How to cross a street in Saigon

To the uninitiated, traffic in Saigon is hurly burly.

A typical intersection in Saigon.

After spending a nearly a week here–as pedestrians, passengers in cars and vans and, most recently, passengers on four of the city’s 7.5 million scooters–we have learned how to navigate the city streets.

Now, the interplay between scooters, pedestrians, busses, cars and motorcycles seems more like a dance than a fray.

If you ever come to Saigon, here are some basic principles on how to cross the street without losing your life.

Principle One: Never, ever run across the street to avoid onrushing traffic.

To those of you in the United States, I know this sounds counterintuitive and even dangerous. In America, pedestrians who begin to cross a street and suddenly notice an oncoming car will generally walk more quickly, or even run to avoid the getting run over.

It doesn’t work that say in Saigon. When you pick up your feet and begin to run, you make yourself an unpredictable pedestrian. Drivers don’t know what you are doing or where you are going and you will create chaos and disorder. What this means is that, above all other things, you must trust the operators of scooters, cycles and cars and busses. If you are walking at a deliberate pace, if you look the oncoming drivers in the eyes, they will not run you over. It is also okay to hold up your hand and ask them to stop, especially if you have children with you. Drivers won’t even beep their horns, shout, curse, flip you off or give you a weird look. They will simply steer their way around you and go on their way.

Jaywalking is perfectly acceptable in Saigon. Just please follow the principles above if you choose to cross the street in the middle of a block.

There is much to be learned about life in this first principle. Many of us, when we cross a street, or, when we are planning for our future, look for a straight, unobstructed path where there are no cars or scooters barreling towards. We try to mitigate risk so that we may, literally and figuratively, safely get to the other side of the street. There is some freedom, though, in practicing this first pedestrian principle in Saigon: initially it can be unnerving, even terrifying, to step off the sidewalk and notice a long string of traffic coming at you at a relatively quick pace. But then you realize that you are seen and perceived, that drivers make way for you, that, you are indeed part of a larger almost synchronized dance and everything is okay.

Principle Two: Traffic that is turning right (scooters, cars, busses, trucks) will almost never stop nor will those drivers look to their right for any pedestrians who are trying to cross the intersection.

I realize that this seems like a contradiction of the first principle and perhaps it is, to a degree, but for your own safety, if you are pedestrian, just look to your left  before you step out into traffic.

Curiously, this principle also applies to one-way streets. For instance, imagine that you are crossing a one-way street with traffic coming at your from you right. In the United States, it would be perfectly reasonable for you to not even bother looking to your left–it’s a one-way street after all and it would be highly unlikely for anyone to be driving the wrong way on a one-way street. In Saigon, though, it’s quite common for drivers–scooters are especially guilty of this–going the wrong way on a one-way street so . . . you’ve been warned.

Principle Three: It is common for scooters and motorcycles to ride on pedestrian sidewalks.

In the United States, most dense urban areas don’t even allow people to ride bicycles on the sidewalks. In fact, unless you are little kid, it’s considered rude to ride your bike on the sidewalk.

This is not the case in Saigon, even for scooters and motorcycles, and what this means for you as a pedestrian is that you have to watch your back, even when you walking on a sidewalk in the middle of a city block. Generally, you can hear the motorcycles because their motors are louder. The scooters, though, can sort of sneak up on you so if you have kids, like we do, who enjoy breaking out into spontaneous dance and acrobatic moves on city streets, make sure that you are always walking behind the children. This way, even if you don’t happen to notice a scooter coming from behind you, you can least yell, “Kids! Scooter behind!”

The next post will continue our explorations of the streets of Saigon, this time on a scooter.

Taking photographs of street traffic is not recommended

3 thoughts on “How to cross a street in Saigon

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