Navigating rush hour: Foreigners grapple with HCMC traffic nightmares

By Ngoc Ngan   June 18, 2024 | 03:50 pm PT
Navigating rush hour: Foreigners grapple with HCMC traffic nightmares
Traffic congestion on Hanoi Highway in Thu Duc City, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran
Gazing out the window at the pouring rain, Zach Moffat sighs, knowing he’s about to embark on a daunting commute from work.

"My colleague and I often joke that rain and traffic jams are the deadly duo during rush hour in Ho Chi Minh City," said Moffat, an American teacher in Phu Nhuan District.

At 4:30 p.m., he let his students out and swapped his shoes for plastic sandals from his backpack, ready to wade through flooded streets.

Bringing a pair of plastic sandals has become his "survival skill" after a few months of living in Vietnam.

Moffat says he lacks the courage to ride a motorbike in the city because he has only been in Vietnam for less than a year. He walks as fast as he can, wriggling through the dense crowd at the school gate to find a spot to hail a ride.

"I have to stand at a distance from the crowd for the driver to spot me," he said nervously. "Rush hour traffic is quite chaotic."

Moffat recounts his surprise upon arriving in HCMC, seeing many people riding motorbikes on the sidewalks to avoid being stuck in gridlocked traffic. In his home state Oregon, pedestrians crossing where there are no crosswalks is illegal, but in Vietnam, he learned that this rule is not strictly enforced.

After hopping on his ride-hailing motorbike, Moffat, being a large and tall man, holds tightly to the motorcycle seat to keep from falling.

The 6.5-kilometer trip from the school in Go Vap District to Moffat's apartment takes 40 minutes during rush hour, compared to the usual 20 minutes. On rainy days, the journey can extend up to an hour.

He says that once he arrives home, he crashes immediately. "Tired, hungry, soaked, and having no energy to do anything else but lie down," he sighs. "Some friends advised me that commuting in Vietnam is like swimming in a river. You should go with the flow."

Zach Moffat at a café in District 1, HCMC, June 2024. Photo courtesy of Moffat

Zach Moffat at a café in District 1, HCMC, June 2024. Photo courtesy of Moffat

Marcel Lennartz, a 53-year-old Dutch engineer, has lived near the traffic choked point off Cong Hoa Street for 14 years, while his office is on Phung Khac Khoan Street in HCMC’s District 1, 7 kilometers away.

"The period from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. has the maximum level of noise and air pollution," Lennartz said.

Lennartz experienced severe traffic jams in Manila, Philippines, where walking home during rush hour was faster than driving. However, in Vietnam, encountering traffic congestion means being trapped amidst the noise of motorbike horns and traffic fumes.

"Honking only increases discomfort," he added. "Drivers rarely give way; they prioritize their own needs regardless of traffic flow, blocking right-turn lanes at intersections."

He noted that rush hour during the rainy season escalates the "terror" tenfold. "My motorcycle is like a submarine propelling itself forward through the water, but it could stall at any moment," Lennartz quipped.

Having lived in Vietnam for 29 years, Lennartz learned two ways to avoid rush hour. He stays late at the office until traffic eases up or navigates through smaller alleys like locals do, which may add distance but save time.

A study by VnExpress found that traffic, especially during rush hour, is foreigners in HCMC’s biggest fear and annoyance.

By the end of 2023, there had been over 9.2 million vehicles in HCMC, including nearly 8.3 million motorbikes, marking a 4.64% increase from 2022. Dr. Pham Xuan Mai, former head of the Faculty of Transportation Engineering at HCMC University of Technology, estimated that the city's road infrastructure could not support 75-80% of the motorcycles, making traffic jams inevitable.

A customer survey by Move to Asia, a consultancy specializing in assisting foreigners with investment, work, and settlement in Asia, indicated that traffic and language are the biggest barriers for foreigners in Vietnam.

"Especially, for those new to HCMC and Hanoi, traffic congestion and the traffic culture can be shocking, influencing their decision to settle," said Guillaume, CEO of Move to Asia.

Sam, 33, living in Tan Phu District, vividly remembers his initial anxiety when trying to cross the street during rush hour in Vietnam.

Having visited 51 countries, Sam chose to live in Vietnam but was shocked by the congested streets filled with motorcycles, cars, and pedestrians. The British man feared being hit if he hesitated in the middle of the traffic chaos.

"It's hard to find out the rules. All I wanted was to cross the street," he said. "Even the sidewalks are lanes for motorbikes during rush hour."

Things are getting better

Over time, Sam stopped walking to dinner before 7 p.m. and now only goes out later when the crowds have lessened.

He’s learned the culture of how Vietnamese people commute. Crossing the street where there are zebra crossings is ideal. However, without pedestrian crossings, he remains calm, making eye contact with motorcyclists and signaling with his hand to walk across the road.

"This is a basic survival skill in Vietnam," Sam shared. "My American and Australian friends are thrilled when I share my street-crossing techniques."

A few years ago, Lennartz moved to Thu Duc City to reduce his commute time. He praised Ba Son Bridge, connecting District 1 to Thu Duc City, as a bright spot in HCMC's traffic scene.

"I hope the situation will improve much more," he said.

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