When I talk to my overseas connections about what it’s like to live in Vietnam, the conversations are typically detailed - focusing on costs, airplane schedules, tourist sites, and so on.
I always skip over the innocuous little quirks, such as how challenging it can be to walk down the street.
A challenge to walk down the street?
Yep, that’s right. People in highly developed countries assume sidewalks are for pedestrians and cars stop when the pedestrians start to cross at crosswalks. Well, not around here: sidewalks are for everything except walking and the last thing many drivers would do is yield to pedestrians trying to cross the street.
The best description for sidewalks in Vietnam (and every other developing country I know) is “obstacle courses." The upside is they provide ideal opportunities for physical exercise, agility, hopping, vaulting, jumping, honing our powers of observation, skipping, and quick thinking.
No point in getting upset, it’s just the way things are - symbols of a simple lifestyle. I actually prefer playing Vietnamese “sidewalk hopscotch” to the obsession with perfection found in some places, not to mention any names.
When I walk by a construction site in Japan, a small renovation like the one pictured here below will have at least two human security guards plus one of those electric robot thingies that waves a warning flag. Talk about over-managed! Enough already, give me Vietnam and a few ups and downs any day!
To add to the excitement of walking, we need to keep a close eye on drivers because they’re not always watching us. To be completely candid, they’re usually not watching us. A large percentage are juggling at least one more activity while navigating busy roads and other unpredictable drivers, with window shopping highly popular with many drivers.
The recent local multitasking champion was a delivery driver zipping along a one-way street in the wrong direction, one hand on the motorbike handle, the other securing the load on the back, with his phone wedged between the cheek and shoulder whilst holding an animated conversation: “Honey! Did you forget? I can’t stand that restaurant, let’s go somewhere else tonight.”
Bear in mind I’m a careful pedestrian and I know this mid-sized provincial city like my pocket. But danger lurks everywhere, and here’s what happened to me in broad daylight within 90 minutes on a recent day:
First, I got hit by a motorbike - ok, it was more like a firm smack than a collision. The driver was accelerating from standing just after I walked by facing the same direction, forced to walk on the road because the sidewalk was full of stuff. The driver fired without aiming, not looking before taking off, and that’s common practice around here.
When she hit me I swiveled toward her and saw the phone in her hand. She had probably taken a quick glance in front, saw nothing, then pulled away from the curb while looking at the phone, not realizing that I’d taken several steps and was right in the line of fire.
Had I been a brittle-boned elderly person, I’d have been flattened on the spot.
A few minutes later I was crossing a side street at a crosswalk, which is largely dysfunctional because drivers ignore it, and nearly got squished by a motorbike going at least double the normal speed through a blind curve.
So, please, follow this slick little 8-step checklist before crossing any street: look up, down, left, right, ahead, behind, then left and right one more time.
Yes, and it’s critical, trust me on this. Recently I was walking by a renovation site when a worker suddenly grabbed me by the arms and steered me to the side. I looked up and there was a large pail of concrete being pulled up the side of the building directly over me.
Next, ensure that you keep your eyes down toward the ground while walking. This tactic allows you to see dips in the road, home-made motorbike ramps, missing sidewalk tiles, weirdly-installed drains, vendors resting, random holes, and the like.
There are more obstacles than you can shake a stick at, but, fortunately, Vietnam gets a big gold star for having an excellent “Dog Poop in the Street” rating, so, generally, you don’t have to keep on the lookout for that.
Then I passed a few renovation sites. Mine fields would be a more appropriate term, and they’re everywhere. As Vietnam develops, new replaces old, and development is moving at a blinding pace, so construction is the prevailing theme.
This looks more like a steeplechase course than a sidewalk reserved for pedestrians:
Abandoned motorbikes, dishes and silverware drying outside cafés, garbage, pails, cleaning implements, and everything else except the kitchen sink occupies pedestrian space. Actually, the kitchen sink is on the sidewalk in the above scene, just out of sight to the left.
Check out this recently applied spiffy white line, designed to separate walking space (left) and space for motorbikes and random equipment (right). It’s doesn’t work because you couldn’t squeeze a kiddie tricycle on the right side, never mind a motorbike, but at least the seed has been planted: people need to walk somewhere.
|Spiffy white line|
Now try driving - it’s like a video game except the objective is to miss targets instead of hitting them. Traffic accidents involving foreigners in Vietnam are by no means the exception, rather a common everyday occurrence.
Foreign drivers usually only need a copy of their passport to rent a motorbike, no driver’s license nor insurance. All’s well unless the unlicensed foreigner gets in an accident, in which case he is guilty until proven innocent.
You wouldn’t dare operate a vehicle in your home country without a license and insurance, so why do it in a more dangerous foreign country unless you know the laws, language, roads, and customs?
Obviously we need protection, and there’s only one sure way: insurance.
I know, I know, insurance sucks. I hate it as much as the next person. Ever had a pleasant insurance experience? Me neither, and I can’t think of anyone who has.
By the time they exclude this, deduct that, and apply a list of stuff that isn’t covered there isn’t much left to pay out, but they sure were enthusiastic when relieving us of our cash when they signed us up.
I have accident insurance through a well-known local company in Vietnam that apparently covers me for any mishap not resulting from my own negligence. I can’t swear to that because I haven’t read all the 10,000 lines of fine print in my policy, but for a couple of hundred dollars per year, it seems to be a fair deal.
I carry my coverage card at all times, I know the location of their local network hospital, plus the insurer told me all I need to do is present that card and identification to get treatment. Let’s hope I never find out if that’s really true or not.
If you’re coming to Vietnam on vacation there are simple solutions: many major credit card companies include free travel insurance and airlines offer it as a cheap add-on when you buy flights. Even if you have insurance through your credit card, buy it when you buy your airplane tickets, it’s dirt cheap.
That’s why the best investment a tourist can make is in insurance, or bus, airplane, and train tickets. If budget and time permit, a driver is even more convenient.
Sure, these options offer less adventure, but you can relax and watch the scenery.
As my dad used to say during those Sunday afternoon driving lessons in empty parking lots when I was a teenager:
“Watch out for the other guy, he may not be watching out for you.”
Don’t say I didn’t warn you!