Scooting in Saigon

By Dave Fox
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

[Eek! My laptop battery is about to die here… I’m splashing this online without edting, spell-checking, or anything. Photos coming soon.]

Ask anyone who has visited Ho Chi Minh City what sound they remember most, and invariably they’ll tell you it’s the honking of horns and the constant rumble of motorbikes. In a country where the price of a used car is beyond the reach of most people, in a crowded and sprawling city with roughly eight million residents and limited mass transit, the motorbike is the preferred way to get around.

The sheer number of motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City, (or Saigon as it’s still casually referred to), is mind-blowing. Looking out over a busy intersection from my hotel balcony, so many motorbikes whiz by, counting them all is impossible. There are no traffic lights or stop signs. And people don’t stop. They just slow down and swerve around each other.

Their constant honking is functional, not hostile. People navigate by sound as well as sight, paying attention to audible warnings from bikers behind them who want to pass.

What’s most amazing to me is the amount of people or stuff they can cram onto a single motorbike. These are generally not big bikes, but my girlfriend, Kattina, says she’s seen a family of six on a single bike. I have seen five, and four is routine. Young children sit, helmetless, on top of the gas tank, cradled in a parent’s arms. I’ve seen several kids napping this way. Older kids, age six or older, are often sandwiched between two parents.

The things people carry on their bikes? Huge sacks of rice. Cases of beer. Not single cases. In any given hour, I will see at least a couple of bikes ride past with eight beer cases in two stacks of four, bungee-corded to the seat. Those are the bottles. With cases of cans, I’ve seen double the amount. But there’s more. In any given hour, at any random intersection, you can see motorbikers carrying huge baskets of fruit, furniture, car windshields, even bicycles.

This would all be very illegal in the States. And friends here tell me Vietnam has laws too that are semi-enforced. But it seems safe here. I haven’t seen a single accident. I saw one near miss during a pounding downpour.

People drive slowly here, constantly watching out for each other. While motorcycles in the US terrify me, hopping on a motorbike taxi in Saigon and slaloming through the city streets is thrilling – as is sitting on my hotel balcony during rush hour, sipping a beer, and watching the tangle of motorized life below.

“I never get tired of watching this,” Kattina said to me the other night.

I don’t either. It’s like watching fireworks.

Published on Thursday, April 2, 2009

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