Heavy traffic is expected when one visits any of the larger cities in the world. From the pungent scent of vehicular exhaust to the ever present smog which seems to smother cities such as Hong Kong, we learn how to adapt whether we're driving or trying to cross the street.
Some of us have been blessed with agility and perform death defying stunts to bob and weave our way across busy lanes, while those with limited mobility or simply a more profound sense of caution wait impatiently at the pedestrian crossings for the light to change in their favour.
Traffic in South East Asia however, is apparently in a league of its own. After leaving the organized city of Singapore where pedestrians had some illusion of power, I was subjected to a healthy dose of culture shock after arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I'd previously read that the traffic was extreme, but this was a case of seeing is believing.
I'd sadly made the mistake of comparing the traffic in Vietnam to that of New York City during rush hour, in the sense that it's the drivers who were feeling the pinch, while the pedestrians could take their time and cross the street in the midst of a traffic jam.
It didn't take long for me to figure out that I had the wrong impression. In Ho Chi Minh City, the traffic barely ever halts, and it's the pedestrians who get the rotten end of the stick. I avoided crossing the street for as long as I could, until I absolutely needed to. My heart was pounding up a jungle beat as I contemplated making my way across the seemingly endless stream of scooters and motorbikes which flowed around the round-a-bout near the Ben Thanh Market.
While I hesitated, I spotted an elderly man on the other side. He simply stepped off the sidewalk and slowly but steadily made his way across, while the traffic appeared to part for him, as the Red Sea did for Moses. When he arrived on my side of the street, he gave me a wink and gestured for me to cross. He motioned for me to move slowly and then gave me a thumbs up.
Emboldened by his assistance, I sent a prayer up to the heavens and inched my off the edge of safety. Slowly I placed one foot in front of the other, and tried not to panic as I saw scooters coming straight for me. At the last moment, they gently swerved behind of me and allowed me to continue. This seemed to last forever. All I could hear was the honking of horns as I became totally engulfed in the traffic.
Finally, I arrived at the other side in the same condition as before. I looked back in the direction from which I came and saw the man waving at me. It meant a lot that he cared enough about a stranger to watch over her in a potentially dangerous situation. I smiled and waved goodbye before continuing along.
I had to repeat this many times during my travels in South East Asia, but it got easier with every crossing. The trick is not to make any sudden moves, and the cyclists will do their best to avoid you. The first time is the hardest, but unless you intend to take a taxi everywhere, you'll have to face this issue at some point. Remember to move slowly, and once you're off the sidewalk, don't stop walking until you're on the other side!