When I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, the capital of Vietnam that was formerly known as Saigon, the first thing I noticed was the traffic. Like many major cities, traffic in Saigon is pretty close to constant no matter the time of day, but its particularity brutal during rush hour. However, there is one major difference; instead of being stuck in bumper to bumper gridlock inching your way down the freeway or through the city streets, the traffic in Saigon is much more alive. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of scooters duck and weave through the cities’ veins like an urban snake.
My brother Lucas, who has been living here for almost 10 months, has become a master at finagling his way through the frenzy as if he was born on the streets of Saigon, honking his horn and flying past locals leaving them in his dust. Even when I saddled up and sat bitch on the back of his 125cc scooter, all 200 lbs of me holding on for dear life. We ripped through the city for the first few days, Luc showing me the sights, sounds and smells of Vietnam, all the while stopping at his favourite hole-in-the-wall eateries for immeasurable variations of com tam (broken rice) and noodle dishes like bun bo hue and pho.
This arrangement was all fine and good for the first couple days but after two tire blow outs and some serious adventure delays Luc decided it was time for me to get my own scooter… I guess these dainty little excuses for motorcycles are built for petite Vietnamese people, not big bearded Canadian boys. Being a motorcycle rider I wasn’t super stoked on the prospect of having to ride around the city on a glorified sewing machine, but being on two wheels is better than being on two feet any day of the week, so I agreed and we went to pick out the most bad-ass scooter money can rent.
After a brief tutorial from the shop owner in broken English of how to drive this mean machine, we were off whizzing through the heart of this bustling metropolis, Luc giving me the Coles Notes on how to survive these seemingly suicidal streets. After hearing his concerns and speaking with a few other people around the city I devised this list of 8 Commandments that might help you, or anyone you know, have a better chance of surviving the streets of Saigon.
i - Thou shalt disregard all conventional road rules
Nothing you know about the rules of the road apply in Vietnam. Red lights at major intersections are treated as more of a suggestion than a requirement and on smaller streets they are often blatantly disregarded. You can go the wrong way on one-way street. You can make a left turn while weaving through oncoming traffic. Its basically every man for himself, like a vehicular jungle, so see commandment ii.
ii - Thou shalt have total spatial awareness
Know your surroundings, keep your head on a swivel and pay the fuck attention! You must always be on your guard, there is no telling when someone will cut in front of you to make a right hand turn from the far left lane or when an old lady will walk into the middle of the street from behind a bahn mi cart.
iii - Thou shalt use thy horn excessively
In the western world we tend to use our horn as a sign of aggression, or to wave at a somebody coming the opposite direction down the street. In Vietnam horns are used constantly. Making a pass? Honk. Turning? Honk. Want that pesky j-walker to get out of your way? Honk. Basically honk at everything.
iv - Thy neighbour in front hath the right of way
Just like skiing or snowboarding the person downhill has the right of way, on the streets in Saigon the people in front of you have the right of way. If they cut you off or slam on their breaks its your fault for being too close, so keep your distance and stay alert.
v - Thou shalt not fuck with busses
Busses are the kings of Saigon’s streets and have ultimate right of way. Always. They don’t slow down and they don’t stop. DO NOT FUCK WITH BUSSES.
vi - Thou shalt always carry bribe money
Sounds shitty, but being a foreigner you stick out like a sore thumb and you will almost certainly be pulled over at some point by the police in hopes they can make a quick buck off you. Lots of people keep a dummy wallet in their scooter with 100,000 Vietnam Dong (about $5 US) that they can use to pay off the authorities and say “sorry mate, its all I have” which is usually enough to get them off your back.
vii – Thou shalt always wear a helmet
This may sound like a no brainer but in a country like Vietnam where a lot of things are backwards and don’t make sense, it wouldn’t be surprising if helmets were not a requirement. For example, the exception to this commandment is that if you are under the age of 8, you are NOT required to wear a helmet... WHAT!? So the infants and children don’t need to be protected? Don’t make no sense.
viii – Thou shalt always, ALWAYS lock thy scooter.
When I picked up the scooter from the rental place I was worried about theft. My contract said if I lost or damaged the scooter the value was US $800 and I didn’t want to have to pay that, especially if someone stole the damn thing. I was especially concerned because they were keeping my passport as collateral, so I asked the owner of the shop of a lock of some nature. He told they didn’t have one but I was assured that no one was going to steal this yellow eye-sore, so I went about my business for a few days. Everything was fine and good until one afternoon I drove the bike home, then went to pick up my dad from the airport. A few hours later when I returned to my guest house I sat outside for an hour with my dad and brother having beers and catching up before I realized, the bike was gone!
I canvassed the neighborhood, got footage from a near by security camera, took it to the cops and even filled out a police report but to no avail. Big Bird was gone forever, dragged deep into the bowels of Saigon to have a new ignition barrel put in it or to be disassembled and sold as parts. I was forced to return to the rental agency the next day with my tail between my legs and admit someone stole it. I was THAT guy, the idiot tourist that got his bike stolen. But in the immortal words of Kurt Vonnegut I said to myself “So It Goes” and now I just had to focus on getting my passport back without having to pay $800.
After much bartering with the shop owner and a sob story about being a broke traveler, an agreement was reached and I forked over 8,700,000 Vietnam Dong ($390 USD) to have my passport safely returned. A minor speed bump along the road, but a valuable lesson learned. Needless to say Saigon is an animal of its own but with these guidelines hopefully you'll be one step ahead and have a good chance of surviving this cities streets.