Ho Chi Minh City, May 2014
Ever so cautiously, I put a flip-flop anchored toe in the crosswalk, but yanked it out immediately. It wasn’t time. Instead, I stood, watching the motorscooters swerve in tumultuous tentacles, some revving up the wrong side of the street or even up on the sidewalk itself. As the riders whizzed by, I could’ve easily reached out and pulled down the ever-present facemasks that many of the commuters wore to ward off pollution and the sun. They were that close. So, when is the right time to cross the streets in Saigon?
During my first few jetlagged hours in Ho Chi Minh City, I wanted to leave my hotel on a mini expedition to find a cup of coffee — never mind that a Starbucks was just across the street. I saw a few promising mom and pop shops, but like Starbucks, they were located on the other side of the death zone. I knew what I had to do.
And it wasn’t jaywalking. I don’t do it. It doesn’t even happen in the small Colorado mountain town where I live. My lack of daring may stem from being the subject of a Teutonic tirade in East Germany. It was during the Cold War and a crumpled old man in a long wool coat and furry hat berated my college friends and me in angry German for crossing a completely empty intersection against a red light. He even shook his cane at us.
A traffic light existed at the main intersection of Hai Ba Trung and Dong Du. But after a few minutes of studying the patterns of traffic, I decided the free-for-all of cars, motorscooters, buses and taxis was as much of a twisted, webbed cluster as the intertwined telephone and cable wires that gathered, looped and tangled on the city’s telephone poles located along street corners.
Finally another pedestrian came along as the light turned green. Following in synch with the local, I proceeded. Jerking about while looking right and left at traffic, I flinched as scooters beeped at me and came dangerously close to toppling over my nearly paralyzed body.
I don’t know how, but I made it across the street. The caffeine I had so desperately wanted wasn’t necessary anymore. Surging adrenalin took care of that, and made me more alert than any jolt of java could.
It didn’t seem to get any easier in the next couple of days. My friend and travel companion, Debbie, however, skillfully moved across streets like a longtime resident.
Much like horses and babies who can sense fear, the motorscooterists seemed equally apprehensive with me crossing the streets. Often they had to screech to a stop, because I cowered in the middle of the road. Deb would have to retrieve me, and actually hold my hand.
During one outing in Cholon, HCMC’s Chinatown, Deb took the lead and moved across a street in front of Binh Tay Market. I started behind her and mistakenly looked to my right.
A large green city bus lurched out of a wide turn and began barreling down the street along with rows of motorscooters, vans and cars. I stepped backward onto the curb as I watched Deb practically sashaying across the street while her white skirt billowed gracefully in the breeze.
Once the other side, she turned around and looked for me. Shrugging my shoulders, I tried to look nonplused, but I was panicking. How was I going to get over to her? Deb tried to coach me from the other side, but it was too scary.
Standing on the curb, I looked around to see if any locals were venturing out. An older man wearing a rumpled tan uniform with a red armband who had unbuttoned the top few buttons of his shirt in the heavy heat, got up from his plastic seat at a sidewalk table. Leaving his bowl of noodles, he approached me and held out his elbow. Then with his other hand, he motioned for me to follow him.
Defying probable dismemberment and even death, he led me straight into the street and stretched his arm out with his palm upright in a halting gesture. I focused on Deb and the curled pagoda style edges of Bihn Tay Market’s roof in the distance. My escort and I walked steadily as he held off the crushing lineup. Finally, I arrived in tact on the other side. Ever grateful, I looked at my escort and said thank you. He nodded briefly and went right back into the chaos.
Two other Vietnamese Good Samaritans came to my aid while we stayed in Saigon — one being an elderly woman who sold me mango slices on the sidewalk. Seeing I was helpless trying to cross the street, she removed her shoulder pole apparatus that supported twin baskets of her produce and placed it on the ground. Grabbing my arm and with her spry confidence, she boosted my own efforts in maneuvering across the way.
I finally realized you must go against all American childhood lessons and instincts. You do NOT look both ways. You do NOT move quickly. Basically, you flow through the flow. And yes, you CAN jaywalk. In fact, do it if the coast is clear. Essentially, you are like a big boulder (albeit moving) in a river and the motorscooters and vehicles move around you. You must be a steady island of calm. It’s what I imagine being a Zen master or a Jedi is like.
Deb and I had a reprieve from the terrifying traffic while we were visiting laid-back, quiet Hoi An, but we next traveled to another metro area, Hanoi. Tired from a late flight, Deb stayed in our hotel the first morning in the capital. Anxious to see the sights, I ventured out. Fortunately, I could stay on one side of the street for quite some time and the intersecting side streets were not as busy. Inevitably, however, I had to cross a large intersection.
Taking a big breath, I looked straight ahead and embraced my inner Yoda. It was working. I seemed to have a force field surrounding me. I focused and felt whooshing, but it seemed to bounce off my bubble. “Hit me, you will not.” “Yield to me, you will.” “Afraid, I am not.” At an even pace, I moved forward and the intermittent beeping became white noise.
As I stepped up on to the opposite street’s curb, the energy of Hanoi seeped back into my awareness. I looked over and caught the eye of a cyclo driver. “You come for a ride,” he said, beckoning me over.
“No thank you,” I said, grinning. “I’m going to walk.”