Crossing the Street

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By Linda Grace Cariño

Baguio Stories

Friday, July 18, 2014


WE ARE taught to always look left and then right to determine that the coast is clear, so to speak, before crossing the street. In the Baguio of my youth, children learned this well in a town of some 20,000 or less. In a small town wiith very, very little traffic, to cross the street was an easy thing. Even these days of an overpopulated Baguio, it is very manageable to navigate getting from one side of a street to another.

Not so in Saigon. Crossing the street here is to a newcomer challenging.

There are about a zillion scooters and other motorbikes on every thoroughfare at any given hour of daytime. On these kings of the road are men, women, and children (I'm at an age when anyone under 35 is a child, sorry.) zooming from place to place in drrrooves. More than half the time, we see no traffic lights that communicate stop, go, walk, run, hang back.

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My BFF Maichie and I try to get the hang of the rules on our first morning here, trying to get from the Ruby River Hotel on Nguyen Thai Binh to the Ben Thanh Market. It is to us simply hazardous crossing the streets, until Maichie gets the idea to shadow the locals who are crossing streets. We are just across Ben Thanh (I know, I know, sounds like the designer Ben) when we try the shadow exercise a la the theatrical training we both have.

A lady to our left is with great nonchalance putting a dainty foot in a high heeled sandal onto the road that has traffic zooming from like three different directions or more, I swear. Maichie says to shadow the lady. We do, step by risky step, or so we think. But with each step the three of us take, the zillion and one motorbikes from all over veer away from us like magic. We shadow locals crossing streets the whole day and most of the next, even teaching fellow tourists to do so too, until we realize that the traffic will veer away from anyone crossing the street. Aha.

Since that "aha moment" -- that term coined by Oprah Winfrey -- we cross streets with more daring than before. We find affirmation that only the most perhaps impolite (?) driver will not veer away, but will still blow a horn to signal his or her not giving way to those crossing the street.

And then there's the tour guide who regales us with Vietnamese facts and figures as we take in the sights. He tells us that while there are like four million motorbikes in Saigon alone, there's a strict speed limit to keep drivers in check. Some comfort there. Maybe he said more than four million. Whatever, it's staggering.

In Baguio these days, there are many traffic lights that control traffic, both foot and motor. There are clear road rules, and we know what they are, making navigation easy. In Saigon, Maichie and I discover that it's easy, too, once you know these unspoken mores of crossing Saigon's busy, busy streets.

Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on July 19, 2014.

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