Visiting Saigon By Yourself

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Saigon at night
Saigon at night

Traffic is made up of a staggering number of motorbikes and, since import duty was reduced upon Vietnam’s joining of the WTO, an increasing number of private cars. However its exceptionally rare to see a motorbike of more than 150cc, and the traffic rarely gets above 20-30 km/h in central areas.

However crossing the road in Saigon can be a nightmare. It is always scary, for some they will get used to it quite quickly. If ever in doubt, Saigon Tourist Security officers (guys in marked green uniforms) will happily help you across. A quicker way of getting across is to simply follow the lead of a local crossing the street.

Saigon traffic
Saigon traffic

However the true trick to crossing the road is to stay aware, and walk slowly and confidently. The motorbike riders are actually exceptionally good and will simply move to avoid you just don’t make any sudden lurches forwards, backwards, or stop for that matter. Just look for a gap or seam in the traffic, and begin a slow but steady movement. If you hear a beep coming your way it likely a motorbike rider is about to enter your personal space. Be a alert and prepared to stop putting your foot forward until he passes.

Adherence to traffic signals in Saigon is worse, and while they’re not always followed, riders/drivers tend to use judgment. Just remember though that vehicles can always turn right at any time (regardless of lights). Motorbikes often drive in the wrong direction to make a short cut from point A to point B even if they are against the traffic. Crossing roads therefore maybe a challenge for westerners used to traffic laws and traffic lights.

A typical scenario played here, and in other big cities in Vietnam is motorcycles dash from everywhere. The thumb rule of crossing in the US of look to the left and at the median, look to the right does not follow. Look everywhere as you cross, in all directions to your left, to the back at your left, to your right, to your right in front, even if you have the right of way, like 5 or 6 kamikaze ninjas against one, they will insist and even if you stare at them in the eye and raise your hand horizontally signalling them to stop. Even in sidewalks, they invade and will just appear next to you before you know. Sidewalks are not the domain of pedestrians, they are used for car and motorcycles for passing if not for parking, then whatever space left is for the pedestrian. That’s the hierarchy.

A tourist attraction in Saigon
A tourist attraction in Saigon

The streets, sidewalks, and outdoor markets are covered by motorbikes, and not yet geared towards pedestrian traffic (although sidewalk clearing campaigns are now underway  a few areas of the centre are easy to negotiate as long as you keep your wits about you for speeding motorbikes). However walking along the edge of the road is easy enough. Not all motorbikes behind you will generally beep at you to let you know they’re there.

The traffic police occupy themselves with random roadside checks and do not bother the motorcyclists that are running red lights or driving on the sidewalks. The police recently announced a crackdown on pedestrians. This does NOT mean that they will hassle you; the most likely meaning of the crackdown is that you will be held responsible if you are involved in an accident.

But there are some open sidewalks to walk safely on and just walking around the city helps you really get a taste of it. Seeing people prepare, cook food and wash dishes, and even shave, manicure and pedicure, not to mention sleep and pee on the side of the street and just standing watching traffic go by in awe is just as entertaining as anything.