When we embarked on our trip, we had heard about how crazy it would be to cross the street in Vietnam’s bigger cities. And having survived through our share of street crossings, I can say that the first few times you experience this are a bit like expecting your first baby. You can learn all you want from the advice of friends who have crossed before you (and survived to tell about it) and from studying the travel guides, but you’re never really completely prepared for it when you actually take that first step off the curb. It’s even scarier when you have four children with you who are depending on your urban survival skills.
There is something completely wrong about convincing your kids to break every rule you’ve painstakingly taught them about crossing the street, and then making them walk right out into on-coming traffic! OK, you do look both ways, actually numerous times, but it’s not as if you’ll ever expect the streets to be free of the sea of bicycles, cars, but mostly motorbikes that ebb and flow through the streets like waves on a wind-whipped shore. It seems there is always another group of motorbikes hurrying to fill the spot that you thought would provide the clear and calm lane through which you could safely navigate to the refuge of the opposite side. Seldom has crossing forty feet of asphalt seemed quite so daunting a task.
And yet you realize that you must do this, so you watch the locals and learn. If your kids never understood why you’ve taught them to look left, right, then left again, they certainly do now! But given the circumstances, they begin to quickly lose confidence in the rules that have gotten them this far at home. There are few marked crosswalks, even fewer lighted intersections, no stop signs, no crossing guards. It’s pretty much shear mayhem. But people in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City live with this every day, so there must be a way, a secret trick, that allows them to do this…right Mama?…right Papa?
And you answer: “Of course, follow me.” as you tighten your grip on their hand, your palms sweating from the anxiety of trying to figure out exactly how you’re going to do this. My first instinct was to try to grab onto a local in hopes that their presence might somehow provide us with an invisible “I’m a local” shield from the onslaught of approaching motorbikes. But you’ll find that your instincts will take over as you try to dodge and compensate to avoid a stream of bikers who all seem like they’re destined to run over you or one of your kids. The eighty-year old Vietnamese grandmother you were trying to shadow has reached the opposite curb while you’re still in the middle of the street trying figure out your next step and checking if you still have all the kids you started with.
But ultimately we ended our time in Vietnam without a scratch and being able to cross the street like seasoned pros, or at least good enough to not stare like deer in headlights. There are some basic rules to follow, but you’ll find that they’re easier said than done…
- Look both ways, but don’t wait too long for a complete clearing in the traffic. You could be there a long, long time.
- Don’t run. It’s better to walk slowly and with a constant speed. The motorbikes are used to avoiding people on foot. Moving too quickly or changing speed only makes it harder for them to adjust and to steer around you.
- Similarly, do NOT stop. Like above, they’re used to predicting your path and stopping adds the uncertainty of whether you are now turning around or moving ahead.
- Don’t walk in a line towing your kids behind you. This just creates a fence of people and will force drastic turns to avoid the human wall you’ve now created. Have kids or your companions walk beside you so that you’re essentially blocking them from traffic, allowing the motorbike to avoid one person rather than several.
- It probably doesn’t hurt to pray a little or chant something to your self to calm your nerves….don’t worry, you’ll make it across.
It’s probably not a good idea to try this at home, but there’s a lesson about crossing the street in Vietnam that one can take with you throughout life, wherever that might be. As much as we gravitate towards a life that is structured, orderly, and predictable, the fact is that circumstances are rarely perfect or free of risk at any moment in time. At some point you simply have to trust that people around you will do what you expect, and that somehow you’ll get to where you want to go. If you try to wait until that perfect time when the stars are aligned and will be able to guide you unhindered, you might find yourself waiting a very long, long time before taking that first step and embarking on another one of life’s many journeys.