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Our first order of business was learning how to cross the street unmaimed.

Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam for a four-month visit, my husband and I were just two of many foreigners who lived in terror of the traffic. We could have read one of the countless blogs, watched YouTube videos or even studied T-shirt designs offering advice. Happily though, we had a living, breathing instructor, a friend who has safely traversed the roads of this city, otherwise known as Saigon, on and off for six years.

Our guide Helena is almost convinced it was not her Jewish ancestors who invented chutzpah, but the Saigonese drivers, most of whom are on motorbikes. Still, she had plenty chutzpah of her own as she cocked her elbows and sailed into the non-stop throng, with her two, nervous, bug-eyed shadows in tow.

Navigating those first crossings were as breathtaking as a double Vietnamese espresso in the morning. Before stepping on the road I had to lower my gaze to calm myself and focus on maintaining a constant distance between me and my mentor’s bright-orange shoelaces. This freed me to concentrate on the less terrifying world at my feet. Down there, sidewalk tiles, faded and broken yet impressive with their simplified art-deco designs, are reinforced with great crumbling concrete slabs. The bumpy terrain is constantly worked over by food vendors wielding short-handled brooms at the side of the road. Dried leaves and broken plastic water bottles get whisked around pedestrian feet and parked motorbikes, protecting the space where customers gather on curbside stools over bowls of steaming pho.

Since the French, who drive on the right like we do at home, were the first Western country to extend their colonial tentacles into Vietnam, I assumed I would know which way to look when it came to crossing the road. I soon realized however, that the rules of these avenues are not much more than suggestions.

When I finally summoned the courage to look up and step into the roadway madness on my own, I kept my mentor’s counsel in mind. Cars and buses may be myopic when it comes to pedestrians. Motorbikes, the worker bees of this transportation world, will reliably flow around you, beeping as they go. Her final words of wisdom: “Never be tentative. Don’t run, don’t stop, keep a steady, predictable forward pace.”

Something fell into place with those words. I already knew how to move like that: From January through March, at every opportunity, I bundle up, grab my skates and head to Ottawa’s Rideau Canal. Often, the early ice does not live up to its optimistic billing on the National Capital Commission’s website and I need to focus on the bumps and cracks. If the ice improves, I am able to lift my gaze to the surrounding scenery. This is important when the canal is covered with tiny helmeted wonders who ankle fearlessly down the ice without thought of toppling a straggling adult or two. Hockey players, even bereft of their sticks, intently play out their NHL dreams. While filled with liquid grace, they must be given a wide berth as they chase invisible pucks across the unmarked lanes of traffic. Skaters generally travel on the right and pass on the left, but it gets muddled in the middle and, as in Ho Chi Minh City, rules are often no more than suggestions, especially if the best ice is on the other side.

In Vietnam, I’ve learned to move like a bobble-headed toy watching a tennis match at intersections. At any time, I will see cars surging ahead when lights turn red against them, as if determined to elasticize the boundaries of convention. Look the other way and motorbikes with masked, goggled and helmeted drivers will be gliding in both directions down the margins of streets centimetres from my toes. Drivers steering everything from a sleek Mercedes-Benz to a complete garden-centre perched on two wheels will bull across multiple lanes of traffic to make a left-hand turn. I know if I lean back I am likely to feel the breeze of motorbikes zipping along the sidewalk behind me.

As my street-crossing prowess was beginning to improve, a second mentor helped me think more deeply about Vietnamese traffic flow. JP was a former soldier, a veteran of Afghanistan, whose job it is now to help unearth the menace of unexploded bombs dropped during the Vietnam War. We began our chat on a lighter note, talking about food, drink and the challenges of getting to the other side of the road. I felt proud about my developing skills. He smiled with the wisdom of a man aged by war. “You know what they say about how the Vietnamese drive?” He explained the people of this nation negotiate their city streets the same way they have moved through the pain and morass of decades of war and colonialism – with a steady focus on what is ahead.

After four months, I have merely skated over the cultural surface of this country, but already I have seen this forward-looking attitude in the easy smiles and ready trust of the Vietnamese I have met, even those from families scarred by divided wartime loyalties of north and south. Every family lost someone in the war. Maneuvering through the streets, there is a sense of having to trust one another. Traffic rules are negotiable in the moment, but we all want to get safely home for dinner.

Suzanne Evans lives in Ottawa.

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