In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: Motor scooter driver 1, tourist 0

It’s difficult enough for even hyper-aware pedestrians to dodge traffic while crossing a street in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and motor scooters driving on the sidewalk further complicate matters. 

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text and photos. All rights reserved.

My friend Susan and I took a fascinating two-week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia in March. This is the 12th post in the series about our experiences.

On a Sunday afternoon in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon):

Susan and I had gone to lunch at an inexpensive restaurant called Nam Giao, which promised “authentic” dishes in the style of Hue, the former imperial capital of Vietnam. We selected it from a list of eateries suggested by our hotel.

The businesses in this alley seemed to be giving manicures and pedicures, but other services might have been available also.

The last alley we walked down before the restaurant entrance was heavily populated by shops offering low-price manicure and pedicure services. Lots of women were hunched over, seated on low plastic stools, accommodating customers.

Nam Giao was an unassuming, compact two-floor eatery, with a few locals inside, always a good sign. Polished tables and black wooden stools lined both walls, with a similar row in the middle. Muted gray and white tiles formed a checkerboard pattern on the floor.

After lunch, I snapped a photo of the restaurant exterior as Susan was exiting.

As this was about 2:30 in the afternoon, the restaurant wasn’t crowded and staff seemed to be preparing for dinner patrons.

I don’t eat pork or shellfish, and unfortunately, that’s what comprised most of the menu options. Susan had a bowl of pork and noodles, which she heartily enjoyed. I played it safe and ordered two side dishes: vermicelli and what was listed as “seasonal vegetables.”

I was expecting maybe string beans, carrots, onions and mushrooms, or some other recognizable springtime mixture, that had been fully cooked. What was brought to the table was a small plate, containing what I guessed was raw eggplant, sliced carambola (star fruit) and a variety of fresh green herbs, most of which I couldn’t identify.

The simply furnished interior of Nam Giao. The eatery was recommended for its “authentic” food in the style of Hue, the former imperial capital of Vietnam.

Throughout our trip, we were careful about not eating raw food and asking if salad greens had been washed in bottled water. We couldn’t make that determination here, so I left most of the “seasonal vegetables” on the plate.

Needless to say, the twisty heap of unadorned white noodles on the second plate weren’t enough for a meal.

Heading in the general direction of our hotel, we stopped several times to look at menus. Nothing was whetting my appetite.

We paused again across the street from a cafe that looked promising.

I should say here that there is an art to crossing the street in Hanoi and HCMC. Motorists stop for red lights, but other traffic signs seem to represent a polite suggestion, as if obeying is optional.

Helpful strategies: Look both ways at least twice. If you can identify a local, trail him or her closely, if possible, to weave through traffic. Once you make the decision to go from point A to point B, own it. Don’t freeze and disrupt the flow of traffic. (This is easier said than done because when you see a vehicle coming directly at you, your instinct is to wait and see where the driver is going, then dart out of the way.) Generally, the scooters, bicycles, motorcycles and cars will wind around you.

It’s sort of like dodge ball. If you keep moving, you’re a harder target. Become a statue and you’re more likely to make contact.

The narrow streets around Hanoi’s Old Quarter can be oppressively crowded. But because they are, drivers can’t achieve any real speed.

In Ho Chi Minh City, there is more room to maneuver, wider boulevards, and the number of scooters, motorcycles, buses and cars is much higher. The danger of an accident is a bigger possibility.

Further, in HCMC, impatient scooter drivers intentionally jump the curb and drive on the sidewalk, so we had to be particularly alert. We noticed this phenomenon generally at rush hour.

Twelve days into our trip, we had successfully negotiated every stomach-tightening foray into swarming city streets.

Then I was run over by a motor scooter. I never saw it coming.

One minute I was striding confidently, halfway across a side street — not a busy thoroughfare — and the next minute I was sitting down hard on my rear, in a state of semi-shock. Thank goodness I didn’t hit my head or smash my camera.

Behind me, Susan was horrified. She said a scooter rounded the corner and … smack. Down I went.

I was hit on the outside of my left leg below the knee. I had some scratches and dirt on my shorts, but no gashes or trickling blood. I was very, very lucky not to have broken a leg, fallen on my wrist, torn a tendon or mangled a knee. I was, however, anticipating a multicolored bruise.

I got up quickly, and finished crossing the street. Susan was carrying antiseptic wipes, so I cleaned my leg immediately.

The motor scooter didn’t stop and no one came to my aid (other than Susan; thanks again!), though I thought I saw the hostess in the cafe looking in our direction.

More shaken up than anything, I rested for a few minutes and reassessed the damage. The first impression held up. Fortunately, I was able to walk without too much difficulty. But we hadn’t solved the hunger issue.

Then we saw a pizza and pasta place called Napoli.

The glass-fronted restaurant wasn’t busy and we sat down at a table near the entrance. One of the staff spoke some English and understood that I wanted a pizza to go. After I ordered, they brought us glasses of water, and we hadn’t even asked.

In a nice multicultural twist, some web research revealed that the restaurant is part of a Japanese-owned chain and it imports its cheese, tomato sauce, flour and other ingredients from Italy.

We weren’t more than 10 minutes from our HCMC home, the elevator-less Cinnamon hotel in the city’s District 1. Pizza box in hand, we arrived without further vehicular incident, and I gingerly climbed the stairs.

The quality of the Margherita pizza was unexpectedly good: plenty of cheese and tomato sauce and a crisp crust. And it cost under $3.50. Once I was no longer hungry, my overall uneasiness began to fade.

When we checked into the Cinnamon on Saturday, we were assigned a room on the fourth floor. The next morning, hotel staff offered us the opportunity to move down one flight. Identical room layout, just fewer stairs, and they would move our luggage. In light of my mishap, this turned out to be a fortuitous relocation.

After my tangle with the motor scooter, I was extremely thankful that over our remaining days in Vietnam, I could walk mostly without discomfort, and that we didn’t have to change our itinerary. Fully chastened, we discussed several times whether we should take a taxi to local attractions … just to be safe.

We didn’t give in. We still walked everywhere, but you can bet my very fortunate escape was never far from our minds.


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