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Surviving the Streets of Ho Chi Minh City

Updated: May 27, 2020

My jet-lagged eyes recoil from the light when I step outdoors. My hotel, the Caravelle, is in the center of Ho Chi Minh City. It's hazy, but bright. I see a huge group of motorcycles, ten abreast and I don't know how many deep, waiting with engines running. It must be a race. They take off all at once, zig zagging around the few cars on the street and narrowly missing each other as some go straight and some veer to the left and right. Pedestrians attempt to dart through the buzzing bikes. To my amazement there are no collisions.

The light bulb over my head illuminates. This isn't a race. It's normal traffic and I, the zombie tourist who can't think straight because I am in a different time zone, must negotiate my way through the sea of motorbikes if I want to get to the traditional market. In fact, I have to cross six or seven streets to get to the market. Will I survive?

I try several strategies.

Wait for a clear path across the street. This doesn't work. I wait and a path through the traffic never presents itself. Even when it seems promising, as soon as I step off the curb, the path disappears and I jump back.

Tail a local. I wait for a person who looks Vietnamese and follow him. I look like a stalker. Then I realize the locals have more nerve than I do. I make it across the street, but I think I'm going to die from fright. This isn't sustainable.

Don't look any drivers in the eye. Then maybe they'll avoid me. I get halfway across the street, look up, see how much traffic there is and realize this is a very bad idea. I run back to the curb and think of another strategy. Just when I get my wits together, there is a collision. No one is hurt, but the traffic pauses long enough for me to run across the street. The wait-for-a-collision strategy, while successful, isn't one I want to count on.

I finally find the best strategy. Wait for a family with small children. Moms have an innate sense of what's safe. Drivers hold back a bit for babies and toddlers. I start shadowing families. I smile and say "cute baby" to remove the appearance of stalking.

I'm back at the hotel sipping a drink from the rooftop bar. I look down on the mass of motorbikes and the haze of river mist and bike pollution. Some bikes have one rider. Many have two. Others carry families of three and four. It's cost effective. Bikes are so maneuverable that the traffic always moves.

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