Wednesday, April 6, 2011

How to cross a street in Saigon City

As I was driven from the Tan Son Nhat International Airport into the CBD of Ho Chi Min City by a Vietnamese driver, one image stood fixed in my mind - an unfamiliar urban streetscape of staggering number of motorbikes, constantly beeping and weaving their way through the crowded streets only to be stopped by the pedestrians crossing in a haphazard manner.

The nightmare of crossing the road didn’t begin until the next morning, when I decided to take a short walk to the Ben Thanh market from the hotel where I was staying. I soon found out adherences to traffic signals in Saigon were not always followed; every street user tends to use their "best judgment and discretion". Just remember though that vehicles can always turn right at any time (regardless of traffic lights or signage). Motorbikes often drive in the wrong direction in the least unexpected places and running red lights or even driving on the sidewalks. The streets, sidewalks and outdoor markets are literally taken over by motorbikes, and not yet geared towards pedestrian traffic. Crossing roads and streets in Vietnam therefore can be a real challenge for newcomers who are used to traffic laws and traffic lights.

Believe me, the first time crossing the street may be a little hair-raising after that you will get used to it quite quickly. If ever in doubt, simply jump into the shadow of a local and follow the lead while crossing the street and just bear in mind of not making any sudden lurches forwards, backwards, or stop for that matter!
It is no doubt a terrifying nightmare for many of us, but after a couple of crossings, you soon learned to walk safely and find them easy to negotiate as long as you keep your wits around you for speeding motorbikes. However walking along the edge of a busy road is easy enough. Any motorbikes behind you will generally beep at you to let you know they're there or telling you to keep moving. During my stay in Saigon and just walking around the city brought back memories of what Singapore used to be not long ago. Seeing people cooked on the side of the street and streets hawkers turned a busy street into eat street of local food stalls every evening in a matter of 30 minutes flat-out, left me in awe and reminisced on how exactly Singaporeans of a bygone era transformed a daytime car park in Orchard Road into a popular open air food court at night in the 1960s.

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