Monday, June 18, 2012

How to Cross the Street in Vietnam

With as many motorbikes as there are families in Vietnam – of which the entire lot is commonly squeezed on one bike (along with chickens, balloons and other arbitrary cargo) – chaos is an understatement.
After a lifetime experience crossing the street, the task seems like a no-brainer. In Vietnam, however, it is necessary to learn a completely different set of rules to avoid becoming the next unknown meat in a street stall noodle soup.

My mother once passed on a piece of advice to me from her grandmother: have patience because there will “always be a gap in traffic.” I am convinced there are no gaps in Vietnam.

Anything goes in Vietnam. Even on the rare occasions that you find a crosswalk and traffic light, don’t instinctually trust that drivers will obey. Always have cautious eyes and know your surroundings. 

As if it isn’t already obvious upon arrival, pedestrians don't have the right away. Although Vietnamese people won’t maliciously run you over, they also will not stop for you. Instead, their technique is to swerve around you, often leaving the inexperienced pedestrian scared for their life in the middle of the road.

Instead, if you want to get to the other side of the road, it is necessary to plunge right into the heat of it. Choose your method and proceed [cautiously]:
A local crossing as captured by my poor quality iPod
The Human Shield Method – When in doubt, do as the Vietnamese do. If you see a local crossing the street near you, walk directly next to them – letting them take the end closer the traffic. Certainly, they know what they’re doing, and your safest bet is to stick by their side. Occasionally, you’ll notice the locals put a hand up as they dart in front of cars signifying a “don’t hit me!” plea. And, miraculously, they never do get hit. Don’t be embarrassed; they are kind-hearted people and used to foreigners following them across the street.

The Blind Method– Pretend you are blind. This might sound silly, but it is very effective. Instead of “looking both ways” as is the golden rule of crossing the street everywhere else in the world, just start walking slowly, looking straight ahead. If you do not make eye contact with the drivers as you walk, they will steer around you. When you do make eye contact, then they know you saw them and will expect you to stop for them., When you walk and look straight, they won’t depend on you to move, but instead, they’ll know it’s their duty. A Vietnamese man advised me to “never fall back.” Even if you chicken out – your only option is to stand still or walk forward and trust that the motorbikes will go around you.

Remember the bikes do not stop; they merely redistribute themselves. Say goodbye to your instincts and just go. When you make it across the road safely, celebrate your life!
A 10 second clip from my iPod as my motorbike driver a left turn into ongoing traffic

*As I was advised not to take my camera out by the road, none of these photos do the true justice of the roadside chaos in Vietnam. You have to see it to believe it!

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