Quick tips for crossing the street in Southeast Asia

I have been in Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City for three weeks now. While I plan to write some more extensive posts about living and working while abroad, I figured I would start with the thing that stumped me the most when I arrived – crossing the street.

Motorcycle families in Ho Chi Minh City

The Ugly American:

Having no experience with 1) how things work in countries other than America and 2) driving on the left-hand side, I was understandably frightened when I first stepped out of my Bangkok hotel and came to the first street corner. The traffic looked like it would never stop, and the signal for me to walk didn’t seem like it was ever going to turn green.

I didn’t speak any of the language beyond “hello” and “thank you,” and I literally went back to my hotel room after striking out that first time. Soon after, though, I built up the courage to cross that street and get to that 7-Eleven to buy a SIM card.

Tips for staying alive when crossing your first street:

Disclaimer – I am an attorney, not a traffic safety expert. These tips are not guaranteed to not get you killed, so use caution, etc. when crossing the street or doing anything in a place that you are unfamiliar with.

Tip #1: Look both ways before crossing the street

This is a tip that should have been ingrained into you in your infancy, but when you are a fish out of water it is more important than ever. Luckily, here in HCMC drivers and riders beep their horns incessantly to let you know that they are approaching. However, in Bangkok I did not notice this, and you can’t count on it. Use your senses. Keep your head on a swivel, looking one way and the other. Particularly on the large, multi-lane intersections, I was never 100% sure which direction the vehicles would be approaching from. For this reason, keep looking both ways at all times. Luckily, in HCMC the traffic is on the side I am comfortable with, but sometimes bikers sneak up the street the wrong way.

Tip #2: Stay on task and don’t get distracted

There is a lot going on in cities here, and everywhere around the world. In my limited experience, I can’t go 20 feet without a stray dog, guy on a motorcycle or some other interesting thing capturing my attention. When crossing the street, however, it is best to keep your mind on the task at hand: getting across safely. Shut out anything that you may find interesting, and concentrate on those cars and motorcycles careening toward you. While many motorcycles will swerve around you and taxis will slow, I would rather err on the side of caution than trust that they are paying attention to me walking in front of them.

Tip #3: Follow a local

Ho Chi Minh City Street
The locals here are experts at crossing the street. I’ve seen some maneuver their way through oncoming armies of motorcycle drivers like a salmon swimming upstream. Then again, they have most likely been doing this all of their lives.

As a neophyte at street-crossing, it is probably best to look for someone who has experience and go when they go. This was the first lesson I learned, which allowed me to cross my first street. At the very least, study how others make their way across the street and do your best to emulate if not tailgate them.

Tip #4: Be brave and fearless, young traveler

The last tip is a simple one: Fortune favors the bold. You need to get out there and do it. Crossing the street here while doubled over in fear is a recipe for disaster. It’s sort of like how cutting with a sharp knife is safer than cutting with a dull one.

I hope my readers, new and old, found this post useful. As I continue to work and travel, I will be posting more articles about it, generally on Fridays or Saturdays every week. In the meantime, if you are a creative type or a location-independent entrepreneur who is looking for legal advice, feel free to contact me. Until next time.

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