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Cycling in the Streets of Saigon


A tourist bus is not the place to find adventure, particularly in Vietnam, where the Government does not encourage travelers to stray too far from the highly regulated tourist path. But as I traveled in air-conditioned comfort from Saigon airport to the city's central backpacker district I saw the possibility of adventure all around me. I would cycle with the locals.

 

Copyright: Victoria Brooks.Cycling in Saigon is similar to walking blindfolded across a major city highway in rush hour - but there is no better way to experience one of the most polluted, chaotic and exciting cities in Asia. It is also one of the cheapest. Depending on how hard you bargain you can rent a motorbike for $5 US a day or a bicycle for only $1 US.

A cautious foreign adventurer like myself starts in the slow lane, on the side of the road, near the curb, where tiny children crouch and where the illegal local prostitutes stand, loop-holing the law by selling exorbitantly priced pieces of toilet paper to their clients and giving out sexual favors for free.

I travel as fast as the cyclo drivers, who patrol the streets looking for tourists who want a ride or some heroin, both of which sell for approximately $0.30 US cents. These cyclo drivers are mostly ex South Vietnamese soldiers and therefore enemies of the state. The Government refuses to allow them access to decent well paid jobs, and many spent the 1970s and 1980s in forced labour or 'rehabilitation' camps learning about the importance of Communism and the pain of starvation.

I venture out of the seedier districts and into the slums, where the distinction between road and garbage and sellable goods is often difficult to determine. I putter around the markets, where the fragrance of some of the most beautiful foods in Asia mingles with engine fumes, creating Saigon's distinct aroma.

I cycle through Saigon's business district and past the glassy homes of the multinationals that are taking advantage of the economies now liberal trading laws, fertile soil and cheap workforce.

Copyright: Victoria Brooks.I maneuver around the street children who play soccer on the roads, the disabled beggars who stagger across major traffic routes, and through the roundabouts, that are regularly brought to a standstill as people negotiate their way around the oncoming traffic – their paths, if they were thread, would weave a tapestry.

And I also move inwards and down narrow winding alleyways and stare life in the face: I see women in hammocks taking a midday nap; families eating dinner and watching television on concrete floors

Saigon's road rules are as perplexing as they are flexible and as contradictory as the city itself. Official laws exist. People are supposed to stick to the right hand side of the road, pedestrians should use the zebra crossings; and the traffic lights (if they are working) should be obeyed. But these rules are treated with as much respect as a rebellious teenager listening to words of advice from her well-meaning parents.But it is the rule of the street that is adhered to. And these laws reflect the fatalistic nature of the Vietnamese and Saigon's capitalistic heart. Anyone can go anywhere provided they look out for people they're most likely to hit. And likewise, your safety is the responsibility of people you can't see, the ones you hope are watching you. In essence, your life is in the hands of strangers.

Such individualism also exists within a cohesive, almost organic larger system that some expatriates compare to electricity. Like an electric current, the traffic flow is constantly moving to the path of least resistance. Others describe the traffic as similar to the Borg in Star Trek, as the riders seem to share a kind of collective consciousness; everyone seems to know where everyone else is going. A tip for the foreigner who wishes to fit in: make no sudden moves. Just like the state's political system, accidents happen to those who go against the flow.

Unfortunately, Vietnam happens to have one of the highest road injury and fatality rates in the world. And with the number of motorcycles on the streets of Saigon are expected to double to at least three million by the year 2010. The accident rate is predicted to rise at a rate of 10 per cent a year.

The motorcycle explosion is due to a number of factors. Saigon's per capita income is on the rise, the city's public transport system is at the point of collapse, and, since the government started importing motorcycles from China, the cost of a new motorcycle has dropped from $3,500 to $600 US dollars.

Copyright: Victoria Brooks.And the Vietnamese people like their motorcycles. In this fluctuating and volatile economy, a person's wealth is determined not by cash, but by goods; by the amount of property they own, by the amount of gold they wear, and now, by the type of motorcycle they ride. The more expensive Japanese models, such as the Honda Wave, have as much social clout as a Westerner's BMW.

This is not a country that saves money. Nor is it a country that uses banks.

In an attempt to reduce the number of road injuries, last June, the Vietnamese Government introduced a law (for the third time) making it compulsory for motorbike riders to wear head protection. But considering that the cost of a helmet ($20 US) is 20 times the average wage in Saigon it is hardly surprising that the law is ignored. There aren't even enough helmets in the city for everyone to buy.

When it comes to protection, class conscious Vietnamese women are more interested in wearing arm length gloves to stop their skin from tanning, and the health conscious wear cloth face masks to protect their lungs from the hideous fumes. And rightly so – a few weeks on the streets of Saigon and you'll be coughing up as much phlegm as a chronic smoker.

For myself and my watermelon head, however, a few hours breathing in carbon monoxide was not my greatest concern. Ten miles from my hostel, my bike's brakes stopped working and one pedal fell off. As I picked myself up from the concrete, the locals zipped around me and giggled, and I thanked myself for choosing safety over comfort and wearing head protection on such a hot day.

When You Go:

For more information on Saigon please go to
www.vietnamtourism.com/e_pages/vietnam/province/infor/hochiminh.htm

But it is the rule of the street that is adhered to. And these laws reflect the fatalistic nature of the Vietnamese and Saigon's capitalistic heart. Anyone can go anywhere provided they look out for people they're most likely to hit. And likewise, your safety is the responsibility of people you can't see, the ones you hope are watching you. In essence, your life is in the hands of strangers.

Such individualism also exists within a cohesive, almost organic larger system that some expatriates compare to electricity. Like an electric current, the traffic flow is constantly moving to the path of least resistance. Others describe the traffic as similar to the Borg in Star Trek, as the riders seem to share a kind of collective consciousness; everyone seems to know where everyone else is going. A tip for the foreigner who wishes to fit in: make no sudden moves. Just like the state's political system, accidents happen to those who go against the flow.

Unfortunately, Vietnam happens to have one of the highest road injury and fatality rates in the world. And with the number of motorcycles on the streets of Saigon are expected to double to at least three million by the year 2010. The accident rate is predicted to rise at a rate of 10 per cent a year.

The motorcycle explosion is due to a number of factors. Saigon's per capita income is on the rise, the city's public transport system is at the point of collapse, and, since the government started importing motorcycles from China, the cost of a new motorcycle has dropped from $3,500 to $600 US dollars.

Copyright: Victoria Brooks.And the Vietnamese people like their motorcycles. In this fluctuating and volatile economy, a person's wealth is determined not by cash, but by goods; by the amount of property they own, by the amount of gold they wear, and now, by the type of motorcycle they ride. The more expensive Japanese models, such as the Honda Wave, have as much social clout as a Westerner's BMW.

This is not a country that saves money. Nor is it a country that uses banks.

In an attempt to reduce the number of road injuries, last June, the Vietnamese Government introduced a law (for the third time) making it compulsory for motorbike riders to wear head protection. But considering that the cost of a helmet ($20 US) is 20 times the average wage in Saigon it is hardly surprising that the law is ignored. There aren't even enough helmets in the city for everyone to buy.

When it comes to protection, class conscious Vietnamese women are more interested in wearing arm length gloves to stop their skin from tanning, and the health conscious wear cloth face masks to protect their lungs from the hideous fumes. And rightly so a few weeks on the streets of Saigon and you'll be coughing up as much phlegm as a chronic smoker.

For myself and my watermelon head, however, a few hours breathing in carbon monoxide was not my greatest concern. Ten miles from my hostel, my bike's brakes stopped working and one pedal fell off. As I picked myself up from the concrete, the locals zipped around me and giggled, and I thanked myself for choosing safety over comfort and wearing head protection on such a hot day.

When You Go:

For more information on Saigon please go to
www.vietnamtourism.com/e_pages/vietnam/province/infor/hochiminh.htm