I do a lot of on-line research before I set off on one of my forays into the unknown, and I was surprised to find that this topic came up in almost every guide book or blog about Ho Chi Minh City, aka, Saigon, Vietnam. I was intrigued! Most of us learn how to cross the road just about as soon as we can walk, so why was it such a big deal in Saigon? Well, you need to be there to understand…
Traffic in Saigon
Firstly, there are no traffic lights. Well, hardly any. There are no pedestrian crossings either. But there is plenty of traffic! Buses, carts, trucks, Tuk-Tuks and motorcycles – millions of motorcycles! We all know there are 9 million bicycles in Beijing, but I wonder if anyone has counted the motorbikes in Saigon. Vietnam is a poor country where very few people can afford a car and public transportation is in its’ infancy. The solution is a motorbike, and they are everywhere, all the time. Often entire families are transported on a single motorbike, (they don’t seem to favour helmets!) and they are also used to transport anything from livestock (seriously – I saw a fully grown pig riding in a cage similar to a side-car) to household appliances, piping and other hardware and even ladders.
As you can imagine, the driver often has limited visibility and non-existent manoeuvrability and stopping power. Which is why crossing the road in Saigon is a life-skill, and not to be taken lightly!
As it happened, our visit to Ho Chi Minh City took place on a Sunday. Many of the shops and businesses were closed, and our tour guide assured us that the traffic was remarkable reduced; to a Westerner it was still pretty frenetic and hair-raising!
How to cross the road in Saigon
Now this is what the guide books tell you to do when you want to cross the road. First, find a local going in the same direction as you are, and wait behind them. When they step into the road you must follow at their heels without any hesitation whatsoever – they have done it before and know when to take the gap! What happens is that the traffic just splits up and flows all around you. The biggest mistake you can make is to stop between lanes, as one might do in Western countries; this is a no-no in Vietnam as they are not expecting you to stop and you could cause all kinds of confusion! It may sound fairly simple, but it is way easier said than done; one’s normal inclination is to hesitate to let traffic pass and wait for a gap, but this will just not work here as there are no gaps! My best advice to the uninitiated is to stay on the same side of the road as long as possible and then follow the guide-book instructions to the tee!
Traffic aside, if you are staying in Ho Chi Minh City is a great place to visit and explore. An enormous amount of effort is going in to “greening” the city and wherever you go there are attractively manicured trees, parks and gardens bordering the roads. We visited several of the main landmarks including the Reunification Palace where the Vietnam War famously came to an end in 1975 when the South Vietnamese forces surrendered to North Vietnam. We also saw some interesting architecture at the Saigon Central Post Office, the Notre-Dame Basilica, the Municipal Theater and the Quan Am Pagoda.
And I am still here to tell the tale, which means that I clearly mastered the art of crossing the road in Saigon.