CROSSING a busy road in Vietnam is not something to take lightly. With the once iconic bicycle having long since given way to its motorised counterpart, larger towns and cities now teem with unimaginable numbers of motorbikes and scooters, moving in unending streams.
A much faster and noisier affair than the bicycle, and more problematic too. Pollution levels rise in the cities of a country where 90 million people own a staggering 37 million motorbikes.
Daunting in their numbers, the teeming mass of bikes that populate both busy thoroughfares and back street alleys, now provide the more iconic snapshot of a Vietnamese city. Entire families can fit on one bike, two adults, two children, or even more alarmingly, one adult and three children. A last-minute breakfast can be eaten on the way to work and a baby breastfed on the way to daycare.
This is multi-tasking in the extreme, with pillion passengers balancing food, drinks and babies, with a phone often pressed to an ear, as day-to-day necessities take place on the go.
Do not be deterred, however. Visits to Vietnam often beginning with arrival into one of its two biggest cities, and Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City both have much to enjoy. The rich and vibrant cities are melting pots of both history and progress, and offer an experience of a South East Asian city that is yet to stray far from its essence.
Arrival, for us, was Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon, as it is still mostly known, despite its 1975 name change). With just four days to spend in the city, things needed to happen faster than our more leisurely style. But what was to follow were four very wonderful days, busy and full and fast moving, chaotic and noisy and heady. Deeply disturbing at times, yet also an incredible amount of fun.
Day one, and keen to see where we’d arrived, we took the advice of a friend and arranged a scooter tour of the city. Reluctant though we’d been, the day was to challenge any preconceptions we’d ever had about arranged tours. It was to be a dizzying high point in our trip.
Travelling pillion on a motorbike in any South East Asian city is likely to be exhilarating. A wild and crazy experience where road rules are scarce, and anything you’ve learned at home about keeping safe seems hard to apply. It was indeed exhilarating, scary and crazy at times, yet our drivers – clever young students paying their way through uni – were careful and assuring, highly communicative and loads of fun. It was like being on a road trip with people you’ve just met. Nothing detracted from our enjoyment of the whole crazy experience and we came out of it with vastly more knowledge of the city and its people.
With many other bike tour options available, we had, perhaps, cheated. Choosing the top-rated tour on Trip Advisor was easy, but for us, short on time, it certainly paid off and after most of a day on and off the bike, our drivers were like friends, and we’d seen and experienced so much that we wouldn’t have done alone. Tiny back-alley cafes and markets and meeting places. And we swung by some of the city’s most significant sites.
The Saigon Central Post Office, built in the 1880s, and remaining, with its sense of war and history gathered over many periods of unrest. The Independence Place, made famous when images of tanks crashing through the main gates spread quickly across the world in 1975, heralding the fall of Saigon.
Going it alone the next day, we made our way to the Cu Chi Tunnels, an extensive network of tunnels constructed by Vietnamese soldiers during the French Occupation, and expanded during the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Ben Dinh is located an hour or so from Ho Chi Min City and the less touristy Ben Duoc is 90 minutes. The tunnels and displays give an up-close view of the staggering ingenuity born in times of war.
Including living quarters, meeting rooms, weapons factories and even hospitals, the tunnels saved the lives of thousands of South Vietnamese, though countless lives were also lost.
It’s an intriguing, and daunting look into both the creativeness, and the brutality, of surviving war. Enter the small and cramped tunnel system if you wish, but it is small, tight, and not for those prone to claustrophobia.
The War Remnants Museum, located in the city, is one of the most visited sites in Vietnam, housing thousands of photographs and documents. Visitors are exposed to the harrowing reality of the Vietnam War, and of the near universal opposition to it. It’s a gruelling and disturbing journey, yet not one to miss. The preconceptions and misunderstandings that lead to war and the consequences, are clear to see, and not easily forgotten.
Catching a boat on our final day and heading up towards the Mekong Delta was a tonic. It gave us exposure to a different kind of Vietnam, where age-old waterway villages have little in common with the economic growth of the cities. Poverty is still endemic in many rural regions.
There was pollution and rubbish disposal problems and their impact on the river. There were also bicyclists that rode through the villages, ringing their bells.
Vietnam is a country in transition. A country of warm and hospitable people with a proud culture of patriotism. And, did I mention? It is also a country of wonderful, wonderful food.