From Saigon to Hanoi: Getting the hang of Ho Chi Minh city

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014


WATCH out for those motorbikes, a Vietnam travel veteran told me. Don’t hesitate when crossing the street. And don’t run. They’re good at not hitting pedestrians, as long as no one panics.

Now everything the veteran said was true, but while I followed this “travel advisory” to the letter, nothing prepared me for the sheer number of motorcycles that roamed the city streets of Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam’s largest metropolitan area. It was quite a spectacle, actually.

Our guide Than – let’s call him that – was quick to lay down some figures: “There are close to five million motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh. That’s more than half of the city population.”

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The bus my wife and I were riding along with two dozen tourists, mostly Westerners, was headed to the historic Cu Chi tunnels, some 40 kilometers away from downtown Saigon where we were staying.

“All over Vietnam, which has a population of 90 million, there are around 40 million motorcycles,” Than added, “Every year, there are 10,000 deaths all over the country due to motorcycle accidents, but these mostly happen outside the cities where there are few policemen.”

At first I found it disturbing why our tour guide would be talking about fatal accidents in front of Western tourists, then I figured that he was preparing us mentally for where we were heading: an area that hid a massive tunnel system the Viet Cong dug up to hide themselves from American bombs and soldiers. Then again, he might just have been trying to kill time as the bus negotiated with Ho Chi Minh’s moderately heavy rush-hour traffic. Whatever the case, his script had a lot to do with motorcycles.

Than said that before Vietnam opened up in the 90s, only the top members of the Communist Party could own motorcycles, but with the fast-pace of industrialization, the common folk were soon driving their own. In less than two decades after winning the war against America, Vietnam was on its way to prosperity and the motorcycle was its symbol. Than had his doubts, though.

“An American friend told me that when he visited Vietnam in the early 90s, everybody would smile and wave at him even if they possessed nothing,” Than shared. “But during a recent visit, he noticed that everyone now looked upset or ill-tempered.”

Motorcycles for the masses

For a tour guide, Than seemed pretty candid about all this “non-touristy” bits of information. But I remembered seeing a Facebook post of luxury cars lining one of Saigon’s upscale strips. The cars supposedly belonged to the scions of top party members. While the masses ride motorcycles, their leaders drive Ferraris. It doesn’t help that regular cars cost three times more because of huge taxes.

Now that pretty much gives you an idea of the ubiquity of motorcycles in Vietnam, so let’s leave it at that. Besides, once you get the hang of crossing the streets, exploring the urban areas should be a breeze. We pretty much figured that out the previous day.

And exploring Saigon can be truly rewarding for its visitors. The tree-lined sidewalks – paved or cobblestone – are as wide as avenues, a throwback to its colonial days. The giant forest trees, said to be planted during the French occupation, are well-preserved and cared for, with each one accounted for and assigned a number that’s spray-painted on the trunk.

I didn’t get to ask Than, but how the trees are being cared for pretty much sums up how the Vietnamese regard their city, a sense of preservation that extends to its history, culture, art, architecture and cuisine.

Bravely on foot

And for the traveller to appreciate the urban Vietnamese’s way of life, he must brave Saigon’s motorcycles and walk.

“The best way to experience Saigon is on foot,” our Cebuano friend Chad Bacalso made this clear to my wife Bretha and I when he showed us around on day one. Chad, an airline pilot who was assigned at that time in Vietnam, surely knows what it means to keep one’s feet grounded.

Chad explains that most attractions in the city are within reach: the War Remnants Museum, the Reunification Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Saigon Central Post Office constructed and designed by Gustave Eiffel, the Fine Arts Museum, Saigon Opera House, and the Ben Thanh Market.

Along the way, one could simply admire block after block of colonial architecture. Or figure out why Saigon has multi-story buildings with extremely narrow fronts, some as wide as a meter. (Later I learned that these narrow buildings are called “tube houses,” which are taxed based on the width of the lot.)

And then there’s the legendary Vietnamese cuisine of pho, banh mi, goi cuon and other unpronounceable dishes, whether from the street stalls or famous restaurants.

That day, we probably walked close to 20 kilometers from morning to night.

Yet all that walking merely offered us an idea of what Vietnam looks like, the way Than’s motorcycle anecdotes gave us a glimpse of the contemporary Vietnamese way of life. Like the tunnels of Cu Chi further up, Vietnam is more complex, much of its identity hidden. (First of two parts)

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on June 19, 2014.

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