Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon, is home to 13 million people …. And about 8 million motorbikes! Nowhere is this more apparent than on the city’s streets. Stampedes of scooters race along, swerving among cars and laden trucks, creating the infamous Saigon traffic. To be a pedestrian in Saigon is to discover both the strength and weakness of this city: sights in the downtown – the beautiful Central Post Office, the lively Saigon Opera House, and the bustling Ben Thanh Market among them – are within easy walking distance of each other. But to walk from one to another, you’re going to have to cross some daunting streets.
Ask a local in Saigon, and they will tell you that the crosswalks are “mostly for decoration”. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see increasingly bewildered tourists stranded at crosswalks, waiting their turn. While it’s true that there are stoplights at major intersections, there’s rarely a dedicated safe time for pedestrian crossings.
That’s not to say that you can’t cross the street in Saigon. But to do so, you’ll need to dramatically adjust your world view, at least for the length of time it takes to wade out into the raging river of traffic.
Following the advice of locals, we’ve outlined how exactly one can cross the street in Saigon traffic. It’s not a technique that prizes safety above all, but it’s the way that locals cross, and it’s how cars, motorbikes and scooters are expecting pedestrians to cross – and in that way, offers a buffer of safety by way of cultural familiarity.
How to cross the street in Saigon Traffic
First, take a deep breath. You’re going to need it, because you may find yourself holding your breath as oncoming traffic bears down on you. Next, angle your body and your gaze toward the oncoming traffic. Raise one arm in the air (this gives you a little extra visibility), and, as soon as there’s enough space to begin without getting immediately hit by a vehicle, step off the sidewalk and onto the street. Walk slowly and steadily, watching the traffic and keeping your arm up. Fight the urge to speed up, dodge scooters and generally ‘Frogger’ your way across the street. As long as you are walking steadily and confidently, you are a predictable moving object in the eyes of the motorists. Start darting and you break the system.
Watch this video for a first-hand view of what it’s like to cross the street in Saigon. Special thanks to Nguyễn Hoang Nam, one of Avalon Waterways’ Vietnam guides, for being such a confident and knowledgeable demonstrator!