The Tao of Vietnamese Pedestrian Crossing
After spending the past week in Vietnam, I have learned how to cross a busy street in the country. Most Vietnamese just step out and trust in Jesus, Buddha, or their ancestors that everything will work out. I’ve seen old ladies just walk out into traffic without looking, and death was like, “Not today.” As an agnostic, however, there is a calculus to how I cross. Mopeds make up most of the traffic, and they will swerve out of the way like a school of fish avoiding a collision with me. Cars, likewise, will swerve too or slow down to avoid me. Drivers need to be constantly wary of mopeds darting in and out of traffic, so they are usually quite alert, but cars would prefer if I sped up or waited in order to let them pass. If I get too daring with them, they will honk. Finally, buses and trucks are elephants lumbering slowly down the road at a steady speed. Too clumsy to maneuver their momentum, I let them pass or make sure I have plenty of time before our trajectories intersect.
Every time I cross a street, regardless, I make sure to look at every oncoming vehicle—when eye contact isn’t met, then I will know the face of my executioner.
Last Night in Ho Chi Minh
My last night in Ho Chi Minh, my cousin asks me what I wanted to do. This is after I balked at the idea of getting dinner at 11pm and then going out to the clubs. What? I have to catch a flight tomorrow. Instead, we meet for dinner at 7pm—which is probably early by Ho Chi Minh standards—and afterwards, I suggest we visit a craft brewery called the Heart of Darkness. She has never heard of the place but is game to my suggestion.
At the bar, I order a flight of beers that I wish to taste. I help my cousin choose a beer with the lowest IBU. She is not much of a drinker, but neither are most of my female Vietnamese relatives. My male relatives, on the other hand, will have two or three Budweisers, Heinekens, or Coronas and become all pink faced and start to talk loudly. When my flight arrives, my cousin is amazed and asks me if I like to drink. I don’t go into the details of Wisconsin drinking culture, so I tell her an understatement. Yeah, I can drink.
After the third beer into my flight, I ask my cousin about her father. He was my mom’s oldest and only brother, and he died in Vietnam before I could ever meet him. He was an artist, and when my mom left for America, he drew a mural of my mother on the wall of his house. My cousin said that the picture used to scare her when she was little because my mom’s hair floated in the air like a ghost’s. Over the years, her dad would show my cousin pictures that my mom would send back to Vietnam—pictures of my brothers and me playing hockey. This seemed so strange to my cousin, like looking at astronauts playing games on the moon.
Did your father ever want to come to America to be with the rest of the family? I ask. My cousin says that he did at first, but then he kept encountering problems with his paperwork. This made him angry, so after that, he said that he preferred if his family visited him in Vietnam.
My mom has fond memories of her brother but said that he had a hard life. This is a common understatement that she uses when talking about the lives of her family back in Vietnam. What need was there for an artist when most people worried about affording enough rice to feed their families? Meanwhile, my brothers and I would gripe about having to equip ourselves with hockey gear that my mom bought secondhand.
Before her brother died, my mom told me that he started giving away all his possessions to family and friends. He was never diagnosed with anything, but maybe, as he went about his last days, he realized that he would never join his family in America and started to notice the hair on people starting to float. Indeed, his family will have to have to visit him for the remainder of our lives.
Searching for an ATM in Da Nang
Four days into my trip, I was starting to run low on cash. I had withdrawn 3,000,000 VND ($130 USD) from the airport in Ho Chi Minh and was down to my last 500,000 VND ($22 USD). Most places in Vietnam wouldn’t allow me to pay with my credit card, so I would drop a 30,000 VND for ($1.30 USD) for a banh mi, bowl of pho, or for a café da several times of day—food costs in Vietnam seemed comically inexpensive compared to what I was used to paying in Qatar. I had a 100-dollar and 500-riyal bill folded in a pocket of my wallet for emergencies, but I wanted to make sure I had enough for the next several days.
So, for the next two hours, I wandered around Da Nang in search of an ATM. First, I checked the hotels next to the beach where are the Korean tourists were staying to see if they offered this service to their guests. A bell hop stopped me at the door informing me that there wasn’t an ATM in the hotel lobby and that I should try the bank. I peeked into couple other hotels before trusting the veracity of the bell hop’s advice. Next, I rounded the corner onto a busy two-lane road crossing through the tourist district of the city. Here I spotted a few convenience marts and checked to see if there were any ATMs. There were not. Hmm. Maybe I should head towards the river walk to see if any of the shopping complexes had an ATM. As I neared the Dragon Bridge, I noticed an inconspicuous ATM sign outside of a bank sandwiched between a seafood restaurant and an empty lot. There was a security guarded sitting on a chair nearby. At first, I thought he was there to protect the users of the ATM, but then I realized he was there to guard the mopeds of people eating in the restaurant.
The ATM accepted my card, but I was only able to withdraw a maximum of 2,000,000 VND ($86 USD) from the machine. Still, I was carrying in my wallet the amount that the average Vietnamese worker made in five months.
Ho Chi Minh and Da Nang
My first four days in Vietnam were in Ho Chi Minh—a bustling, noisy, crowded city in the south. Homes, shops, and restaurants lined the streets in the neighborhood where I stayed. Pushcart food vendors squeezed into the space between building and street. Pedestrians, mopeds, and cars scuttled the remaining narrow lanes. At 5am, the neighbors’ roosters would start to crow, and then the throttle of mopeds would steadily increase hour by hour into a constant din until the city was a hubbub of activity and steamy haze throughout the day. At the night, Ho Chi Minh’s cafes, bars, and club stay open late into the night. Foreigners stumble from bar to bar drinking inexpensive beer and head back to their hotels just before the sunrise.
My second destination in Vietnam was Da Nang—a calm, quiet, spacious city in the central region of country. The city is built alongside the coast and enjoys a long stretch of sandy beach that is a draw for tourists. The city is arranged in an orderly grid system with larger shops and homes lining the streets. There is ample sidewalk and road space throughout the city’s neighborhoods, and you are more likely to hear the wind rustling leaves, conversations from the many street cafes, or music playing from the homes of residents than the engines of mopeds.
My mom’s family is from Ho Chi Minh. Now I have inkling why they liked to cram 20 visiting relatives into one two-bedroom house, talk over each other, and stay up until 4 in the morning.