Getting up early to beat the rush is not just for the tourists. A pre-dawn start is ideal for cyclists here as it allows you a short time to ride before the heat becomes too much. And I do mean a short time. Setting off just before 6 am I began a 110km ride to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), formerly Saigon. Old newsreel images of the helicopter evacuating Americans atop their embassy before it was stormed, as well as pictures from the war have ingrained themselves in the public consciousness over the years together with more modern stories such as the Robin Williams film Good morning Vietnam. It was with these images in my mind that I rode north on Asia Highway 1 to the capital of the south. Of course, decades have passed since the war has ended and the city is growing and changing at an amazing rate. One change of course is the cities name. In an attempt to do away with images of the past the new government changed the cities name from Saigon to Ho Chi Minh, a mark of respect to the countrys leader and defeater of the 'American imperialists'.
As I rode into the city the one thing that caught my eye was the number of scooters flying around. In each of the countries I have visited in South East Asia scooters are rife, and usually make up a large percentage of the total traffic, but here in HCMC they appear to outnumber all other traffic by a sizeable mark. I have heard that anyone aged 16 and up is allowed to ride a scooter although there are obviously many riders younger. There is no registration required, no test to be undertaken, no insurance or road worthiness test requirements as far as I am aware. Scooters often have their own lanes but are not always confined to them. Most of the time the traffic is a free for all. Traffic here drives on the right, but lots of scooters can be seen riding alongside the kerb against the flow of traffic if they want to get somewhere without having to follow the traffic up the road and turn round. In fact the pavements are used as scooter lanes too should the need arise or if you want to jump to the front of the queue at the traffic lights. And when the pavements are not being ridden on they are used for parking scooters in rows that can be as many as four deep and hundreds long.
What makes the traffic here so interesting though is the way that they ride. Everyone concentrates on not hitting anyone in front of them. If they are behind you then it is up to them to concentrate on not hitting you. This can lead to a few hairy moments when someone begins to overtake you and then turns across you onto another road, after all once they are in front (and that may mean by just half a wheel) then you have the responsibility to not hit them. Traffic light controlled junctions are even more chaotic. Many junctions have countdown timers showing the number of seconds left until the lights change to red or green. This means that riders can preempt the change and go early. If there were a gap between the change to green and the crossing traffics lights turning red then this would be okay but of course this doesn't happen and many of the crossing riders are also continuing through the lights after they have turned red. Couple this with riders setting off just before green and wanting to turn left across the traffic coming the other way and of course with riders from the opposite direction turning left too and you have an instant jam where everyone inches forward and around eachother until the dominant flow is recognised. Once this occurs then it is up to the other riders to inch their way slowly along their chosen path trying to reach open ground where they can continue on their way.
At one roundabout I traversed a number of times there are seven roads, all unregulated by lights, white lines or traffic police feeding onto it. The idea seems to be to get onto the roundabout and keep moving while not acknowledging the other traffic. That's not to say that you are not looking at the other traffic, you simply keep it in your peripheral vision to monitor it but if you look around and make eye contact you have lost. If you look at the other traffic then you have given them the right to keep going forcing you to stop until there is another gap. This gap an be created by inching forward continually until there is not enough space for traffic to cut across you anymore at which point all the other scooter riders trying to do the same create a new dominant flow. It's completely crazy and chaotic but bizzarely effective. The strangest thing about it though is the fact that nobody seems to get annoyed about being cut-up or forced to stop while someone else bullies their way through a crowd. I have not even seen a scooter rider giving another person so much as a stern look, let alone swearing. Considering that they are just a foot or two from eachother it would be so easy to do but It would seem that road rage is not a problem here.
For those wanting to cross the flow of traffic whether on wheels or on foot the best way to do it is to walk or ride slowly so that everyone has time to see you and take avoiding action. Slow and steady is the key. Erratic unpredictable moves create chaos and probably accidents whereas a steady stroll across the road is surprisingly safe.
Turning your back on the traffic the city itself has a good feel to it. There are a number of French colonial buildings that make up a part of the administrative section of the city as well as an opera house, hotels and other buildings. I haven't noticed any war torn buildings but then again I don't think the city itself was 'in the wars' much as far as I can remember. A couple of French and American fighter planes captured during the wars take pride of place on the grounds outside the war museum but apart from tourist souvenir posters and postcards the pictures of war are noticeable by their absence. Maybe this is another way of the new government eradicating the memories of the past and moving on. The younger generations are certainly focusing on the future instead of the past, and American culture is evident everywhere especially in clothes. Traditional costume is rarely seen in the city which has a good reputation for tailoring, and made to measure suits can be completed and delivered to your hotel within 24 hours.
For womens clothing the demise of the traditional costume called Ao Dai (pronounced something like Oh Yay) is a fashion tragedy. The Ao Dai is an elegant, feminine and beautiful garment that accentuates a womans figure without being revealing. A pair of long trousers is covered with a long tunic that has splits from the waist to the floor. Usually made of silk and often embroidered down the front it looks stylish and elegant. Unfortuately this has been replaced not just by jeans and t-shirts among the younger generations but also by shapeless and unflattering pyjamas worn by many women of all ages and for all occasions whether it be shopping, tending stalls at the market, visiting temples, doing housework, taking the kids to school or just sitting around watching the world go by. They really have become the go anywhere do anything trouser suit of the women here. In central HCMC the number of women wearing pyjamas is not as great as in the delta area but the numbers are certainly significant.
My time in the city has been spent finding a few items that have been lost or worn out and relaxing with a couple of friends that I have made. Chris, an actress and teacher from Australia (yes, she HAS been in neighbours) and Matt, a teacher from England at the international school who very kindly put me up in his flat for my visit. When Matt told me his flat was on the 5th floor I was a bit worried about carrying the bike up and down the stairs each time I wanted to use it, but when he told me that there was a lift and that he also had two bikes in the flat already I had a feeling things were going to be alright. In fact when Matt pulled up on his motorbike at the bar where Chris and I were having a drink it felt so relaxed and easy that Chris thought we were old friends from home instead of meeting for the first time. Having somewhere like this to stay while in a city is a huge bonus as it gives you a place to base yourself and also to relax. Hotels rooms are okay but in the city they tend to be clustered together and all you ever see is backpackers and tourists. Matt lives in a locals area and this is obvious by the food stalls and markets surrounding his flat. Street life here is amazing. Everyone is outside relaxing, eating, drinking or just chatting with friends. You can feel a real sense of community.
Five nights in a city is enough for me so I planned my route out of town and headed north east to Da Lat. Matt was up and on the road early too as he regularly meets up with a group of riders to get some miles in before the heat hits. His route was different to mine so we said goodbye at a major junction and with his directions in my mind I continued on my way. There were quite a few walkers, joggers and runners out in the pre-dawn light as well as a couple of groups or road riders who zipped past me. So much for beating the traffic. It's about 270kms to Da Lat so I'd better get going.
 





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