Ho Chi Minh City: Land of Aggressive Motorbikes

We arrived in Vietnam a few days ago (Tuesday the 4th to be precise) and have spent the past few days in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, the former capital of South Vietnam. The city is absolutely huge. 8 million people, 2 million Coffee Bean franchise locations (not really, it just felt like it) and what seemed like a hundred billion motorbikes. Again, I’m not one for research, but my observation is that everyone here drives a motorbike, including grandmothers, infants and farm animals. I saw a gecko last night at our restaurant and I could have sworn he had a tiny motorbike. (It’s faster than walking.) That said, this post is to tell you about the sport I just invented, in honor of the 2014 Winter Olympics: grand traffic slalom.

We came to HCMC during a confluence of holidays. January 31 was Tet, or Chinese New Year, and people celebrate for a few days before and after. In addition to Tet, February 3 is the anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party in Vietnam, having to do with THE MAN Ho Chi Minh himself. So people were celebrating all week, shuttering businesses downtown for our first day and forcing us to play connect the dots with Lonely Planet restaurant, entertainment and shopping recommendations to find something to do. In other words, we did a lot of walking, and encountered lots of motorbikes.

When I say that Ho Chi Minh is the city of aggressive motorbikes, I mean like motocross mixed with Evil Canneval, death-defying stunt bike stuff. Crossing the street was terrifying. Remember Frogger? This was Frogger on acid. There were buses trying desperately to get through intersections, cars trying not to get crushed by buses, and then motorbikes, whirring around other vehicles, weaving in and out of pedestrians and jumping up on sidewalks to get around traffic. I saw a motorbike accelerate towards an old woman and then stop short a few centimeters from her when she didn’t get out of the way quickly enough. So much for respecting elders. One guy on a motorbike tried to rip Rebecca’s bag off of her arm on a side street (and succeeded only in getting us to scream like little girls – not what he was after, we think).

Motorcyclists brazenly defy traffic lights and walk signals, so that if you, a pedestrian, are stupid enough to walk immediately when the walk sign goes on, you will surely die. Naturally, if you don’t go as soon as you can, it will take you hours to cross a street in a city of 8 million. So what do you do other than walking around the block turning right like Derek Zoolander? Grand traffic slalom.

It works like this. Get to an intersection. Find the nearest “crosswalk” (which is there I think more as a reference to handicap ramps, when they exist, than an actual zone designated for pedestrians). Put on your goggles and helmet while waiting for the walk sign if there is one (we didn’t jaywalk much because the police here have machine guns). Look both ways. Then run across the street as quickly as possible. It helps to wear brightly colored clothing and to wave your hands in the air. Why do I call it slalom if it is just a sprint across the street? Because the motorbikes will be there with you, completely not caring that they have a red light, and you must avoid them. (Side note here: though it is like Frogger, yelling “Log!” or “Lillypad!” did not help me.)

I think that grand traffic slalom is more of a summer sport than a winter one, so I will be trying to get it into the 2016 Olympics. I could really use an Adidas or Nike clothing sponsorship agreement right now. But if I fail, just remember that when in Ho Chi Minh City, walking is a contact sport, and you should be prepared to do what it takes to cross the road. And when you succeed, be sure to reward yourself with a frozen treat at Coffee Bean. Their frappes look awesome.

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