Ho Chi Minh City, better known as Saigon, is home to 13 million people … and about 8 million motorbikes. Nowhere is this density more apparent than on the city’s streets. Stampedes of scooters race along, swerving among cars and laden trucks, creating the infamous Saigon traffic. To be a pedestrian in Saigon is to discover both the strength and weakness of this city: Sights in the downtown—the beautiful Central Post Office, the lively Saigon Opera House, and the bustling Ben Thanh Market among them—are within easy walking distance of each other. But to walk from one to another, you’re going to have to cross some daunting streets.
On a recent visit, I was told by more than one local that the crosswalks are “mostly just for decoration.” It’s not uncommon to see increasingly bewildered tourists stranded at crosswalks, waiting for their turn. And while it’s true that there are stop lights at major intersections, there’s rarely a dedicated safe time for pedestrian crossings.
That’s not to say you can’t cross the street in Saigon. But to do so, you’ll need to dramatically adjust your world view, at least for the length of time it takes to wade out into the raging river of traffic.
I got—and successfully implemented—the following advice from locals about the best way to cross the street in Saigon. It’s not a technique that prizes safety above all, but it’s the way that locals cross, and it’s how cars, motorbikes, and scooters are expecting pedestrians to cross—and in that way, offers a buffer of safety by way of cultural familiarity.
How to Cross the Street in Saigon Traffic
First, take a deep breath. You’re going to need it, because you may find yourself holding your breath as oncoming traffic bears down on you. Next, angle your body and your gaze toward the oncoming traffic. Raise one arm in the air (this gives you a little extra visibility), and, as soon as there’s enough space to begin without getting immediately hit by a vehicle, step off the sidewalk and into the street. Walk slowly and steadily, watching the traffic and keeping your arm up. Fight the urge to speed up, dodge scooters, and generally Frogger your way across the street. As long as you are walking steadily and confidently, you are a predictable moving object in the eyes of motorists. Start darting and you break the system.
Watch the video above for a first-hand view of what it’s like to cross the street in Saigon. Special thanks to Nguyễn Hoang Nam, one of Avalon Waterways’ Vietnam guides, for being such a confident and knowledgeable demonstrator.
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