Did the Chicken Even Make It to the Other Side?
One of the first instances of culture shock you’ll get in Vietnam is when you step out of the airport and into a taxi.
It is when the reliable and worn rug of road rules, which you’ve taken for granted all your life, is pulled from straight under your feet. The truth is: in Vietnam there are road rules, but not the ones you’re used to.
To the tourist new to Vietnam, it appears that driving on the correct side of the road is optional. Stopping at a red light is optional. Staying in your lane is optional. Giving way is optional. Indicating is very optional.
And he or she would be right.
The only discernible rule is beeping. That’s right: Beeping. Using the horn is the way you let people know you’re there or that you’re coming. For the tourist who first steps out of a hotel and begins to wander Ho Chi Minh City, one of the first things that hits you is the constant beeping. It can be quite jarring at first especially when hesitantly attempting to cross a busy road. Just when you tentatively take a first step off the pavement and onto the road, a scooter beeps at you and zooms past. Shocked at possibly having annoyed one of the locals already you think, was I doing the wrong thing?
No, it’s just a different way of doing things.
Think of interpreting the beeps as a new language, like instead of speaking English, the horns are speaking Vietnamese. When people beep in Vietnam, it’s not done out of impatience or anger as it usually means in the West. It means, as a tour guide in Vietnam once told me, “Hello! How are you?” And “watch out! I’m coming your way”.
That’s all well and good, you may think. But it still doesn’t help me to cross a road with a seemingly endlessly stream of traffic.
Don’t worry; I’ll cross the road with you (you needn’t worry as much in more rural areas such as Hoi An which have less traffic). It’s daunting but again, as you will learn from haggling in Vietnamese Street Markets, once you learn how to do it you’ll feel two inches taller, surging with confidence, open to experiencing more of this wonderful country.
Firstly, keep in mind that you should not cross the road if a bus or other larger vehicle is coming on either side of the road. Always let the bus pass. Cars and scooters are OK.
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The First Step
Look both ways or, “check before you step”.
Not that it helps much.
It helps to gauge the flow of traffic on both sides of the road. Focus on the side you have to cross first. If you’re lucky, there may be an ebb and flow to the traffic. Try to go for the ebb or where there’s more space. You might be crossing where there’s a pedestrian crossing or near traffic lights. Cars and scooters jump red lights (keep this in mind and always be very aware) and will zoom through the pedestrian crossing even when it’s green for you to cross. It’s useful, then, to wait for the traffic direction to change. At one point the flow of traffic will change to the direction you want to walk towards, stopping or at least reducing the amount of traffic that will go down the street you are crossing.
The Second Step
Just start walking. This may sound crazy but there’s a saying you hear when travelling in Vietnam that technically you should be able to cross any road blindfolded and still survive. Though I’m not that keen to put that to the test it tells the secret key to crossing any busy road here: Just walk confidently, slowly and in a straight line. Be predictable. The traffic will flow around you.
Think of it like wading through a small river and the water flowing around your legs. Be aware of all the beeps, people are kindly telling you where they are through sound. Do not, as most tourists end up doing their first time, walk onto the road and then stop and change your mind about which direction you’ll go and then maybe walk back to the pavement. Don’t be tentative. This will make you unpredictable and is in fact more dangerous. Do not stop in the middle of the road if you can. Sometimes you might have to let a scooter or car go past. However, the rule is to keep walking slowly, predictably, confidently and in a straight line. It also helps to hold your hand up as you are walking in the “stop” gesture towards traffic coming your way. Don’t be afraid of the hordes of scooters. As long as they are not clustered together in too tight a group they are the easiest to walk through since you can get past a scooter in one or two steps. Be thankful for the scooters. Cars are OK too but they obviously take a couple more steps to walk past.
While hard to believe at first, the traffic will always try to go around you. They will look at the speed and direction in which you are walking and then judge how to go around you. That’s why it’s dangerous to suddenly stop (though you may need to sometimes to let a bigger vehicle go past or to let a couple of scooters go past once you’ve reached the middle of the road) , or change direction or speed.
Look at the locals and see how they do it. For the first few times it helps to wait and cross when they cross. Follow what they’re doing. Experience is also your greatest teacher here. After a while you’ll know when to let a vehicle go past or not.
Congratulations! You made it! Enjoy this brief surge of joy and relief that you made it in one piece. If you walked across the road in rush hour you won’t have much time to breathe. At this time of day, driving on the road itself is optional. Footpaths are available for scooters. The same principles apply: Just keep walking slowly and directly and they will go around you. Sometimes if it gets too tight you may need to step aside to let a couple of scooters go past.
One thing to also keep in mind is that people will park their scooters in the middle of the pavement making it impossible for pedestrians to get through. This is very normal and you’ll have to walk out on the road. The same rule applies here: Before you step out onto the road look to see if any vehicles are coming your way and ideally look for a gap. Walk slowly and predictably onto the side of the road and then get back on the pavement when you can.
Strangely the Vietnamese way of driving seems to work as it keeps the high volume of traffic moving. It’s organised chao—trying to implement standard road rules here could be worse.
Follow these guidelines and you’ll be crossing the road like a local in no time. It helps to think like a Zen Master: Be aware. Remember to take your time as paradoxically there’s no rush for you during rush hour!