Last updated on May 13th, 2022
Feature image: © hit1912 / Adobe Stock
Classic advice on navigating bargains, traffic and safety in Vietnam
by Evelyn Hannon, Founder, JourneyWoman
I love to travel and I love to browse the shops in foreign destinations. Unlike most visitors, I don’t generally acquire much but rather use looking through markets as a means of learning more about the culture. Flitting from store to store and chatting with merchants yields wonderful cultural insights and perhaps a few small gifts for friends back home.
On a recent trip to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), I departed drastically from my usual pattern of ‘look but don’t buy.’ The bargains available in this city are fabulous and the locals are wonderfully adept at charming you out of your last U.S. dollar or Vietnamese dong. Yet in Vietnam, an explicit shopping report would make no sense without an equally explicit traffic report. So let me explain the insane Vietnamese traffic and emphasize what effect that traffic had on my nervous system and therefore my shopping expeditions.
A gazillion motor scooters…
Like any major city there are plenty of cars, trucks, bikes and buses on the road in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). Now add to that ‘a gazillion’ motor scooters with one, two or three passengers (some carrying parcels or babies) zipping in and out of the normal car, truck, bike, and bus traffic. I know that there must be a code about crossing these streets safely but unless you grow up in Vietnam you will never decipher that code. Rules seem to be random, stoplights seem to be random and whether you will get splattered on the pavement is random as well.
Advice from my hotel…
What my hotel concierge told me is that, ‘when it feels right you step out into the traffic and you keep walking’. Then he added, ‘try not to step out in front of a bus that can’t stop easily but don’t worry, the scooter drivers will try at all costs not to hit you. The most important thing to remember is that once you get on to the road you can’t stop halfway; you must keep moving because that’s what the drivers expect and they guide themselves accordingly.’
When I heard this advice my first impulse was to skip going into the city center completely. Maybe I could just stay in my hotel and read. I wasn’t interested in being tourist road kill except I couldn’t bear to miss their spectacular shopping opportunities. Normally Vietnamese water buffalos could not drag me across those busy streets but the t-shirts, DVDs, lacquer bowls, shoes, jewelry, scarves, purses, backpacks, and ‘fake-everything’ beckoned. I was almost ready to suffer in order to get to the other side.
Find a local to shield you…
Since I hate intense pain I took the least dangerous path. I looked for a local man that seemed conservative, a person that wouldn’t put his life in danger and stepped out into the melee in tandem with him. I made sure that he was on the side closest to the oncoming traffic and prayed as I walked beside him. Lo and behold, my first attempt was successful. I got to the other side without direct contact with a scooter. Now I could shop a complete block without anxiety. I scoured every inch of commercial space putting off the need to cross the next street. Finally, it was inevitable.
This time I chose a female vendor carrying a lot of sweet potatoes in her baskets. I thought she would make a great shield. No one wants to purposely hit a local woman sending her veggies flying here, there, and everywhere. I chose well again and I was on block two.
Students are helpful…
For block three I met up with some American students who agreed to walk me across the street. Except for this time when I saw cars coming straight for me I stopped and held my arm up (like traffic police) demanding that the traffic halt. I was frozen in place, a deer caught in their Vietnamese headlights. The only thing that saved me from being flattened was the student who yelled, ‘don’t stop, keep walking.’ I met those students again later in the day and they teased me relentlessly, imitating my traffic cop stance.
Taxis and police in green uniforms…
With time comes experience; it was on the next corner that I struck ‘beat the traffic’ gold. I found out that there are lovely policemen in bright green uniforms that are completely at your service. It is their job to walk ‘scaredy-cat’ tourists across streets in order that these foreigners feel relaxed enough to keep spending their U.S. dollars. All you need to do is smile and wave to them. Faster than you can say, ‘I’m a shopper’ they are at your side and getting you wherever you want to be.
Then I discovered Vietnamese cabs. For one or two dollars they will drop you off anywhere you want to go within the city center. By day three I had a stash of $1.00 bills in my pocket, spent them gladly and moved with ease from one shopping area to the other.
Great bargains to be had…
I visited the local covered market with its warren of mini stalls and absolutely no moving air to speak of. I bargained and learned to offer 30% of what I actually was willing to spend on any one item. I thought I was so clever when I bought three t-shirts for $10.00. Back at the hotel, I learned that $2.00 per shirt was the going price.
I sharpened my skills and went to another shopping area: blouses were $8.00, scarves were $2.00 and I had two linen shirts tailored from scratch for $16.00. I was on a roll now. Into my shopping bag went smocked dresses for little girls, dragon t-shirts for little boys, pajamas, Christmas decorations, DVDs, novelty pens, and a partridge in a pear tree. Oh my goodness it was fun. And the best part of all, I never had to cross one scary street all by myself.