnam, is aimed to help any would-be crosser survive at least as far as the opposite side.
1. Don’t wait.
If you think waiting for an opportune moment in which to slip across unscathed is the best way to approach Vietnamese road crossing, you’re in for long wait. In fact, since waiting for a lull in this never-ceasing flow is akin to waiting for the tide to go out far enough to cross the English channel without getting wet, you’d better take a sleeping bag and a week’s worth of supplies if you’re planning on tackling it this way. In other words, if you want to get across before the turn of the next decade, you’re going to have to take a breath, take your life in your hands, and take that first step into the oncoming chaos and hope for the best.
2. Do as the locals do
Most of the time when faced with the unfamiliar in foreign circumstances, it’s often best – and safest – to do as the locals do. The locals know the rules. In fact, the locals know the rules because the locals made the rules. If you see the locals running like hell, run like hell. If you see the locals taking it slow, take it slow. If you see a group of locals crossing the very same street that you need to cross, watch, learn, and when you think you are ready, put that study into practice. I followed the natives and lived to tell the tale. Make sure you do the same.
3. Safety in numbers/The human shield
You don’t need to make it as apparent as grabbing the nearest old lady and holding her like an ironing board in the face of the oncoming rush, but the safety in numbers/human shield method is perhaps the most basic and instinctive way of protecting your own ass whilst crossing the road in Vietnam. Like a mid-Atlantic bait ball protecting itself from predatory jaws, it makes sense to stick together. A more substantial target is far more likely to give your average speeding motorbike pause for thought when considering whether to plow right through you or take the effort to steer around. It also offers the advantage that if he doesn’t pause for thought, the old and the weak can always be corralled into sacrificing themselves for the greater good out front.
4. Slow and steady wins the race
Let’s think about it. Prolonging your exposure to a flock of fast-moving motorbikes by walking deliberately slowly amongst them may seem as counter-intuitive as you can get, but compare this to sprinting through barely recognisable gaps in the traffic like a naked man running across hot coals, and it doesn’t take much imagination to imagine the mess left when Mr Naked Hot Coals doesn’t quite make it. So if there is one piece of advice above all others that you really should heed it’s this: Don’t Run! By all means, if you want to end up like pizza topping smeared across a hot Vietnamese road, sprint away, but if life is precious to you and you want to live to say “I did it!”, I’d sincerely advise against it.
5. Be predictable; No dancing
“I’m unpredictable, a loose cannon. I’m a wild crazy man and the girls all love it.” Really? Well let’s see if they still love it when you’re sporting a brand new face transplant and you look like Sloth from the Goonies, because unpredictability in this game is a killer. There should be no hesitation and no darting runs, no quick step and no cha-cha-cha. Be predictable. Take it slow, take it steady, and give approaching motorbikes the chance to steer around you. If they’re not trying to hit you, they probably won’t.
6. And please, no eye contact
A stranger on a foreign street looks you in the eye. You think: “For what possible reason could that stranger be looking at me so strangely for? What could he be trying to tell me?” Now imagine that stranger is coming at you at 30 mph on a 125cc box of petrol-powered metal and you look him in the eye again. What is he to think? There can be no benefit gained from eliciting eye-contact from approaching riders other than as a desperately misplaced attempt at instigating a romantic connection of some kind. Though even here I’d suggest (though obviously I’m no expert) that there are slightly more constructive ways to go about such things. Remember, you’re not looking for love, you’re looking to reach the opposite side whilst still not being dead. Keep your eyes where they belong. Watch the bike!
7. And no photos!
Does this one need explaining? It may be tempting once you reach half-way, to think that since you’ve made it this far and the other side is in sight, a quick recording of your achievement is deserved. You have an image in your head of all those Vietnamese motorbikes coming at you that you want to capture and take home to show everybody. Then, while you’re whipping your camera out of your bag – wallop! – you’re flying through the air wishing you’d bought travel insurance.
8. Respect the bike
Never forget that the pavement is your place. The road is the domain of the bike. You don’t belong with your pathetic two legs in the middle of a Saigon street. You have no right to think you can cross the road in Vietnam and expect folk to steer casually around you. You are a bug on the windscreen of the vehicular world; an accident waiting to be shovelled up and dumped in the trash. The motorbike is king and you, my friend, must leave your pedestrian self-importance at the curbside and enter the battle accordingly. Deference to the bike will a safe crossing make.
9. Don’t turn back
You’ve taken a breath and taken the plunge after ten minutes spent contemplating heading back to your hotel room where nothing can harm you except your own sense of inadequacy. The last thing you want to do then, after shuffling a couple of metres out into the flow, is to think “Shit! There’s too many of them. Retreat! Retreat! Retreat!” The only thing this is likely to achieve is to get you undercut on your blindside and land you in a hospital bed for the remainder of your holiday, and, as comfortable as this may be compared to the bed you should be sleeping in at your no-star back-alley hostel, it really wouldn’t be the best use of your time in Vietnam. So courage is key. Once you’re on your way, there’s no turning back – a metaphor for life and the only real way you’re going to make it.
10. Have faith
Finally, believe it can be done. Crossing the road in Vietnam is part of daily life of this hectic country of food and motorbikes. It really isn’t all that challenging or as death-defying as some (i.e. me) would lead you to believe. If you go about it the right way, with studied caution and a confident air, you’ll most likely be all right. Be bold, be lucky, and enjoy Vietnam. It’s great!