After eight years of fairly regular international travel to multiple continents, including two previous trips to Asia, I finally experienced culture shock in 2010.
The culprit: The streets of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Vietnam.
Sure, I’ve noticed differences in cultures and found some things a bit strange due to its unfamiliar nature, but I’ve never felt extremely disoriented or anxious by these disparities. That streak was about to come to a screeching halt.
I arrived at my guesthouse in HCMC by myself at around 2am. My view from the taxi on the ride from the airport was of closed storefronts and the occasional motorbike whizzing by. Generally speaking, the city was fast asleep…which was exactly what I wanted to be after a very long journey from the States (with a slight 4 hour detour in Shanghai’s shopping district, but that’s another story).
I awoke the next morning and journeyed downstairs to the common area that was like a living room where they served coffee and bread with jam. After that first cup of delicious Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk, I was instantly obsessed with the stuff and couldn’t get enough for the rest of my trip.
Well caffeinated, I was ready to take on a new city. I plotted out a pretty solid itinerary to keep me occupied for the day until my friend Cristiana arrived that evening.
First stop – search out a big, hot, steaming bowl of pho. I was so excited to have the real thing in Vietnam!
I walked out of our guesthouse which was down a little alley from the main road and I emerged into a flurry of motorbikes, some riding on what I gathered was supposed to be a sidewalk, that was followed up by a small procession of boys with drums and someone dressed as a dragon. Add to that a constant stream of people scurrying to and from the market that was on the corner of the street.
Perhaps it was slightly more chaotic than normal due to Tet, the Lunar New Year, coming up in a couple days, but I presume that only explained the drummer boys and dragon marching down the street that morning.
After being side-tracked by the market, I got re-focused and spotted a row of restaurants on the other side of a major street that looked quite promising.
The road in between me and pho was probably the equivalent of three lanes on each side with a median in the middle. The next task at hand – figure out how to get to the other side of the street.
I quickly realized that there were no traffic lights anywhere in sight and there was a VERY steady stream of traffic going both ways. I stood there, dumbfounded, just staring at the traffic for what felt like 20 minutes, although it was probably closer to five.
I couldn’t believe that I couldn’t figure out how to cross the street! This is something I had been able to do for a solid 25 years!
I’ve done this simple task in countries all over the world, both with and without streetlights, in big cities and small towns. My biggest quandary to date was remembering which way to look in places like the UK and Australia. Thankfully in London, they even remind you on the sidewalk!
I was perplexed. How could this be? I’m a very capable traveler. This is a simple task. Why can’t I figure this out?
I laid out the options that came to mind.
Option 1 – I could walk further down on that side of the street and maybe I’d eventually find a traffic light. But I figured if there wasn’t a traffic light at this major intersection, maybe they don’t exist here or are very rare (turns out sleuth Susie was right about that hypothesis).
Option 2 – I could dart out in traffic and hope for the best, but obviously I didn’t want to die, especially not alone in Vietnam.
These were two very poor options, indeed.
Unfortunately, Option 3, ask someone, or Option 4, be patient and wait longer until someone else crossed the street so you could observe them, didn’t pop into my head at the time. That would have saved me a whole lot of angst!
I continued to stare ahead at the row of restaurants across the street teasing me with their tempting smells and colorful signs full of food pictures. As the minutes passed by with me frozen on the corner of the street, I grew increasingly frustrated with myself at not knowing what to do. I wanted to cry. I felt helpless.
Why won’t the traffic stop for just a few seconds?! How long was I supposed to wait here?!
I realize how ridiculous it sounds to be on the verge of tears in the span of minutes because I couldn’t cross the street, but it was bigger than that. I pride myself on being able to navigate new countries and be resourceful to make things work. This was a situation that left me clueless.
I felt defeated by Vietnam before Noon.
Luckily for me, an old woman came to save me.
She walked up beside me, stepped into the road, turned around to look at me, then waved her hand for me to join her. I stepped behind her and she motioned her hand for me to step beside her. I quickly obliged. Then she just started walking, slow and steady across the street.
I followed suit with my eyes firmly fixed on her, not all the crazy motorbikes that were swarming around and zooming by me. My heart was beating out of my chest. It was the longest walk across the street of my life.
We finally reached the other side and I gave her a huge smile and a little bow in gratitude. I may have mustered a shy “Cám ơn” (thank you), which was the only Vietnamese I knew at the time. She gave me a half smile and went along with her day.
Feeling relieved and triumphant that I learned how to crack the code, I proceeded to my destination to devour that well-earned bowl of pho! It was even more delicious than I had imagined due to the duress I experienced to get my hands on it!
By the end of the day, I felt like an expert. Through observation, I figured out the secret of crossing the street in Vietnam. There’s a hierarchy that you must abide by:
Buses > Cars > People > Motorbikes
Motorbikes will go around people, but do not step in front of a bus or car unless there is bad traffic and they aren’t going fast. If they are going full speed, they are not stopping for you. You will lose that battle every time, so don’t attempt it!
When crossing the street, do not stop suddenly; just keep moving at a steady pace so the motorbikes know which way to go around you.
After following these rules, you’ll soon be able to cross a major traffic circle during the Lunar New Year (Tet) festival like this:
Here’s a video from my first evening on the way back to the guesthouse to give you an idea of the experience of crossing the street in HCMC.