Saigon's walking dread

With some of the world's most cluttered sidewalks and reluctant pedestrians, getting around Saigon by foot can be a drag.

In her seven years living in Saigon, Le Hong Van travels around mostly on foot, only resorting to buses and motorbike taxis for long distance commutes.

“I am scared of the traffic here, where even slow drivers can crash any time,” said Van, 25, who is originally from the Central Highland province of Lam Dong. But she added that not even walking always saves her from being hit by the bikes.

Many times Van has found herself in front of speeding motorcycles while strolling on the sidewalk.

“I often get honked at the back by the invading motorbike riders for ‘blocking their way’,” she said. “Sometimes I yell at them, and all the time they just keep driving past me on the pavement.”

The challenges Van faces during her daily adventures on foot don’t stop there.

The heat and humid weather make her walks more strenuous, while inundated streets in rainy season occasionally bar her from going home. Street food, beverage stalls and parked motorbikes push her off the sidewalk and into the traffic flows.

 “I am the only one among everyone I know in Ho Chi Minh City who still chooses to walk instead of riding a motorbike or a car,” she concluded.

Her observation is backed by data.

A recent study by Stanford University found that her fellow Vietnamese are among the world’s least willing to walk.

The largest survey taken of its kind, which made use of a health and fitness monitoring app, counted only around 3,600 steps per day per person in Vietnam. Hong Kong, in contrast, registered 6,880 while China clocked 6,189 (the global average was 5,000).

The immobility appears particularly bad in Ho Chi Minh City. Surveys conducted with residents in Vietnam’s main economic hub showed that many office workers only walked around 600 steps a day, reported Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper. As a result, obesity rates are increasing among young people, according to monitoring by the Ho Chi Minh City Nutrition Center.

The result came as no surprise for the authorities.

“In this city, even for 100 meter distances people would use their motorbikes.”

Le Van Khoa, the vice chairperson of the Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee in a February meeting.

“While walking in other countries is so common, people here have yet to adopt the habit,” he added.

Riding motorbikes indeed offers a faster means than walking on foot. Plus, they are smaller than cars, which makes it easy to swoop through traffic jams and down tiny streets and alleys.

The city thus far has licensed 7.6 million motorbikes for its 8.4 million registered residents, or nine motorbikes for every 10 people. And more than 800 new motorbikes hit the road everyday.

A restaurant on Ngo Duc Ke Street. The nearest parking lot is one kilometer away and, according to the restaurant security guard, is usually full.

However, the large number of vehicles is also putting huge pressure on the city’s traffic. With the road density almost double the national average for urban areas, traffic is increasingly tight.

Subsequently, more motorbikes resort to the sidewalks as an escape, particularly during the increasingly chaotic rush hours.

These potted plants aren't stopping the pavement from being swamped by rush hour traffic.

Along with motorbikes turning sidewalks into speedways, pedestrians also find themselves trapped among parked cars. Despite the ban, many drivers choose to take the risk of getting a parking ticket. They may have little choice – the city can provide less than 14 percent of the parking space needed for over 700,000 cars, and the issue is going nowhere as the biggest parking garage projects downtown are still pending on paper due to financial issues.

Not all sidewalk obstacles are vehicular. Street vendors and sidewalk restaurants continue to dominate narrow public spaces even after being evicted by the draconian sidewalk clearance campaign led by prominent municipal leaders.

This sidewalk on Cong Quynh Street looks more like a small market.

In a compromise move, the city paints yellow lines on the sidewalk to separate the walking area from business zones on several major streets in Ho Chi Minh City. They still get ignored by pop-up businesses and motorists.

The designated walking zones are also overlapped with tree basins and public power boxes, which, while perhaps useful in other ways for the public, don’t make walking easier.

VIDEO: Here is what it's like walking in Saigon

Adding to the misery, towering trees that provide shade for the sunny tropical city are frequently chopped down. And the ambient air pollution, which exceeds WHO safety limits, shy people away from being exposed on the street.

Despite being pedestrian unfriendly, the authorities insist on "cultivating a walking habit" among citizens.

"The city should consider encouraging its public servants, teachers, students and parents to go to work and to school on foot,” Le Van Khoa suggested in a People's Committee meeting in February.

In the month following his statement, the authorities proposed a city-wide movement to foster walking habits among citizens by 2020. The three-year program by the city’s Traffic Safety Committee would encourage party members, public workers and students to, as a start, walk 300 meters a day once a week.

In the meantime, the city is failing even the eagerest walkers.

As she continued on her way down the street, Hong Van said she plans to bring her motorbike from her hometown to Ho Chi Minh City at the end of the week.

 “It’s just so inconvenient,” she said, having resigned herself to two-wheels.

 “At least I will get where I want when I want to,” she added.


Nhung Nguyen, Thanh Nguyen

By Nhung Nguyen, Thanh Nguyen, Nhung NguyenNo