I kept thinking about the chicken that the crossed the road. It must not have been in Saigon – I knew that for certain.
Behind me was my hotel, to my right was a restaurant and to my left was a 7/11. Directly in front of me was an unyielding and constant stream of pedestrians, bicycles, motorbikes, tuk tuks, cars, motorbikes, cars, tuk tuks, bicycles and pedestrians – in that exact order.
I had been in Saigon for exactly 20 minutes, and I had yet to cross a road.
A cab picked me up in front of the airport and dropped me off in front of my hotel. Between that time, I watched the world zip around me through the gaps between my fingers that were mostly but not completely covering my eyes. My six years as a resident in the quaint little town of Manhattan did a complete crap job of preparing me for the Wrestle Mania that is Saigon.
I dropped off my pack in my room after leaving my passport with reception, took a cold five minute shower, did not read but signed a bunch of legal release papers, and then congregated with my travel group in the hotel’s lobby for dinner. Our Cambodian guide was describing to us the menu of the “100% best” restaurant where we would be dining for the evening.
In a throwaway question, he asked if there were any questions from the group before we left, and he was surprised when my arm shot up into the air.
“How long is the walk to dinner?”
What he didn’t know was that I was asking a question with only one correct answer and many very wrong answers.
“Oh, it’s about a 15 minute walk. Very nice night for walk.”
Wrong. That was the wrong answer.
The only right answer was the restaurant next to our hotel, and it didn’t take 15 minutes to get there.
For a moment, I was tempted to enjoy a solo dinner at the restaurant that was 15 seconds – not minutes – from where I was standing. I had just traveled 25 straight hours. I was tired and sore and I deserved this. The evolutionary evolved part of my brain that specializes in extreme over analysis and paranoia sits next to the clearly well exercised sector of my brain that devises convincing excuses. It said to me in all caps, THIS IS CLEARLY A TRAP.
But, I decided to join my group for dinner. In a much riskier move just a couple weeks before, I had quit my job to travel. If I could do that, I could cross a road.
In my group were 18 other travelers, many of whom I met on our walk to the restaurant. I heard then immediately forgot everyone’s names. Mid-conversation with Judy (Jen?), the group stopped: it was time to cross the road.
Conditioned by New York, I looked for indicators to cross the street, which is basically a lull in traffic rather then an actual “walk” sign, and I saw nothing. The constant stream wasn’t stopping nor did it appear to show any signs of slowing down.
Then, like a crazy person, our guide just started walking into traffic. In what I can only describe as “magical” or “miraculous,” the traffic started streaming around our fearless leader like water moving around a rock in a river. It was like a bubble or a force field surrounded him and protected him from being hit.
When he made it to the other side, he turned around, and was actually surprised to see that we remained where he had left us. He waved over to us, which only served as an act of futility. He then crossed back to where we were standing for attempt number two at crossing the road.
In a pep talk, our guide very kindly told us that all we needed to do was put one foot in front of the other: very easy.
“Ok cool, but what about all the motorbikes?” my brain wanted my mouth to ask, but someone beat me to the punch.
“Just start walking. They will drive around you.”
And, so it was. No one actually argued. Resistance was futile, and we all just, oddly, went along with it. Like a line of little ducklings, we started to cross the road.
When it was my turn to jump into the deep end, I took exactly two steps before I started running. What was I supposed to do? I had no less than a couple hundred motorbikes speeding at me, and I am an evolved animal. Fight or flight, and I chose to flee.
My guide, who didn’t panic when faced with traffic hurtling toward and around him at extremely fast speeds, started to panic when he saw me running.
“No! No! Stop that! What are you thinking?! Slow down. Don’t run.”
I honestly didn’t know what to do. My instinct was to run, but I was being told to walk. I decided to trust my guide in his almost-hysteria, and I started to walk. What I would soon learn is that the drivers knew to watch for and drive around pedestrians crossing the road. The spigot of Saigon does not turn off. He was teaching me the flow of the city.
Then, the craziest thing started to happen: I didn’t get hit. I was walking in between motorbikes and cars that were buzzing around and past me.
I didn’t die. The world didn’t end. I grew a force field, and it protected me.
Ceding control and then realizing that the world hasn’t ended is a powerful feeling. In the most shocking move, I actually embraced the lack of control.
I took a Zen Meditation class in college where learned to focus my mind. This form of meditation has been a part of my daily routine for a decade now. Quiet and alone is how I meditate, and if I achieve a motionless calm, I’m happy. If I don’t, I’m also happy.
There’s nothing that calm about crossing the road in Vietnam, but I embraced the chaos and accepted the lack of control.
I just put one foot in front of the other.
Do you have a traveling tale to tell? Share your Postcards from the Road by contacting us here.