Anticipation not acceptance
Courage but not bravado
Caution but not carelessness
Awareness, not fear
Attention to every point on a compass
Moderate speed but not Agility
Bravery, not bravado
Twenty Eight words. The most accurate words I could find to use in a description of how you must act when crossing the street in Ho Chi Minh City, VietNam. I’m sure there are more, but these twenty eight should suffice to educate you in how, what, why you must when you take that too often fatal step beginning your journey across one of Saigon’s terrifyingly busy streets.
I thought about writing this after our morning walk to see the rapidly growing floral displays on the “Flower Street” near our home. KL, my mentor, companion, guide, champion cuddled, life partner, dishwasher, and chief cook (among other talents) told me about the pre-TET proliferation of trees, plants, bonsai, bamboo, rock gardens, and of course flowers that have miraculously sprung up almost overnight in anticipation of the holiday celebrating the Lunar New Year. She proudly proclaims, every time we see the expensive displays, “See how the Vietnamese people get crazy and spend so much money for TET!”
It is true. People save all year so they can splurge for the days before, during, and shortly after the TET holiday. Sort of like Americans do from Thanksgiving to New Years, but with greater intensity and in a much more meaningful way since many families spend 40 to 60 percent of their annual income in these ten days. Knowing this, the merchants bring out their most expensive wares, and offer delicacies and plants and gifts that are unavailable during the rest of the year–at mark ups that would make your ears pop! NOTHING is cheaper. Sales are mark downs from prices that were tripled before the sale. Food cost more, for everything–eating out or shopping in the market. A “Buying Frenzy” strikes the people of VietNam, and they happily surrender and act like the millionaires they want to be. It is amazing to see, and the normal haggling no longer takes place as if people want to brag about how much they paid for something.
With all this profligate shopping, it is inevitable that traffic increases before the actual holiday, and this morning was a perfect example. As we walked to see the floral displays, the normal buzz of the motorbikes, taxis, small trucks, and rushing busses was hyped up to a roar. Decibels were doubled and traffic was almost a solid mass moving at a quicker pace than is normal even in the morning rush to work. We had two major streets to cross, or maybe one if we could negotiate one of the worst T intersections in the city.
We tried walking the top of the T so we would only have one street (albeit just after the intersection) to cross, but alas, there was no crosswalk and there was a blocking barrier in the middle of the road, so we retreated back to the nearest marked crosswalk. It was the beginning of the morning rush hour and traffic was building by the minute. The motorbikes seemed to fly at us, and I could see no break in the onrushing wave of metal seated humanity.
KL moved to the side nearest the oncoming traffic and stepped boldly forward and the streams parted as if Moses had waved his staff and opened the path for us. Only a bus in the other side of the traffic flow slowed our progress as we yielded to the mass of metal that stopped for nothing but passengers. The bus passed and we used the brief vacuum in the flow to finish our crossing. We repeated the action and crossed without incident to the other side, the side we wanted when we set out.
We finished our business and headed home, but this time my wife said it would be almost impossible to safely cross at the same T intersection as before, so we marched into the nearest crosswalk and passed to the other side (it must be noted that being in a crosswalk affords bare minimum security, but it gives you the right to say that you were in the right place for crossing the street so the other guy was wrong.) Our second crossing of the big street, Ly Thuong Kiet, was accomplished without problem, mostly because KL dragged me across the street much faster than I could walk.
Every day in HCMC hundreds of people are killed crossing streets, or just riding on their motorbikes. Shortly after beginning this article we got an email telling us that one of our best friends was badly injured on their motorbike when her husband slowed to turn left at a corner. A drunken driver ran into the back of their motorbike and hit so hard that he struck her and knocked her off the motorbike. So walking or driving your odds of having an accident are stacked heavily against you. Walker, Biker and Driver Beware.