How To Cross The Street In Vietnam

Friday, September 28, 2012


It sounds like the beginning of a joke: How do you cross the street in Vietnam? (Possible punchlines: “You don’t,” “You start by taking out a life insurance policy,” or “You buy a motorbike.”) As any visitor who has been to Vietnam knows, the quickest way to spot the newbie traveler in town is to look for a timid and bewildered expression on a Westerner’s face as they attempt to cross the street.

Given the seemingly endless gridlock of motorbikes everywhere, the complete lack of stoplights (or adherence to their rules) and the cultural assumption that crossing the street by foot is not something to done in any logical (or safe) manner, crossing the street in Vietnam can initially seem like an impossible task.

The NY Times recently wrote about the average tourists’ plight with the task of crossing the busy streets, and how hotels are resorting to handing out tip sheets entitled “How to cross roads” to help visitors make their way through the city. The reason for this recent problem? The answer, in short, is rapid development.

A decade or so of capitalist fervor has transformed Hanoi’s once-quiet, tree-lined boulevards and side streets into roaring rivers of rubber and steel. Tourists, when they are not cowering in their hotel rooms, can be spotted standing by the side of the road wearing expressions that range from startled to stupefied . . .

“Life was easy and calm,” Mr. Thinh said. “Now everyone is stressed; people want to make money.” He attributes the traffic conditions in Hanoi to migrants from the countryside, who ride through the packed, narrow streets according to the traffic rules of their home villages, which is to say none at all.

My own experience leads me to offer the following advise as to the best way to cross the street in Vietnam.

1) Forget about looking for a break in traffic, chances are you’re not going to find one. Accept this fact and move on.

2) Look in the direction of the source of traffic and enter the street.

3) Keep you head up and eyes toward the coming traffic as you make your way forward.

4) Despite your overconfident spacial reasoning and logic skills, don’t bother trying to walk in a manner timed to avoid collision. Simply walk straight at a slow and measured pace. Do not stop, slow or increase your speed. The reality is, the other drivers don’t want to hit you, and they will simply slow down and move accordingly around you. Erratic direction or speed changes will increase the likelihood of disaster.

5) Finally, be confident. Though you may seem like the underdog in this cat and mouse scenario, the truth is drivers are dealing with pedestrians all day long and are used to slowing down and slightly changing their direction to accommodate them. Timidity will simply throw off their timing and may land you in a Vietnamese hospital room.

To help things out a bit, try to placate your fears with plenty of street food around town and remember, the best part of the experience is how natural you will look to newly arrived visitors after you’ve spent a few days practicing.

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