THE BLOG

Crossing the Street in Ho Chi Minh City

08/10/2010 12:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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I am walking in Ho Chi Minh City, which the locals still call Saigon. It is only seven am, but there is already a good deal of traffic, mainly motorbikes whizzing by in droves. The men are dressed in western clothes, but the women on the bikes are covered with long-sleeves, gloves and a facemask. Some wear a conical hat over their helmet. It's humid, around 90 degrees, but Vietnamese women like their skin fair. I pass people eating breakfast at stalls on the sidewalk, sitting on little red plastic stools that you'd see children sitting on in kindergarten. Everyone eats Pho (a traditional noodle soup with beef and spices). They slurp the thin noodles using chopsticks. A boy hunched on the ground polishes shoes. A woman nearby arranges grapefruit pieces into the shape of a flower.

I arrived late last night from New York, checked into the Caravelle Hotel and went to sleep; and even though my guide is coming in half an hour for a city tour, I wanted to get outside and get a feel for the city. Even though it's still early, every few minutes someone approaches me on a bicycle rickshaw (which they call a cyclo) and says, "Madame, you want a tour guide?" Or, "Where you want to go? I take you." If my clothing and blond hair don't give me away as a tourist, my camera certainly does. Another cyclo driver appears. "Guide?" "I have a guide coming very soon," I say. "Ten minutes!" he says, "I take you ten minutes." I shake my head no.

A woman is eating a soupy meal in a zip lock bag with chopsticks. I pass a stand that says, "Bunhbao banh uo + hamberger." Hamburger here? I snap a photo just as a man with a cyclo approaches and says "Good picture to take, come, I show you." I am curious--what is a good picture? He takes my arm, but I refuse to get in the cyclo. Now we are about to cross the street. Is he serious? There's no way to cross because the traffic is continuous and there are no stoplights. He leads me to the other side of his cyclo so that the vehicle protects me. It's unending motorbikes and cars, like herds of wildebeests during migration, except that instead of the thundering hoofs, you hear beep beep from every direction. I am so relieved to be separated from the oncoming stampede by this guide and his rickshaw that I am prepared to pay him for my safety. He succeeds in leading me across the street. "How do you do it?" I ask. "The traffic never lets up."

"You either cross very slow, or you put your hand here (he places his hand on his heart) and cross fast."

He leads me to a small park in the middle of a traffic circle and points to a huge statue. In the glaring sun, I can't see what it is but I imagine its Ho Chi Minh. I walk around the statue, but don't see anything I want to shoot. I turn and look for my guide, but he is gone. Uh oh. I'm going to have to cross the street by myself. This is like a bad nightmare. I start to cross. A motorbike comes straight towards me. I jump back onto the sidewalk. Where is my cyclo guide? I'd pay him double to lead me to the other side of the street. I hold my breath and attempt it once more but a car zooms by, almost running me over. There will never be a break, in the traffic. I'm going to be stuck here all morning. Suddenly I see a policeman! Where did he come from? I motion to him; he takes my arm, and gallantly helps me to cross the street. Happiness.

A couple of days later, I am in Nha Trong at the brand new Sheraton property. The Sheraton overlooks the beach, but to get there, you must cross a main street which, as in Saigon, has no traffic lights and is a continuous race of vehicles vying for the right of way. Oh no! But then I see that crossing the street in Nha Trang will never be a problem, because Sheraton has hired a crossing guard whose only job is to get terrified tourists like me safely back and forth across the road -- from 7am till night. He holds up his placard and smiles as he stops the traffic for me to cross. Aaaaaah.