Being a pedestrian is looked down here in Vietnam. The Boyfriend learnt this when his students were horrified to find out that he actually WALKED to school. Not many people walk around here for two reasons: 1) it’s too hot and 2) it signals a lack of status, i.e. you can’t afford a motorbike.
To clarify, what is referred to as motorbikes are actually scooters and not motorcycles. Motorbikes are more affordable and thus more rampant than cars. The typical picture is the whole family riding on a motorbike (see below). It’s also funny to see a lady, daintily sitting in a side saddle position.
The whole family on a motorbike. At least they're wearing helmets.
The classic side saddle position.
We could technically afford a motorbike. Renting one is about 40 USD a month. However, traffic is so crazy that we don’t want to risk our lives. (Well, I have a second reason: I don’t know how to ride a bike and am assuming I need those balance skills to ride a motorbike…).
Risking our lives seems like an exaggerated statement but it really isn’t! I even feel like I’m risking my life when I’m walking. We’ve literally stood at an intersection for ten minutes trying to figure out how to cross a street unscathed. Now a motorbike is smaller than a car, but I’m still fairly certain that being hit by one would still be quite unpleasant.
The trick is to find a pedestrian walkway with a traffic light. However, you cannot assume that people will respect traffic light. There are always laggards who will accelerate across a red light. Another issue is that sometimes traffic is very congested so you’re dealing with many lanes of motorbikes. Just their sheer volume is overwhelming.
Cars and motorbikes.
Motorbikes stopped at a red light.
Finally, because being a pedestrian isn't hard enough, there are many obstacles on the sidewalk. There are all sorts of improvised businesses, be it motorbike parkings, where attendants will charge 3000 dong to look after your motorbike, or restaurants/juice bars/coffee shops. I am a big fan of street food, but this means that you'll come upon little plastic tables and chairs that you have to weave through or else walk on the road. It has also happened to us that a motorbike has driven on the sidewalk; why not, everything's fair game, right?
Motorbike parking taking over sidewalks.
To add to the craziness, there is the cacophony of different honks and engines. Like many Asian countries, honking is not a last resource like it is in North America, but a way to communicate you’re coming through, that you’re right behind, that you’re being impatient.
At a point, you do get used to the honks (somewhat), but then an unfamiliar honk will blare out, scaring the hell out of you. The less frequent larger vehicles, like a bus or garbage dumpster, have their own particular sounds and your life flashes by as you see yourself being hit.