I love Vietnam, and Ho Chi Minh City ranks as one of my top cities for a weekend getaway in Southeast Asia. Nothing like slurping back a big bowl of beef pho for the breakfast and then hitting the pavement with the masses. There is something different about the energy of the city from the hustle of Bangkok, chaos of Manila or the sheer, mind-numbing gridlock of Jakarta. Sure, all of these places are similar (same same, but different, as you would say): the exploding populations, sprawling suburbs and growing middle class means more and more cars are added to the roads each year.
The difference in Vietnam, however, is that though the cities are just as big, people have stuck with their trusty motorbikes, resulting in slightly less congestion. Don’t get me wrong; traffic can still be horrendous but at least it generally moves. It’s one massive flowing wave of humanity, with each person or family of four trucking along gracefully on two wheels. There’s something magical about it really; it feels like everyone is zipping by at mad speeds though really it’s all just a beautiful dance moving at 30 km/h. The flow never stops, regardless of the time of day, and the rules of the road are generally the same as those on the slopes for those who ski: pay attention to what’s in front of you and those behind you will do the same. Checking blind spots, apparently, is for suckers.
This does pose a problem if you’re a pedestrian though, especially if you didn’t grow up in those parts and are used to cars stopping for you because it’s a zebra crossing (or in Canada, where I come from, just because folks are nice like that.) They won’t. If you plan to wait until the bikes stop coming or for some to take pity on you and let you pass, you will be waiting a very, very long time. No worries though, when in Rome - or Saigon - just follow the locals.
Christmas Eve in HCMC. Only time in my life I've been stuck in traffic walking on the sidewalk. Note all the kids are dressed up like Santa.
The rule of thumb is that you can take on the motorbikes but don’t try to take on the cars or buses. You. Will. Not. Win. Wait until there is a gap in the larger vehicles (there will never be a gap in the motorbikes, ever) and step slowly but firmly off the curb. Move slowly but surely at a steady pace, until you reach the other side. Do not stop, do not freak out. The bikes will be watching you and judging your progress, so they will weave their way in front or behind you. The most dangerous thing you can do is to suddenly bolt or pull a deer-in-the-headlights and stop in the middle of the road. If in doubt, cross alongside the 80-year-old granny towing her shopping cart. Oh, and maybe give way to the guy with the 20,000 plastic bottles tied to the back of his bike. He deserves a break.
Are you brave enough to take on the streets of Vietnam?