We believe that one of the best ways to explore a big city is by walking it. During this adventure, N and I have tackled Kyoto, Tokyo, Auckland and Wellington, plus numerous small towns and villages. Never before, however, have we encountered as much danger as we did when exploring Ho Chi Minh City (formerly and still sometimes Saigon) and Hanoi in Vietnam.
It’s every man (or woman) for themselves out here.
Imagine the biggest non-motorway road you can. Now envision it filled entirely with cars, and fill in the empty spaces with thousands of motorbikes. Add more motorbikes. Throw in pedestrians, elderly women on bicycles, wheeled carts filled with vegetables, tuk-tuks, and a few more motorbikes, just for good measure. Feel free to paint in lane lines and dividers on your imaginary road, but don’t worry too much as everyone will assiduously ignore these. Now imagine that everyone who has access to a horn or a bell or any other noisemaking device is using it – at the same time. Oh, and don’t forget to let everyone text while they’re driving. Now you might just barely have the tiniest inkling of the risk involved in walking Vietnamese city streets.
Southeast Asia is absolutely overrun with motorbikes. Tourists can rent them, but do so at your own risk; serious accidents are common.
We love walking (maybe me just a touch more than N, especially in the southeast Asian heat) but never before has it been quite so difficult. Even on the sidewalk – ostensibly a safe haven – we faced myriad obstacles.
Sidewalks in Vietnam aren’t so much for walking as they are for sitting down to catch up with friends.
If the road traffic is too much, the motorbikes will join the pedestrians on the sidewalks. Also, feel free to park your car wherever you’d like, as demonstrated on left.
Pop-up meat markets, like this one, also make navigating sidewalks in Hanoi somewhat challenging.
We regularly saw bicycles and motorbikes loaded with two, three or four family members. Child safety seats? Not so much.
The kid sandwiched on the motorbike in the foreground apparently doesn’t need a helmet.
Even when the crosswalk light says it’s the pedestrians’ turn, this is typically the gauntlet you face. Beware.
No, that isn’t a crashproof bike helmet.
We saw motorbikes carrying all manner of goods, from extension ladders to mini fridges to lengths of steel pipe to balloon bouquets.
The bicycle on the right is loaded with ceramics for sale. Imagine how heavy and unwieldy it must be to ride.
We learned quickly that the only way to make progress was to take a deep breath and step out into traffic. No one is actually driving all that fast, and the motorbikes will elegantly navigate around pedestrians like a shoal of fish. As long as you move smoothly and consistently – and don’t stop in the middle – the system actually works, surprisingly. It defies all Western conventions. Numerous times, we saw panicked tourists frozen on the side (or the middle!) of the big roads. Know that a good degree of faith is required.
Apprentice monks have places to go, too.
Yes, N was crossing the road when he snapped the shot. Risky job, this.
Drivers wait for a fare…these carts only seat one passenger, so they’re not practical unless you’re traveling solo.
Notice here that lane lines and directional traffic are merely a suggestion.
We read a helpful travel trip: “If taking a motorbike taxi, ensure your driver is sober and lucid.” Honestly, how would you know? Our airport shuttle bus driver fell asleep with alarming regularity along the journey.
4AM and we can finally use the pedestrian crosswalk safely.
Navigating Vietnamese cities on foot has been one of the trickiest and most tiring parts of our travel thus far, but it certainly qualifies as an adventure!