Friday, December 9, 2011

Alone against the wave - Saigon, Vietnam

We already talked about Saigon traffic, its rivers of motorcycles, the precautions to be taken when crossing the road here.
Today, however, when I was walking downtown, I noticed that there is an aspect of this traffic, some of its dynamics, a specific circumstance that deserves to be dealt with separately. It's that moment when the light turns green and the motorbikes speed up. 
Crossroads in Saigon are often supplied with traffic lights for vehicles only: the ones for pedestrians, normally installed at the ends of the zebra crossing, are missing. You are walking on the sidewalk and when you reach the junction you notice the usual legion of bikes drawn up behind the white line, you sense that they have a red light (even though you can't see it) and you hasten to cross the road.
...even if the light goes green they will wait for me to clear the road first...
This is a wild guess that might cost you very dearly. Re-read these last two lines three times before you proceed.
You're still in the middle of the first lane and the signals that you're picking up are not very encouraging. Engines rev up and down, some wheels advance a few centimeters and suddenly stop. You think of a group of race horses pawing the ground behind the starting line...but it's not the same feeling that you used to get when you were a kid, at the racetrack, sitting next to your dad, holding an ice cream and the bet tickets in your hands. You speed up but there is still a long way to go. Suddenly they all move: it's as if you were a ghost, a soul equipped with a translucent body, but you don't have that feeling of invulnerability you thought you would get when you wished you could have this power. It's like a wave. Nobody seems to have noticed you, yet you are there, conspicuous: the only pedestrian, Caucasian, frightened, in the middle of the road. What more do they need to see you?
Actually they don't do it on purpose, out of arrogance or sadism. They are heeding an automatism, they do this same thing dozens times a day, every day. A Vietnamese wouldn't behave like you: you are the inconceivable exception, they are not.
Obviously, at the very last moment they will do everything they can to avoid the impact: they will slow down, swerve, maybe they will even do the unthinkable - they'll stop. This fact, together with your gazelle-like dash, should help you to bring home your hide tonight. 
Don't count too much on it though: even if so far you've been lucky, next time, before crossing a road, glance sideways at the main traffic light. If you see a yellow light hold on, you still have a big portion of life to live.

Photo: traffic light in front of the Continental Hotel, by Fabio

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