As we planned our holiday, I thought of Ho Chi Minh as a stopover where we would sleep a couple of nights and recover after our plane trip, before beginning our Vietnamese adventure in earnest.
It’s not that I don’t like cities. I work and socialise in Sydney. It throbs with a life that I’d miss if I were permanently banished to the suburbs (where I live) or some beachy bushland (where I’d like to live).
Food, music, theatre, pubs, festivals, ferries, friends. They all connect me irresistibly to a somewhat city-bound life. But I hate the busyness of the city – the press of bodies on the footpath; the noisy, traffic-jammed streets; the feeling of being rushed and stagnated all at once by the sheer volume of humanity competing to move through the same space.
And with a population of nearly 9 million to our 4.6 million, the streets of Ho Chi Minh are notorious for their busyness – and chaos.
For many, the overwhelming first impression of Ho Chi Minh’s streets is of scooters, cars, pedestrians, bicycles, horns competing in an every-man-for-himself environment. People who have travelled there will often warn you what a truly dangerous and scary thing it is to cross the street in Ho Chi Minh.
This is complete bollocks. The streets of Ho Chi Minh are some of the safest and and most pedestrian-friendly I’ve ever experienced. And the statistics bear this out. According to the World Health Organization, worldwide the proportion of pedestrians killed in relation to other road users is lowest in southeast Asia, where the figure is 12 per cent, compared to the global average of 22 per cent*.
Exploring the city by foot, wandering far and wide – including crossing many busy roads – was a feature of my stay in Ho Chi Minh.
Don’t get me wrong, at first glance, the traffic in Ho Chi Minh looks and sounds terrifying.
But once your heartbeat has stilled, look properly and you’ll realise that despite the volume of traffic on the roads and people on the footpaths (and often vice versa), no one is moving particularly fast. No one is pushing or insisting on their right of way (as they do in Sydney). They’re alert to the movement of cars and scooters and people around them, and they’re responsive to those movements.
Once you recognise this, you realise that crossing the road is just a matter of finding a gap in the traffic, stepping into it and walking steadily across. As long as you don’t make any sudden movements the drivers can’t anticipate, the traffic flows around you.
On day two, we found ourselves on a roundabout encircled by three or four interweaving streams of traffic. My 13-year-old daughter frowned for just a moment, calculating, then advised me confidently, ‘After the scooter and before the truck. Ready?’
* figures quoted from the ABC’s Radio Australia website