Yesterday was my first foray into the wild n’ crazy streets of HCMC, and I think it turned out pretty good. A couple things I’ll have to remember:

  2. And maybe that map I bought
  3. Also, be more like Luke Skywalker in Episode IV

I live at the red flag. I wanted a
bucket of water at the green marker.

As for Number 1, Captain Hindsight here. Of course I should have brought water. I explored my neighborhood, District 3, going about 3.75 miles in 1:45. It was a leisurely stroll and there was no lack of things to see and wonder about. This city is ELECTRIC! It’s an assault on the senses, and it’s awesome. I think I could really get used to it. But.

But I didn’t anticipate how freakishly humid and hot it would get by the time I returned at about 11am. I mean, intellectually, of course I understood that it would get hot… I looked at the forecast and all, and timed it to avoid the rain (yep, it rains often this time of year), but I didn’t have a good frame of reference for how disgusting and thirsty I could actually get in that short a period (hint: real, real gross and so. very. thirsty). Chicago’s hot summers were as nothing compared to this. Unfortunately I’d left my wallet with VND in my other pants. Super helpful.

Water, water, everywhere… if only I was a plant.

So, Lesson 1: Water. All the time, water.

Lesson 1.1: Don’t leave your wallet in the shorts in your hotel room.

Number 2: That city map. Wait, I’ve actually got TWO maps. A big one, and then one that came in my Lonely Planet guide. Did I bring either of them? No. Of course not. Stop making sense.

I followed the canal and it led me… sort of close to home.

Fortunately I’m blessed with an excellent spatial mind and a great sense of direction. It’s true that those will probably fail me eventually if I try and improvise like that too often, but yesterday I ended up only half a block south of the opposite end of the alley* I left. It might sound confusing, but it was a major stroke of good luck (combined with that superior mental cognition, hurr hurr). In a city that houses over 7 million, I’m going to eventually get lost and have to ask for directions, but let’s not make it harder for myself than it has to be.

*More on why I live in an alley in my next post!

Lesson 2, therefore: Just bring a map, Ben. You can look like a tourist if it means avoiding sunstroke.

Lesson 2.1: You made a great cheat sheet of phrases for yourself in Vietnamese, start using it!

No single shot of traffic I’ve taken so far
has done it justice, but this is closer.

Number 3: The reason for Jedi training would be the traffic, of course. These pictures DO NOT do it justice. At first I was kind of timidly trying to sneak out into traffic, being a good guy pedestrian who made eye contact with the drivers so they know I’m here, and so they hopefully wouldn’t hit me.

This proved to be folly, if only for the reason that no one seemed to be expecting me to do that.

After several anxiety-producing street crossings, including several close calls (the motorbike drivers seemed GENUINELY CONFUSED as to why I was looking at them and hesitating), I recalled the scene in A New Hope where Luke has a blindfold on and is trying to play whack-a-mole with the floating laser sphere. This flash of pop insight, combined with the fact that for the last six years I’ve been playing in Chicago traffic like I own it, allowed me to try something new.

This is basically how it went down.

The moment I figured it out was the moment I stopped paying much attention to the traffic, and just paid attention to the traffic light. I just stepped into the road and any bikes coming toward me just seemed to flow about me as I walked. It was weird, but I felt like I belonged there. I saw other people behaving similarly and mimicked them. It worked like a charm.

In addition to the street crossings being dangerous, there’s also the added insanity that basically every sidewalk is a combination outdoor market, scooter parking, scooter repair, pop-up tea shop, and social club. AND… every curb I saw today was angled at a 45 degree angle – bikes just bop on and off the sidewalk, willy nilly. At points the sidewalk is so full of people, street food, bikes, and stuff that the only recourse is to walk in the street alongside the ‘walk. It’s disorienting at first because you are IN TRAFFIC and it is RIGHT THERE, but it’s all going right around you. Still, I kept to the ‘walk as best I could. I am not a brave man. Or an insane man (well, maybe the latter).

Lesson 3: Go with the flow (literally) and don’t think too much about it. These people have grown up in this environment, and they see you. Even the ones in the conical hats with the brims you SWEAR ARE COVERING THEIR EYES OH SWEET GOD HOW DO THEY SEE ANYTHING

Like in this documentary.

Lesson 3.1: Maybe get and wear a helmet at all times, just to be safe. I have mental images of me being in my hotel room when all of a sudden hundreds of motorbikes just start coming in my window and leaving out the door.

IN SUMMARY: Good times had, good lessons learned. And more about why I live in an alley tomorrow – it’s fascinating, I promise!

P.S. There’s no excuse for the terrible pun in the title, so I won’t bother to think of one.