Everyone who has been to South East Asia talks about the traffic in the cities and old hands caution that this is something that travellers have to get to grips with. Guide books are clear about the optimum approach for pedestrians – to walk slowly across the road at a constant pace thus allowing vehicles to weave round you – to suddenly stop or run in response to fear of collisions is to be avoided as these are likely to cause the very problems you are seeking to prevent. This sounds bad enough to a westerner who is used to more regulated traffic system (as you are putting your safety entirely in the hands of others) but the reality is much more complex and challenging!
1) City streets host a continuous stream of traffic, mostly moving at 10 – 20 miles per hour – largely made up of mopeds but including some cars, taxis, buses and lorries. This means that drivers have time to react and adjust their speed and direction in response to the decisions and movement of others. However, the occasional rogue driver in a big hurry cannot be discounted and adjusting to the suddenness of their different speed is difficult to do quickly.
2) The Vietnamese highway code makes clear that large vehicles have priority over smaller ones – which leaves pedestrians, with no vehicular status, right at the bottom of the pile.
3) Vietnamese drivers do not look behind themselves or use their occasionally attached mirrors, pulling out, overtaking and even reversing without a backward glance. It is quite common to witness a person coming out of a building, taking a key from their pocket, sit astride a moped parked on the pavement, start the engine, engage a gear and pull away without any sign of checking what is going on around them. It’s up to following traffic to react appropriately. In Vietnam ‘appropriately’ involves the almost constant application of the horn in order to say ‘here I am right behind you and I’m coming through!’ On the whole there seems little reaction from others to such blaring signals – even from moped riders in danger of being run down by large trucks – but I suppose it is the thought that counts.
4) Intersections are usually unregulated, with traffic streams crossing each other by a ‘system’ by which vehicles weave and slot in between and across each other at slow speed. This works surprisingly well and with apparently little tension, frustration or aggression but fosters an almost complete antipathy to stopping (understandable in this situation – but having serious implications for pedestrians). Where traffic lights have been installed these appear to be viewed as guidance rather than signals requiring a conformity of response.
5) Nominally traffic drives on the right but it is not uncommon for mopeds to travel short distances (at speed) on the wrong side of the road close to the pavement.
So, crossing the road can present a major challenge for the pedestrian. You must first weigh up where the main streams of traffic are and when these are likely to be thinner. Next guage the composition of the traffic and which vehicles are likely to be flexible to your presence (mopeds) and which should be avoided at all costs (lorries and buses – whose only option is to slow down and thus create other complications for the stream as a whole). Having identified your best window you must then make a final check on your own kerbside in case a moped is sneaking along in the gutter against the general direction of travel. Only then can you implement the travel guide advice to walk slowly and steadily into the road, hoping that the situation doesn’t change too dramatically by the time you reach the middle – because being forced to come to a stop is really not a good idea.
But this does not address the challenge in its entirety – as even walking along a street is fraught with difficulty as the pavement itself is rarely left free for your use. Street food cafes spread across pavements and mopeds are parked higgledy-piggledy around them, often double and triple parked into the street, thus frequently forcing the pedestrian out into the middle of the road. Even where there is plenty of room to park on the pavement Vietnamese drivers appear to be under no compunction to do so in a way that is least disruptive to others.
The final threat is the inevitable riding of mopeds along pavements with riders very reluctant to slow down, never mind stop to allow a pedestrian to continue walking.
My experience is that I have gone through 3 distinct phases in adjusting to this:
1) Paralysing fear – standing at the side of the road with no idea how to get across and then advancing in jerky movements guaranteed to send consternation and uncertainty through the advancing traffic.
2) Satisfaction when the process is mastered sufficiency well to enable reasonably safe navigation of the streets.
3) Irritation at the amount of energy required to stay alert and continuously monitor traffic flow and speed to enable safe decision making. The almost constant cacophony of horns and reving engines does little to help calm and safe decision making.
I am of course aware that as a first world tourist in a developing country I am making rather a lot of this and observe Vietnamese people navigating the same set of issues with complete confidence – but there are not that many pedestrians. Vietnamese moped riders seem to view their bikes as an almost complete substitute for walking, shopping in narrow market lanes ‘from the saddle’ and literally riding ‘door to door’. I also have to acknowledge that from the pillion of a motorbike or even the saddle of a bicycle the system seems to work well enough – you just keep moving steadily along – and as for pedestrians – why can’t they get smart and get wheels?