March 27, 2012

Tuesday Travel Tip: Crossing the Street in Vietnam

Crossing the street is one of those things, like lacing your shoes, that hopefully, by the time you’ve reached adulthood, is second nature. We’re trained to cross the street safely from the time we can walk. Form holding your mom’s hand to journeying on your own, the method is the same: pause at the corner, look both ways, make sure all cars are stopped and no one’s coming; and if you live in a city, stop when there’s a red hand and walk when the green “walk” is flashing. But if you’re traveling in urban Vietnam, the rules are a little bit different. First off, there are next-to-no crosswalks or lights for pedestrians. Secondly, if you wait for a pause in traffic you might be standing on the street corner well into the night. So what exactly is the first step?

Traffic in Saigon

Before you take the plunge into oncoming traffic, it’s best to acclimate yourself with the new environment. Traffic in Vietnam is notoriously bad and can make navigating LA’s 405 seem like a breeze. Here are a few things to keep in mind about Vietnamese rules of the road: there are none. Forget whatever you’ve learned at home, here honking is like saying hello and street lines and red lights are mere suggestions. Think of the road as a Hobbsian state-of-nature: whoever is biggest has the right of way, no matter what side of the street they’re supposed to be driving on. In other words, above all, watch out for buses. If this makes being a pedestrian seem scary, you’re not alone, but believe it or not there is a way to safely cross from one side of the street to another.

When I first moved to Vietnam at the beginning of 2011, it took me a good two weeks before I picked up the rules of the game and felt comfortable and confident stepping into what seemed like unorganized chaos. At first I trained myself by shadowing locals, observing their method and often following closely so as not to get hit myself. But after six months in Hanoi, I  became a traffic traversing pro, so here are few of the methods to the madness to help you on your own adventures.

Crossing the street in Vietnam 101:

·       NEVER make eye contact. Looking a scooterist in the eye will only greatly increase your chances of turning yourself into their moving target.

·       DON’T STOP, no matter what, keep walking. Drivers judge your walking speed so they can move around you without having to stop. You pausing like a deer in the headlights in the middle of the street is guaranteed to get you whacked and definitely yelled at. This should go with out saying, but NEVER stop in the middle of the street to take a photo.

·       WATCH the locals, they know what they’re doing, don’t take your cue from fellow tourists (they often have no idea).

·       TAKE a deep breath. This might just be a placebo effect, but it helps me calm down and center myself before I step out into the madness.

·       LET cars pass. Scooters will move around you, cars and buses are much less likely to, so let those guys go first (remember the first rule of the road: the biggest thing has the right of way).

·       NO sudden movements. Just as you shouldn’t stop in the middle of the street, you also shouldn’t change your pace. Sprinting to the end or slowing down is only going to mess up the drivers’ anticipation of your speed and location.

So take a deep breath, find your moment, look straight ahead and start walking. You can do this. 

For more tips about safely crossing the street and having a positive attitude about it (like smiling into oncoming traffic), check out the LonelyPlanet’s “Top Ten Tips for Crossing the Road in Vietnam.”

Enjoy your travels, have fun and be safe! 

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