Vietnam - Saigon

Red banners line many of the streets of Saigon. Click here for more photos from Vietnam

May 20-26, 2009

When planning our trip around SE Asia and considering which cities and countries we should visit, Vietnam wasn’t even on the list. I’m not quite sure why; we were juggling so many countries already, and I think it was a combination of Vietnam requiring a visa when other countries didn’t, and perhaps having a slight sense that Americans wouldn’t be, well, entirely welcome in the country. When talking with two well-traveled friends about our trip, however, they said plainly: “You MUST go to Vietnam.” For them it wasn’t even a question; if one was traveling to SE Asia, Vietnam was a must-see. I am so thankful for our friends’ insistence, for Vietnam turned out to be our favorite destination by far and I emphatically second their recommendation.

The country’s largest city was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976 but is still commonly known as Saigon, and indeed all of the Vietnamese residents we spoke to referred to it by its former name. My first and most enduring impression of the city can be summed up in one word:
traffic. Oh lord, the traffic – specifically the motorcycle traffic. It is unlike anything I have ever seen in my life. It is so staggering, so frenzied, so chaotic, that as we drove in from the airport I literally thought to myself: My god, we are never going to be able to cross the street.

Cars and trucks are too expensive for most Vietnamese and really don’t make sense in the city, with virtually no parking and so many people living in a maze of narrow alleyways. Most, therefore, turn to motorcycles – and I don’t mean dainty European Vespas (though we did see a few): I mean loud, growling, old-school Hondas and Yamahas and Suzukis. I heard conflicting figures as to the number of vehicles in the city; a Vietnamese tour guide said Saigon had a population of 8 million people with 10 million motorcycles, while a Western ex-pat living in Cambodia said 6 million. Either number is staggering, but I believe it: the proof is right there in the streets, zipping along at breakneck speeds, going in every direction with little regard for lanes, as many as five people crammed onto one vehicle. It is dazzling and (as a pedestrian) terrifying at the same time.

It took a great deal of courage on our first attempt to cross a busy street, but we quickly picked up on the rhythm and indeed it’s far easier to navigate the traffic than it looks. The motorcyclists are so maneuverable and so used to dodging pedestrians that, so long as you don’t stop short or deviate from your course, they easily zip around you. It’s the cars and buses you have to look out for, which herald their arrival by massive blasts of the horn that can be heard far down the street. Even once you make it to the other side, however, you’re not in the clear: when traffic gets too backed up, when construction gets in the way, or just whenever riders feel like it, they routinely jump the curb and cruise down the sidewalks. That is, when the sidewalks themselves aren’t impassable from thickly packed rows of parked motorcycles.

Amusingly, despite their audacious driving, all drivers dutifully wear helmets – it’s the law. (It’s also the law that no more than 2 riders are allowed on a motorcycle, but the authorities “Eh, look the other way,” according to our hostel family.) I got the biggest kick out of seeing young girls cruising through the city. In the US motorcycles are very much a male-dominated sector: very tough, very macho, very much the single guy seeking an adrenaline rush or showing off his bad-boy wheels. In Vietnam, they’re not a bold and daring alternative form of transportation; they’re the
main form of transportation and nothing special. Skirts don’t figure into the uniform for motorbike-riding Saigon schoolgirls: they wear billowy, knee-length, gaucho-style pants. And I can’t count how many smart young women I saw, dressed in the latest fashion, fancy heels, purse slung over a shoulder, their long hair streaming in the wind beneath their helmets as they coolly handled their temperamental Hondas.

Riding a cyclo in Saigon

With so much excitement in the streets it is fitting, then, that our two most thrilling experiences in Saigon centered around the traffic: riding cyclos and later riding motorcycles themselves. Cyclos are largely a tourist novelty, but the experience is well worth it. As they are so much slower than the surrounding traffic the government is banning cyclos on many roads, and may in fact be trying to do away with them completely. That’s a shame, as they are very, very fun to ride, and are an excellent way to experience the traffic madness up close. I will never forget my intrepid driver starting off and fearlessly steering us directly into oncoming traffic. Seeing me shrink back from the dozens of motorcycles that surged around us with inches to spare, my driver had these reassuring words: “Don’t worry! I’ve been working for ten years, and no accidents . . . yet!”

Emboldened by the success of the cyclos, we next sought to join the company of motorcyclists themselves. All around Pham Ngu Lao and the Backpackers District (so named for the high number of tourists and ex-pats who live in the area), drivers with a set of wheels and a spare helmet peddle the
Honda om – easy transportation about the city on their bikes. As we had with the cyclos, we asked our lovely hostel family (of the fantastic Ngoc Thao Guest House, which I highly recommend) what a reasonable price would be, so we’d know what to bargain toward. Happily, they ended up calling a couple family friends who drove us around the city, visiting a couple Buddhist temples and the sprawling Ben Thanh Market, for only 50,000VND (about $2.80) per hour.

I had never been on a motorcycle before in my life, and to ride one in Saigon of all places, the city with the wildest traffic I’d ever seen, was literally out of this world. The motorcyclists speed through the city streets, weaving around and through cars and buses, other cyclists, bicyclists, vegetable and souvenir carts, construction, stray animals, pedestrians – the list is endless. When the inevitable summer rains hit, everyone whips out plastic ponchos and keeps on driving. At the occasional stoplight all the drivers crowd in as close as possible, some taking to the sidewalks to get closer to the head of the pack or cut down the cross street, and the instant the light changes they all charge forward through the vehicles still crossing the intersection. It’s madness, and it still somewhat baffles me how anyone can dare try to navigate such bedlam, but in our full week in Saigon I never witnessed a single accident. If only American drivers could be so alert.