Saigon — I Found the Best Teacher in the Traffic

They say one of the great things about getting older is getting wiser — but wisdom isn’t something you automatically qualify and get a pass for once you hit a certain age (like a transport concession card). I think part of the getting of wisdom is the realisation that you must keep pursuing it in order to make getting older worthwhile at all.

Ray Croc (of McDonalds’s Burger fame) summed it up beautifully –

‘When you’re green you grow, and when you’re ripe you rot’.

Profound in its simplicity and powerful in it imagery. From the moment I heard it — I vowed to stay green. Yet just as Kermit from the Muppets sings ‘it ain’t easy bein’ green’ — sometimes it ain’t easy. In fact sometimes it’s bloody scary.

I recently travelled to Vietnam for a holiday with my seventeen year old son. It was a mother son adventure, and such a great opportunity to see his eyes opening up to the world (particularly while he still wants to travel and hang out with me!)

When planning our trip I sought suggestions from friends who had been to Vietnam on where we should go. Of all the input I was given, there was a fairly universal position on Saigon (Ho Chi Min City) — ‘Oh, it’s just another big Asian city’. I found it to be so much more. I left Saigon wiser and braver.

On several occasions before our departure, my partner issued words of caution. With our very best interests at heart, I was warned against everything from brushing our teeth with tap water and not opening your mouth in the shower, carrying your cash and cards in different locations on our persons, no ice cubes in our drinks, don’t ride on the back of a scooter and be super careful crossing the roads — THERE ARE NO RULES!!

As appreciative as I am of his love and care (I know he just wanted us to come home safely), I’m a pretty well seasoned traveller, and I’m happy to say in the spirit of adventure I flouted pretty much every one of his cautionary suggestions without much of a second thought — except one.

Crossing the roads.

So confession time. I’m a pretty committed jay-walker. Maybe it’s down to my inherent impatience or that part of me that loves (just a little bit) to buck the system and break some rules, but over the years I’ve been cautioned in NYC, shouted at in Tokyo, had a stern finger wag in Singapore and various other disapproving shakes of the head in other cities around the world. I somewhat mended my ways once I became a mum (setting a good example and all that), but the desire to duck, dive, dodge and dash to get to the other side as quickly as possible was never far from the surface.

But Saigon traffic was a whole new ball game. When I looked at the traffic, the way it surged around itself like a river running after heavy rain, with no thought or consideration of orderly ebb and flow, my bravado crumbled. You see, conditions have changed — not with traffic, but with me. With osteoarthritis in both knees, the capacity to duck and weave (or sprint when necessary) has been stripped away from me, and with it much of the confidence in my abilities as a nimble adventurer.

I had packed this trepidation into my luggage and it had travelled with me on this trip, and as I stood on the footpath of one of the many roads I needed to traverse in order to not be stuck on one city block for four days, I hesitated — in that instant looking back at my younger self and lamenting the loss of my agility and mobility and wondering how I could confidently move forward without these two things firmly in my grasp.

I didn’t share these inner woes with my son, instead hanging onto him on the first day. My hesitation wrapped up in a cloak of ‘Wait, look both ways, no, not yet, wait, I have to keep you safe’ as a way of disguising my own fears.

I watched the scooters — like bees — swarming in a formation I couldn’t fathom. They moved with an inherent internal guidance system I had no comprehension of. Red means stop and green mean go — right? Back here in Australia, we obey (for the most part) these well enforced rules of the road. In Saigon — red only means stop (if you feel like it). The rest is just (from what I could see) ‘get out of the way — FAST!’

I pondered what the tales of our Saigon adventure might be when we got home.

‘So how was Saigon?’

‘Umm, we didn’t see much of it actually’

Oh? Why?

We got stuck trying to cross the road.

These were the thoughts buzzing round in my head on the 2nd morning when I woke. My son (being a teenager) was sleeping in, so I decided to go exploring and find coffee and a place to sit and write. Looking at the roads — which at 8am were already seething with traffic — cars, trucks and scooters — thousands upon thousands of masked marauding citizens beeping and honking their way through the streets, looking remarkably relaxed — while me, standing on the footpath felt landlocked and bewildered.

Luckily the block our Airbnb was located on, deep in the heart of inner city District 1, so without having to cross any roads at all, I could circle the block and find a convenience store, assorted street food stalls, three scooter repair garages, four massage shops, a French bakery and two cafes.

I opted for the French bakery with an upstairs seating area — where I could drink my coffee and watch the world scooter on by, without having to cross the road. I was quite happy with my French Bakery find, but it certainly wouldn’t keep me (or my son) occupied for four days.

I cursed my knees and my aging ailing body for letting me down and getting in the way of this mother son adventure. This wasn’t the first time I had lamented my ‘condition’ and the restrictions it has placed on me. My partner and I had to cancel a trip to Mt Kilimanjaro last year because my knees just weren’t up to the trek. It sucked. Inside I’m still 30, but my knees disagree and it seems that these days they are planning the itineraries.

I wondered how people got from one side of the road to the other in this teeming mess. I wondered how was going to get the most out of this chaotic city.

As I gazed out the windows a floor above the street, a 90 year old man (or so it seemed) was about to help me crack the code. He was frail with small stooped shoulders, and moved so slowly yet quite deliberately towards the gutter. His steady pace and lack of head movement indicated little to no regard for the beeping, relentless vehicular motion going on all around him. I held my breath as he ambled slowly, steadily across the road, not stopping to look at anything or anyone.

I held my breath the entire time only breathing again when he (miraculously) made it to the other side — not only unscathed, but completely unperturbed by the whole endeavor. He tottered off and I turned my eyes back to the other side of the road, only to this time spot an elderly woman about to run the same gauntlet.

‘What’s going on with these old people?! Do they have a death wish? Is aged care so pitiful in Vietnam that the elderly play cat and mouse with the traffic? (At a time in Australia when the horrific flaws in the aged care system have been exposed in the media, I wondered if this might be their local solution).

Yet as I sat mesmerised at this scene unfolding in front of me, I began to see a pattern emerging.

In a city of millions where (from a western perspective) stepping off a footpath with no ‘permission’ into a sea of honking scooters, would be akin to a death wish (with a potential fine attached) — but here there was no such apprehension. There was no fear, just acceptance. It is what it is.

Vehicles need to use the roads, humans need to cross them. Work together to create a dynamic by following a few simple, unspoken (but critical) rules.

· Walk slowly and deliberately — keep moving forward.

· Don’t dither or backtrack or turnaround — trust that if you are doing the above, they have seen you and will course correct accordingly.

· Don’t make eye contact with cyclists or drivers (it messes with the ‘I’ve seen you and I’m responding accordingly’ rhythm, and puts doubt as to who will change trajectory), so eyes on the prize people.

A few Aha! parallels revealed themselves that morning. All too often I have not taken steps towards what I want to do for fear of being knocked back, or the fear of obstacles in my path.

Hesitation based on the fear of things that ‘might happen’ can often prevent me from taking the first step.

Fear that if I don’t have a rapid response to challenges, I might get left behind, knocked over or knocked out.

Fear that because I’m not as young, fit, fast or ferocious as others, there isn’t a path for me to achieve what I want in life.

So I tried it. After careful observation to be sure I wasn’t just seeing an anomaly and would be wiped out if I followed their lead, I stepped out and took my place in the fray. They were ready. I’m not religious, but I had a slightly biblical moment.

‘Wow, this must be how Moses felt when he parted the Red Sea!’

The traffic eased around me seamlessly. Everyone with eyes on what was in front of them and around them — not being distracted or preoccupied by what was behind them. That was then, and this is now, and there…is where I’m going. No fear, just faith that if we all play our parts, we’ll get there in the end.

Well I did my Moses thing for two weeks, and made it home accident free, limbs and life intact — having had a wonderful vacation with my son and feeling a bit wiser . more confident and a little more at peace.

At peace with moving through life a little slower, with less jerking, ducking and diving. I’m moving with more grace, more faith and ever forward.

Disclaimer: I’m in no way suggesting that you ever step blindly off a gutter into the face of oncoming traffic, that is not the point of this story. More to watch the rhythm of life around you and how you can tap into its energy and use it to move you forward on your own journey.

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Author of ‘The Gap Year(s)’ — One woman’s journey, Every Woman’s Roadmap. Facilitator & Executive Coach at Phuel. Mum of 1 and all round flawesome chick.

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