The extreme sport of crossing the road in Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City Motorbikes

Between performing some sort of hokey cokey dance on the pavement and genuinely considering using my girlfriend as a human shield, my manliness is becoming under serious threat.

But then crossing the road for the first time in Ho Chi Minh does funny things to you.

You read about the traffic, the millions of motorbikes (literally), the crazy driving, but nothing can prepare you for that first time you lay your eyes on the roads of Ho Chi Minh. Pure chaos.

Motorbikes with chickens on the back. Motorbikes piled high with fruit and veg. Motorbikes balancing huge sheets of glass. Motorbikes carrying families of four, even five – sleeping babies wedged precariously between mum and dad, oblivious to the mayhem that surrounds them.

And as if it’s not crazy enough just standing and watching the roads in Ho Chi Minh, actually crossing one, well, this is yet another level of madness altogether.

It feels like I‘m trying out a new extreme sport. Only sport is supposed to be fun, right?

If at first you don’t succeed…

Having tried and failed at my latest attempt and after waiting yet another five minutes for a non-existent gap to appear in the constant flow of motorbikes, it’s time to try again. So I take the hand of my girlfriend Alex once more, look her in the eye, nod a nervous nod that signifies “We’re doing this” and step gingerly into the road.

Wooooah there.

Maybe not. After two steps forward, an approaching stampede of traffic causes us to hop and a skip back to the safety of the pavement once again. Scores more motorbikes go flying past singing a chorus of beeps that may or may not be aimed at us.

Another pathetic hokey cokey inspired attempt. Another chance to cross, missed.

Just as we curse ourselves for our umpteenth failure, yet another local goes striding confidently past us and through the mob of motorbikes, as if to rub it in, making it safely to the other side of the road with apparent ease. He doesn’t hesitate, doesn’t flinch, doesn’t break stride.

Copycat crossing

“Right, this is ridiculous,” I say to Alex. “What did he do different to us?”

“Um, he just kind of goes for it,” she replies.

There’s insightful advice for you. But she’s right. He hardly looks, hardly seems to think about it. Just strolls right up and enters the fray. He seems to let the bikers worry about him, not the other way around. That must be the key.

With this tactic duly noted, we agree that if we don’t try this ballsy, all out approach, if we don’t just ‘go for it’ like the locals, it’s fair to say we’re never getting across.

So this is it. No really. This WILL be the one. Attempt number 9,978. Or something. The ‘go for it’ approach.

Just do it

This time we spend less time looking for any sort of extended gap in traffic, just the tiniest one will do. We breathe a deep breath, say a little prayer and walk straight out into the road.

Looking ahead only we take one step, two steps, three steps. The beeping continues, but the motorcyclists don’t look angry. They’re coming closer than feels comfortable, but crucially we’ve yet to be hit. So on we go… four steps, five, six, seven.

By now we’re right in the middle of the road, at a point of no return almost, and something strange is happening. We’re completely surrounded by buzzing, beeping motorbikes yet they’re all just flowing around us, like we’re in the eye of a tornado. I suddenly feel like I’m in the Matrix, having that moment where everything becomes clear and I can ‘see’ it all in greater clarity.

This is it. We’ve cracked it. Have we cracked it? We haven’t made it across yet. But we’re nearly there.

You walk, the traffic looks out for and weaves around you. Not vice versa.

It makes sense when you think about. A motorbike is more agile than we are on our feet. They can manoeuvre quicker. So just let them swerve around you.

There’s more control, and dare I say ‘order’ to these Vietnamese motorcyclists than I gave them credit for.

As long as you keep a steady pace, keep walking forward, the drivers know where you’re heading next and can choose whether to go in front or behind you.

Which is why I need to save this analysis for the other side of the road and just keep on bloody walking!

So we do just that, trying our best not to stop, stutter or make any sudden changes in direction.

Eight steps, nine steps, ten. I feel confidence running through me as we stride to the other side of the road and plant our feet safely onto the pavement.

Mission accomplished

Adrenaline pumping we feel a real sense of achievement. To the extent Alex and I pull out a cringe inducing high-five.

We never high-five.

But like I say, crossing the road in Ho Chi Minh does funny things to you.

And you know what? Crossing that crazy Ho Chi Minh road WAS fun, in the end. In fact I feel like turning back to go again. But there’s no need. I know full well that over our next two weeks in Vietnam, there’ll be plenty more roads like this to tackle.

Already I can’t wait for the next one, the next challenge.

Maybe it is a new extreme sport after all.

Image credit: David Graus


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