I’d been in Asia for a little over two months when I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, still known as Saigon among the locals. I’d heard tales of Vietnam’s glory from other backpackers – incredible food, breathtaking landscapes, and some of the friendliest and smiliest locals you can find. At the unbeatable budget of less than $25 per day, Vietnam certainly seemed like a great place to be. I’ll admit that I was skeptical. Southeast Asia has been a backpacker favorite for decades – how much can one country really stand out so much among its regional neighbors?
I’d also heard rumors of how intimidating it can be to cross the street in Vietnam. Motorbikes rule this country (they even drive on the freakin’ sidewalk!!!), and watching them on the main roads was like watching class 5 rapids on a river. I’d even heard stories that you could pay locals to hold your hand and help you cross. Since there aren’t many street lights for pedestrian use, parting the sea of bikes seemed like an impossible task. Everyone insisted the trick was to just go for it, and the bikes would simply weave their way around you. Seriously, this was everyone’s solution, but I figured it couldn’t possibly be true. So I wasn’t thrilled to arrive in Saigon by myself without anyone by my side to learn the seemingly-insurmountable task of crossing the street. I’d learned how to do it once before (around the age of 5), yet somehow I felt more intimidated by this than I had about a lot of other things I’d done – like fly to Asia alone for 4 months. Travel is weird like that.
My first meal in Vietnam was breakfast the morning after I arrived – the most delicious noodle soup I’ve ever eaten. In fact, this exact bowl of noodly goodness was the reason I chose this particular hostel. Choosing one can be a tedious task as most of them offer a lot of the same things. But as I perused the options for my first impression of Vietnam, I found a review of Vitamin Smiles Hostel raving about the breakfast soup made by a sweet Vietnamese grandmother who spoke no English, and with whom you had to communicate by pointing to a sign indicating your two soup options – vegetarian or pork. Grandma Saigon did not disappoint. I sat and talked with a German guy of Vietnamese heritage who gave me a crash course in Vietnamese – hello, thank you, and how to count to 10 – and then I set out to discover a bit of the city, determined not to let a few two-wheeled machines get the best of me.
Not long after I started my mission to visit the Vietnam War Remnants Museum, I came straight back to my hostel. The rumors were true. I would need to cross 3 lanes of oncoming traffic, reach a median, and then cross 3 more lanes with bikes coming from the other direction. I took one look at that road and immediately turned around. New cities can be quite intimidating, and this particular one had been extra hyped up. So, as sometimes happens when you’re getting accustomed to a new place, I silently gave Saigon one point and completed my walk around the block back to my hostel. I mean, I’d already eaten the soup. That certainly counted as enough cultural experience for the day, right??
I was starting to wonder if I should just get on a bus to my next destination (the much smaller city of Da Lat, and in my opinion, the much more approachable way to re-learn the basics of how to be a pedestrian) when I experienced a bit of travel magic. In strolled Ben from Colorado who’d just spent months riding his own motorbike from north to south, and who offered to sell it to me since he was leaving that night for Taiwan. I rolled my eyes as I recounted the details of my morning, and he laughed in that “you’re clearly new here” way. He assured me it wasn’t so bad as long as you just go for it, and invited me to join him for his favorite vegetarian banh mi – Vietnam’s famous sandwich that costs about $0.45. His humor and expertise on local crosswalk culture was exactly what my weary soul needed.
The sandwich shop was only a few small side streets away from the hostel, but at least I was getting a little more practice out on the road. He told me tales of his ride through the country and shared his favorite spots that were absolute must-sees on my 3 week journey north. He also gave me a crash course on vegetarian eating in Vietnam. Before parting ways, he assured me that I would be totally fine crossing the street, and that all I had to do was find a mini break in the sea of bikes and start walking. He was convincing enough, and I left feeling ready to conquer my ridiculous fear. Our friendship only lasted for a meal, but it was one of the most reassuring meals in my entire Asian adventure.
There I was, back at the edge of the crosswalk as a million motorbikes whizzed past. I watched a few people make their way from the other side, and learned that everyone was in fact right. I just had to start walking and the bikes magically made their way around the humans. I stood there for what felt like an eternity, talking myself into the treacherous crossing, when two elderly women suddenly appeared by my side. They didn’t speak to me (they didn’t even look at me), but I knew this was my chance. They started walking and I fell right in step with them, their bodies shielding me from the oncoming traffic to my left. We were in the middle of the mayhem and we weren’t getting hit. It was amazing. It was almost beautiful. And then we came to the median and I was suddenly the first of 3 in line with the bikes coming from the other direction. I almost panicked, but they kept walking so I did too. We magically reached the place I’d so badly wanted to be – the other side of the street. I almost cheered and jumped for joy, but then I realized that the women had already continued on their way, never even batting an eyelash at the remarkable feat we’d just accomplished together. We’d crossed the street, that was all.
Moral of the story: when in doubt, find a little old lady. They have been perfecting the art of street-crossing for decades and they quickly make you feel like a pro even if there’s no way for you to communicate. They also make a mean soup.
Despite my rocky start, Vietnam stands out as one of the top 3 places I’ve ever been, mostly due to the outstanding beauty of the country and the awesome people I shared my time with there. Stay tuned for more stories from 3 of my most favorite weeks on the road.