How to NOT Die Crossing the Street in Vietnam

In Vietnam, lights and crosswalks are "suggestions" to be ignored!
I haven't really written about my time visiting Vietnam and Cambodia yet. Actually, I haven't written about much since my Appalachian Trail hike ended and I concluded my trail journal for that trip.

I will write more of a general update later about what I've been doing with my time. For now, just know that I took a little trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. I made a video series that you can check out on the Video page on this site, or on the Unfettered Footsteps YouTube channel.

If you watch those videos, you will here me comment on the traffic, and you will see a lot of it in the footage. Traffic in Vietnam is unavoidable, unless you climb into the jungle hills and disappear for a little while like I did (see Episode 2 for this!). But, even in the hills of Northern Vietnam, eventually a trail leads to a wider trail, which leads to a dirt road, which leads to a village. You'll know you're getting close to the village when you hear the motorbikes....

To understand traffic in Vietnam, you have to re-imagine what traffic is. Now, I live in Atlanta, which has some of the worst traffic in the US. We sit bumper to bumper, plodding along slowly in our lanes, wondering how this could possibly be happening (again) at 10am on a Tuesday when everyone is supposed to be at work. People inch up aggressively to the cars in front of them to remove any space that might provide a glimpse of hope for a driver desperately trying to make it six lanes over to get off the highway to try another route, which will undoubtedly be plugged like the worst toilet clog ever. This is traffic in the US. We still largely stay in our lanes, and as we sit there not moving, twiddling our thumbs, pedestrians can merrily jaywalk in front of us because, hey, we aren't moving anyway. When lights turn red, there might be a few cars that push the limits, but there is at least a good chunk of time where pedestrians can safely get across the road without dying. If a car tries to turn right on a red light and notices a pedestrian is crossing, the car typically jerks to a stop while the driver tries to avoid eye contact and the pedestrian haughtily raises a hand and crosses, as if to say "hey, thanks for not killing me (bung hole!)." Nothing about traffic is civilized, other than the fact that there are generally just enough rules in place, and followed, to avoid killing pedestrians most of the time. What a lovely veneer of civilization!

Vietnam, as the Vietnamese like to say, is different. I must first mention that in most of Southeast Asia, the motorbike is the number one means of motorized transport. There are a few reasons for this, namely that they are much cheaper than cars, easier to store, more fuel efficient, and can navigate tight spaces. Most of these make sense, but you might be wondering, "what does he mean by tight spaces?" I mean the gaps between cars that may or may not be stopped, slowly moving, or rapidly barreling down the highway. In other words, motorbikes can weave through traffic more easily. As incomes have grown in Vietnam, more people have purchased cars and other means of transport. This means growing traffic, and therefore getting a motorbike is just the "easier" way of getting around. Easy, cheap, fast - sounds great right?

Even the family dog rides on two wheels in Vietnam.
Not only have the Vietnamese embraced the motorbike for transportation, but I think it could be considered the National Family Vehicle of Choice there.

I saw just about everything being carried on motorbikes, and up to five people on one scooter at a time. FIVE!!!! I wish I could have gotten a picture of that, but I was too busy trying not to die (more on that in a minute).

Everywhere you look in Vietnam, someone is carrying something impossibly on a motorbike. That new Ikea wall-to-wall bookshelf you just bought with the giant box that weighs two tons? No problem! That thing will just strap right onto the back of a Honda 250cc. Sure, it sticks out a little bit - so what!? There is no such thing as too wide a load in Vietnam. You have ten crates of roosters you want to send over to Bob's farm? Sure! Load em up! Extra points if you can do it with the thinnest twine possible, or maybe use an old, sun-aged bungie cord that you found in a trash bin.

In all seriousness though, it truly is impressive. Just looking at some of the stuff that got strapped onto scooters in Vietnam made me feel like an utter wuss. Not once did I notice anyone reveling in the mastery of their fastening abilities. You won't see anyone parading around a scooter fully loaded with airplane parts, smiling and pointing out to his or her buddies how impressive it is. Nope. It's just daily business in Vietnam. That, alone, really speaks to the focus and "get the job done" attitude that the Vietnamese people have. When I was trekking through the countryside, I walked past a guy on a steep village road who was trying to strap a fledgling tree to his motorbike. A TREE! He was parked on a steep incline and only had two bungie cords, so was struggling to get it secured. I stopped an offered to help.

I helped this guy strap a tree to his bike!

Now, imagine this - you are working in the yard and all of a sudden an alien comes up behind you, speaking in alien gibberish and gesturing at your yard tools. You would probably seem a little surprised and maybe worry a bit about the intentions and logistics. What does this alien want? How do I explain to it how I want the garden hoed? Not a problem for this guy in Vietnam! You see, there aren't a lot of Irish-looking, cat-hat wearing, backpack toting caucasian fellows sauntering through this particular village. I must have seemed a bit out of place. Yet, he said nothing and I said nothing, because it didn't matter. He was on a mission and he knew I could help, and I'll be damned if we didn't get that tree strapped to that bike, albeit a little precariously. When it was finished, I sauntered around the scooter, grinning, pointing and taking pictures. My Hmong guide looked unamused and motioned for us to get going. I turned around and the guy on the motorbike was already back on the scooter, getting ready to ride up an insane incline with his tree. He didn't marvel at the job we had done or even turn to say bye - he just kept on moving along.

And that, in a nutshell, explains Vietnam traffic - it keeps on about its purpose, no matter what.

Now to (finally) get to the point, because your takeaway from this post will be a true skill: how to not die crossing the street in Vietnam. When you go to cross the street in Vietnam, you will be staring at a hive of swarming bees. Everywhere around you, almost always from multiple directions, motorbikes and cars will be whizzing by. You'll think to yourself, "this just isn't humanly possible," and stare and stand there waiting for a break in traffic. You might walk up and down the street looking for a better spot, but you won't find it. The swarm of road bees will keep on buzzing.

So, what do you do? Remember that video game Frogger? First things first, forget everything you ever learned in Frogger. PLAYING FROGGER WILL GET YOU KILLED IN VIETNAM! This is no joke - you really have to let all of the tactics you used in Frogger go. Instead, think about the third Indiana Jones movie where, in the final piece, to find the knight guarding the holy chalice Indiana must take a leap of faith. He must literally step out into what seems to be an endless abyss with the true faith that he won't just plummet to his death. It seems ridiculously impossible, but when he just proceeds on faith, suddenly he can walk on air and get across. His faith triggers an invisible bridge. This is what you must do - proceed with faith. I know, I know. Proceeding with faith goes against everything you've ever been taught about crossing the street. Sometimes to do the thing one fears the most, faith is the only highway (pun intended, hardy har) to success.

Want a goldfish? Come over to my scooter.

Remember before when I said that traffic in Vietnam keeps about its purpose? This is why the Frogger method doesn't work. In Vietnam, traffic and people JUST GO. But, they all know this; it is in their culture and daily lives. Therefore, when drivers in Vietnam see someone moving across the street ahead, they assume that person will keep moving, and they adjust for this. There may be 100 motorbikes on the road, but they all assume you will keep moving slowly forward. If you stop and look at them to try and figure out which way they are going, it is confusing for them, because this is not what a Vietnamese person would do. If you do this, they may run right up on you (because you didn't keep moving), or swerve into other motorbikes and cause an accident, or otherwise create a chain reaction of chaos as other bikes are influenced by the first bike trying, and failing, to read your moves.

This is why Frogger moves fail, and Indiana Jones leap-of-faith tactics win in Vietnam. No matter what, you must keep slowly moving forward to avoid getting flattened in traffic.

Now, I recognize that it might seem intimidating to walk out into a sea of moving traffic, but this is where you have to get behind the leap of faith concept. It may not be YOUR culture to cross the street this way, but your rules DON'T apply here! Remember that, and it will make more logical sense. There is one other important rule of thumb: Don't make eye contact with the drivers! This is bad because then they think that you are trying to communicate something to them, like maybe you will stop and try your hand at Frogger again.... Bad, bad, BAD! If you want to look at oncoming traffic, do so with your eyes cast down and out of the corner of your eye if possible. Don't look at their faces! Resist the urge!

While it may seem crazy, I'm telling you this works. Just remember to slowly keep walking (not too fast!) and don't make eye contact. The first time I successfully did this, I was amazed! It was like I had some kind of magnetic boundary, and the zoo of motorbikes just bent in graceful arcs around me. If I can do it, you can do it! Just remember - don't get too cocky! Once you get the hang of it, the fear will leave you and you might be tempted to look too long at the interesting assortment of things that are strapped to the motorbikes whizzing around you. Don't get distracted! Just keep on walking.

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