Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring contains a sidebar titled, “Staying Alive on the Streets.” It explains that to cross the motorbike-riddled streets of Vietnam, tourists should walk at turtle pace, allowing drivers to pass you on either side.
I didn’t like the sound of this. It was like playing human ‘Frogger,’ and when I played the video game, my frog always got demolished by those miniature trucks and nonthreatening cars. On top of that, I have a not-so-irrational fear of motorbikes, due to an unfortunate incident in Thailand. I decided that I just wouldn’t cross any streets for the next three weeks.
Within minutes of arriving in Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City, take your pick), Jared and I stood at an intersection that we had to cross. A steady stream of speeding motorbikes flowed past, along with city buses, barefoot children, and tiny old ladies shuffling through the melee balancing bamboo poles. Pots of boiling water dangled from each end of the poles.
All I had was an eight-kilo backpack and my relative youth, and I was still terrified.
“Hold my hand,” Jared said. “Let’s go.”
I squeezed his hand until both of our knuckles were white, tried to regulate my breathing, and stepped into the road. Into oncoming traffic. In both directions.
“Breathe,” Jared said. “Just walk slowly.” We walked leisurely across the wide highway, motorbikes veering around us. I stared straight ahead the whole time, wishing I had blinders on so I couldn’t see what was coming towards me. Before I knew it, we were back on the sidewalk.
“That was…a lot easier than I thought,” I said.
“Look out,” Jared said, pulling me aside.
A motorbike barrelled past on the sidewalk as another motorbike backed out inches in front of us. I looked down the length of the footpath, which was lined with revving motorbikes. It was less of a pedestrian walkway and more like an extension of the road.
Vietnam Lesson #1: Never let down your guard.