Wednesday, April 29, 2015

notes toward an autobiography by others

The streets of Ho Chi Minh City make for rather desperate exercise for even the most enthusiastic of pedestrians. Footpaths can vary wildly, and occasionally disappear into deep drains. When they are not serving as motorcycle parking lots they make excellent extensions of shop display space, and so the Saigon flaneur must spend much time walking in the road itself, right in the midst of the traffic, praying wildly that a bus or truck doesn’t come speeding up behind you.

When one is making plans to visit Saigon what seems like the most daunting part of walking the city is the crossing of streets. Typically one does not wait for a crosswalk signal or a traffic light or STOP sign, or even a break in the traffic flow, one just steels oneself and steps off the sidewalk. The traffic is mostly motorbikes and the drivers take note of you and swirl around you. I watched videos of this before we left for Vietnam and it looked crazy. But once we were doing it it made a kind of sense. This is not to say it’s a stress-free adventure, especially at night when the oncoming traffic consists of glowing cyclopean eyes, but you kind of know what you’re in for.

What stressed me out more than crossing streets was discovering that the distinction between street and footpath is, well, let’s just say it’s contingent. If the street beside which you are walking is one way and a motorbike pulls out of a driveway and the driver wishes to travel against the traffic flow he doesn’t go all the way around the block. He uses the sidewalk. Thus the footpath is an optional bike lane. And parking space. And dining area for sidewalk restaurants. My tummy felt queasy most the time I was in SE Asia and I did not have the resilience necessary to be constantly on the alert. When our itinerary said it was time to leave Saigon — I was ready.

quote source: Destination Saigon: adventures in Vietnam by Walter Mason

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