Language, Traffic and Saigon

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Crossing the road is supposed to be relatively simple, right?

Not when you’re in Saigon, Vietnam’s sprawling southern metropolis.

A city that’s home to nearly 8 million vehicles. Where such vehicles add to the complexity of simple tasks such as crossing a road.

On a recent trip to Vietnam, I stood at the the roadside edge. I looked left and then right searching for a visible gap in the ballast of vehicles.

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I shielded my eyes from the blinding sun which fell in two directions.

The bump and grind of traffic unfolded.

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Cars kicked out engine heat which mixed into the 95 plus degree warmth that was already baking me and the city.

A flag billowed in the humidity drifting up from beneath the streets.

I stepped from side to side, looking for patches of shade to ease the heat, whilst I awaited the opportune crossing moment.

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The effect was like being shipwrecked in a sea of vehicles, a surf of unattributed engines.

Congestion cascading in waves.

A cacophony of swirling engines through the quotidian traffic.

Voices drowned out in an aria of engines and repetitive horn-beeps performed in chorus.

Cars, buses, scooters and bikes vying for space.

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Feeling bold, I placed my foot into the road, preparing to launch my intrepid journey to the safety of the adjacent tree line avenue.

‘Beep beep beeps’ were fired towards me.

The vertigo of interpretation forced me backwards (as cars and scooters threatened to run over my toes).

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I stood alone at the edge of the roadside.

A deer in the headlights.

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Weary and feeling the sharp sting of having been beeped out of the way by a guy who whizzed past me on his scooter.

Minor artefacts reinforcing my foreignness.

If this was your first visit to Saigon, a simple act of attempting to cross the road could leave you with an immediate impression of a simmering environment containing  slightly hostile, detached, people. You’ll soon however realise this is not (and is far from) the case.

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As the scooter driver passed me, he glanced back towards me, offering me a smile and a wave in a gesture that reassured.

Unravelling the ballgame of language and actions is a complicated process but these aren’t the hostile beeps of aloft and detached people but rather simple and gentle reminders to be careful, or to watch out.

An example of Wittgenstein’s language of games, perhaps. Where the context, rules and meaning associated with language and interaction are altered according to our immediate environment, forcing us to make spontaneous adjustments in our understanding of the language and interaction that is being played out before us.

Shortly after, I followed the treelined path towards the roadside junction. Randomly, a man pulled his scooter into the middle of the road, cutting off the adjacent traffic, smiling he offered me a safe route to the other side.

When I first visited Saigon in 2009, I remember standing alone at the roadside edge for about 20 minutes, fixated in apprehension and confusion. Trying to plot an alternative route that would avoid me having to cross this impossible road. A local girl came to my rescue, encouraging me to follow her as she stepped into the road, drawing me along with her. I mirrored her movements, stepping into her shadows, as we weaved in and out of  the way of cars, motorbikes, and buses, paving our way though the maze of vehicles until we reached the safety of the adjacent pavement.

Enormous silent shifts and adjustments make you feel like you’re speaking a shared language (despite the slightly different inflection of a foreign environment). Bridging linguistic and cultural divides.

Saigon is a city steeped in traffic and congestion but adrift on the currents of this city is a land of authentic, and kind people.

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