The Strategic Retreat

Crossing the road in Ho Chi Minh

man clipping toe nails on bike

Ho Chi Minh has been on my mind lately. During this last week of local travel I did a lot of driving whilst my mind turned to the self contemplation that naturally parallels such rote chores. This led me to realize that the Bay Area is not for me and I need to develop an exit strategy. For now, that exit strategy is looking like it may be Vietnam.

I was able to spend a small amount of time in HCMC last year and am currently leaning towards moving there for a year or two. My plan is to get an online MBA and live somewhere I’d enjoy. Although I’ll be taking classes through a Midwest university that doesn’t mean I have to physically live in the Midwest. I should be able to live anywhere with an internet connection, and I intend to maximize that freedom to my advantage. Ho Chi Minh seems to offer all I’m looking for; low cost of living, bustling city, good food and easy transportation to the rest of Asia. Heck, I even hear they’re looking for people to teach English. I totally speak English.

motorbikes in ho chi minh

My favorite trait of Ho Chi Minh was the organized chaos. The traffic was inspiring. It was an unnatural wonder and I had never seen anything like it. The roads were filled with thousands upon thousands of motorbikes, coming from all directions. Like ants enveloping a caterpillar, the swarm moved as one. It ebbed and flowed as needed, as if being controlled by a Queen Bee or from preprogrammed instructions. The bikes were too numerous and the margin between too miniscule but in the weaving, every needle found its grommet. It was as if the bikes moved in an additional dimension that I had not yet adapted to perceive. It was beautiful.

traffic in ho chi minh

Intersections would have a dozen or more bikes across, going back a quarter mile. Not in neat little rows or confined to lanes or even sides of the street. Wherever a bike could fit, there would be a bike. It was just that simple. There is only one rule when it comes to motorbike traffic in Saigon; don’t die. And that’s more of a suggestion than a rule. You do what you have to do to make it to your destination, constructs such as lanes and turn signals and cross walks are for people focused far too much on theory and not enough on reality. Ho Chi Minh exists in *is* not in *should be*. It is crazy, it is wild and there is mad efficiency under that veneer of chaos.

family on bike in saigon

Bicycles cohabitate the roads with motorbikes, lorries, pushcarts and cabs. Whatever means of transportation you have, that’s what you use. Have one motorbike and a family of 5? Well, that’s a 5 person motorbike. The only limitation is your imagination. Not safety, not laws, maybe not even physics. If you will it, it is no dream; as dreams pertain to Ho Chi Minh transportation.

vietnam candyman

As majestic as the sublime dance of motos is to watch, it doesn’t exist in a Petri dish. I soon came to realize that I was not a spectator to Ho Chi Minh traffic, I was Ho Chi Minh traffic. My 2013 Asian adventures didn’t allow for cabs. If I wanted to see something, I had to walk. Initially, crossing the street perpendicular to thousands of motos was fairly daunting. If a pedestrian waits for a break in the traffic, they will never cross a single road. There is no break, there are no rules. But, I was part of the hive. I wasn’t the caterpillar, I was an ant.

Chicken crossing road in Ho Chi Minh City

What was paralyzing and dangerous eventually became simple and automatic. You could say I’m a bit of an expert on crossing the street in HCMC. I may put that on my résumé, right under “speaks English”. “Can cross street”. Here’s what you do. First, make peace with your god or gods and resolve any existential crises or lingering family squabbles. Next look towards the drivers of the bikes speeding past you and step into the street. Then, start walking steadily towards the other side of the road. Set aside any worry about living or dying. It’s out of your hands at this point, it’s no longer up to you. In this state of total zen, continue on to the other side. Your fellow traffic hive mind will weave and adjust their speeds to avoid hitting you, just don’t change your pace at any point in time. You can not avoid getting hit, it’s their decision not yours. All you can do is telegraph your moves and trust that your fellow formics don’t wish to have a collision.

The next thing you’ll know, you’ll be on the other side of the road. That’s how you cross the street in Ho Chi Minh. Take a deep breath and grab a Bánh mì, you deserve it.

About Jeff Penman

Jeff was born in the back of a War Game Store on the day the first Star Trek movie came out, to a computer programmer mother and a father who wrote the story for Dragon's Lair. Jeff has an MBA and a penchant for sticking his nose here it doesn't belong.