Crossing the Street

For this New Year's post, I will now take you through the process of crossing the street in Vietnam. 1. Find a street.

This is a pretty average road, and wider than most. If you're going for a walk, you're going to have to cross a big one eventually. Might as well get it out of the way.

Now, note the traffic. See how it goes everywhere, without regard for silly things like lanes? See how it's moving at a steady twenty miles an hour, even with the congestion? This isn't rush hour. It's mid-morning.

Now, note the lack of crosswalks and convenient red lights to give you time to scurry across. There are no pedestrian accommodations at all.

So how does one cross a street when there will literally never be a good time to do so? When the traffic never stops? When you find yourself stranded along a river of motorbikes, and everything you care about is on the other side?

2. Gird your loins.

No. There will never be a good time to cross. But the street isn't going anywhere and at the moment, neither are you. Either resign yourself to never getting what you want, or put on your big person pants and get out there. Yes, you face vehicular dismemberment. Note that I didn't say it would be fun.

3. Watch how it's done.

Accepting that you have to cross the street doesn't mean you do it blind. So you wait. I mean, other people have to get across the road, too, right? They can't all freakin' teleport.

And eventually, an old man hobbles up to the corner. He barely glances at the traffic, even less at you. He just holds up his hand high as he can get it and, after the briefest of pauses, steps out into the flow. He looks like a school kid asking permission to use the restroom. Except he's wading into a river of metallic death.

At this point, you're pretty sure you're about to witness a gruesome accident. There will be a shriek and a crash and a lot of blood and crying. Maybe someone will even gnash their teeth. But as the old man continues to make his way across the street, the motorbikes glide past him. Nobody slows down. Traffic doesn't stop. The old man walks a slow, constant pace, and the flow swerves around him, past him.

And now you're thinking, "Bullshit." Because that can't possibly be the way they cross the street here. It seems actually insane. You conclude there must be a secret, a trick, and that the man was a crazy old coot. If you wait here long enough, someone will come along and show you the real way, the trick to make everything easy. It'll all make make sense, eventually.

4. Acceptance

Except every subsequent person to cross the street does it the same way. Oh, technique varies... some people don't hold up their hands, some do. Some cross with a kind of surly indifference to the possibility of their own demise. Others hesitate and fret. You watch a schoolgirl cross while talking on her cellphone. A grandmother does it carrying her groceries.

So that's the way of it. Just step out into traffic. Except your every instinct insists that that's the stupidest thing you could do. You should stay where it's safe. Who needs to get across the street anyway?

And for a few minutes, that seems like the solution. Just don't cross. Ever.

And then you remember that the grocery is over there. And the bank. And most of the good restaurants.


5. Holy crap, we're actually doing this

Hold up your hand. Step out into traffic. Feel your heart race as the motorbikes swarm around you, past you. But don't stop. Don't ever stop. If you stop, you really will get run down. Keep walking, slowly, slowly. Give the drivers time to react to you. Make sure you're clearly visible.


Now the tricky part, as traffic's coming from both directions. And there's a bus. And a couple cabs. Maybe you can jump in one and do the rest of the trip in style? Except, how would you even get the door open in this crush of motorbikes?

No. You got this far. You can get all the way. It's even exhilarating, like an extreme sport. You walk slow and steady, motorbikes weaving everywhere. A side mirror brushes your shirt. Your hair ruffles in the blast from a muffler. And just before you reach the corner, another motorcycle comes screaming the wrong way up the gutter, from a direction you weren't even looking.

And then you're on the opposite sidewalk. Your heart's banging, your skin feels cold and clammy. But you did it! You did it!

Which is when you remember the next street. And the next. And the fact that you'll have to do all this in reverse if you ever want to go home again. And was the grocery store really worth all the hassle? Jury's still out. But you made it. You have the option to go. You're not just hiding in your house, living on candy bars from the corner store.

So on this New Year's Eve, remember there's never a good time to step out into traffic. It may be safer to just stay put. But if you do, you'll never get to all the things across the street.


PS: I apologize heartily for ever complaining about traffic in Korea.