Ho Chi Minh City used to be known as Saigon. Many locals are still using the previous old name which rolls off the tongue much better than the new name. And the one area where I am staying is officially called Saigon, a district within Ho Chi Minh City.
So what brought me to Vietnam? I actually live in Chiang Mai, Thailand. That’s a great city with one BIG exception. During March and April the weather is extremely hot. And at the same time there is lots of agricultural burning going on during that time. The result of this is extremely high air pollution which is dangerous for your health.
That’s why I always escape to a different location with a better climate and less pollution during this time of the year. Vietnam is just a short airplane hop from Thailand. Prices are as affordable as in Thailand and temperatures are lower at higher elevations.
Actually Ho Chi Minh City is quite hot and polluted as well, however it is only the first stop towards my final destination which is a pretty mountain town called Dalat with hardly any pollution or burning problems.
Here in Saigon the first thing that struck me is the crazy traffic. And that says a lot since I am used to the traffic in Thailand and I have been driving a motorbike for 14 years in Thailand without any accident – knock on wood.
The statistics are staggering. Ho Chi Minh City (or HCMC for short) has about 10 million inhabitants and 5 million motorcycles – all small scooters. It seems that they are all on the road at once at all hours of the day or night.
If we compare Thailand with Vietnam, the traffic in Thailand is quite civilized. Here are some major differences:
1. In Thailand nobody honks their horn unless there is an emergency situation. In Vietnam everybody is laying on their horn all the time, and for no good reason as far as I am concerned. It is a constant cacophony of sounds which result in just being tuned out by the drivers since everybody around them is honking.
2. Although there are lots of motorcycles on the road in Thailand, there are several times as many in Vietnam. While in Thailand the traffic rules are not exactly observed very strictly, Vietnam is an overwhelming scenario with motorbikes coming at you from all directions, all within inches from each other.
3. In Thailand there are pedestrian crosswalks with traffic lights, and cars actually stop at them (most of the time). Also when you cross the street, cars and motorbikes will slow down to let you cross (not always).
However in Vietnam no vehicle ever stops at a pedestrian crosswalk without a red light, and no vehicle will ever slow down to accommodate you crossing the street. So unless there is an intersection with traffic lights, your only way to cross a street is to just slowly and deliberately walk into the chaotic traffic.
The word is slowly. If you walk too fast, you are dead meat, and if you stop, you will get run over. As long as you walk slowly and keep your eyes peeled on the cars and bikes which are rushing past you without ever slowing down, somehow they will drive by you without hitting you as long as your movement is slow and predictable to the drivers.
If you do something unpredictable like stopping or walking faster, you are history. This is the accepted way of crossing the street, and it is literally a death defying adventure. The Vietnamese are used to it. They share the street with huge buses, bicyclists, hand carts and walking street vendors.
There is a helmet law in Vietnam. Most drivers do wear a helmet, although they are very flimsy $5 contraptions whose main purpose is to protect you from fines by the cops. Chances are slim that they do much in terms of protecting your head in case of a serious accident. However really quality helmets are only available as expensive import products and they are way out of the price range of most Vietnamese.
Especially the women are really bundled up with long sleeved shirts, helmets, sun glasses, face masks against the pollution and even gloves. The reason is that most women in southeast Asia do not want to be tanned. Actually they do not only avoid the sun, but they liberally apply whitening creams to their faces to have that cherished pale look.
I spent about one hour at one intersection and just snapped pictures right there without moving from the relative safety of the sidewalk. I say ‘relative’ because at one point I heard a screaming western woman and saw a Vietnamese man running.
As soon as the passersby realized what was going on, namely the man had either pickpocketed the woman or snatched something, immediately the guy was jumped by several Vietnamese, thrown to the ground and searched. Within seconds there was a big crowd of spectators assembled, and within minutes the police arrived and the unlucky thief found himself in handcuffs.
Violent crime against tourists is very rare in Vietnam, however in the big cities there are plenty of opportunists who will pick your pockets or snatch your bag.
This of course is not something which is just happening in Vietnam, but it is a common phenomenon in most big cities on the planet. You just have to be careful what you carry with you and how easy or hard you make it for potential thieves.
Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City is a teeming city which has grown into a super heated engine for economic development and booming tourism. You can have a great time here as long as you survive the traffic.
I am trying to look at the silver lining of it all. At least you never have to wait until the light turns green in order to cross the road. And you never have to worry about getting a ticket for illegally crossing the road. And nobody will ever give you the finger for standing in the middle of rush hour traffic.
All you have to do is not get run over which is literally a death defying adventure.
Actually HCMC is quite a pleasant and civilized place. Trees are lining most streets and there are lots of green spaces along with the Saigon river meandering through the city. The variety of restaurants with food from all around the globe is amazing, and there is lots to do and see.
So don’t let the traffic turn you off. Just don’t try to ride a scooter through it on your own – at least not in the beginning.
The author, Shama Kern, has been living in Thailand for over a decade. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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