We’ve spent the past month in southeast Asia. We started in Bali, made our way up and around Cambodia and then spent the last week in Saigon. I’ve written about the traffic in Saigon, the museums and rock and roll music in Cambodia and sundry other things that we did and noticed as we moved through this part of the world.
In this post, I’m going to focus on one of the most ubiquitous elements of southeast Asia: the motor scooter.
Back home in Denver, I sometimes see folks driving around on scooters. You see more bicycles and motorcycles, but there are a fair number of scooters. Sujata calls them ‘donor’ cycles, a not-so-subtle suggestion that they are not safe to ride. I’m of the same mind: the only two-wheeled transport I’m comfortable with is a bicycle. I ride my bike to work just about every day, even in the winter, but I don’t trust Denver auto drivers, so ride the side streets and I’m very careful. Until a few days ago, I’ve never been on a motorcycle nor a scooter.
The scooter, though, is the primary mode of transport throughout southeast Asia and I think it would be virtually impossible to spend a month here and not spend even just a little bit of time on a scooter. When we were in Bali, I really wanted to hop on a scooter and ride the meandering country roads that connect the rural inland villages. Tuk tuks were our primary mode of transportation in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap–aside from a couple of close calls, they seemed relatively safe. The scooters in the big cities, though, are a different story. We didn’t see a lot of accidents in the cities but when we did, it always involved a scooter driver on the ground. I had no interest in driving or riding on a scooter in the fast-paced urban areas.
That said, Sujata’s phone rang early one morning while we were in Saigon. She started having a spirited conversation with the caller, hung up a few minutes later and announced, “Hey guys, we are all going on a scooter ride tonight!” My stomach briefly dropped, my eyes got wider than usual and I asked her, “All of us? The kids, too?”
Yup. All of us, and it was all my fault.
Back in Siem Reap, we took a bicycle tour with a local company. I guess they liked us because at the end of the tour they asked us if we’d come back the next day and agree to ride around the city and be photographed for their marketing material. Sujata writes about this in a previous post. One of the terrific things about that experience was getting to know the photographers, two young Colombian nationals, Luis and Dur.
It was Dur who called Sujata and asked if we’d join the food tour that evening in Saigon. She and Luis had a contract to develop some marketing material for a local food tour company–Saigon Food Tours–and they wondered if we’d join the tour so they could photograph us scootering and eating our way through Saigon. Later that evening, after the tour was over, Dur confessed to me, over beers, that she wasn’t even going to call–who would take their children on a scooter tour through Saigon during rush hour? Luis, Dur informed me, said, “Just give them a call–all they can do is say no.”
We said yes.
I’ve written about Saigon traffic in a previous post. If you haven’t read that, all that post really says is the Saigon traffic is nuts and that scooters are the major reason for the traffic chaos in the city. Part of that is simply a result of the sheer volume of scooters in the city: the ratio of people to scooters is almost exactly 1:1. There are just over 8 million people living in Saigon and there are just over 8 million registered scooters in the city.
Saigon traffic really heats up at rush hour, around 4:30 pm. The streets get so congested that many of the scooter drivers–impatient to get home or to the bar–forgo the surface streets and ride up on the sidewalks. Pedestrians are at the bottom of this commuter food chain.
Dur texted us at 4:35 pm.
We traipsed downstairs and there were Dur and Luis, each sitting on the back of scooters driven by young people from the Saigon Food Tour Company.
Sujata, me and the kids were issued helmets, we each hopped on the back of a respective scooter and . . . away we went. My driver’s name was Phan and my first question to him was, “How long have you been driving a scooter in Vietnam?” I wanted him to say, “Oh, I’ve been doing this for 10 years and I’ve never had an accident,” but from what I could tell, he wasn’t more than 20 (later he told me he was 22) so his veteran scooter status was questionable.
Phan quickly proved himself adept with the scooter, though. He confidently glided into the wave of traffic and the other six bikes followed behind us.
Within minutes, I was feeling quite at ease. Frankly, I felt safer on the back of the scooter than I did walking on the sidewalks. Phan was a garrulous host–I leaned in over his shoulder as he told me about his life studying economics at one of the many universities in Saigon. He was an industrious, interesting young man: the Saigon Food Tour gig was his third job. Most importantly, he was a big basketball fan, so we talked basketball for at least half the ride.
Saigon is a leafy city with wide boulevards that look a bit like Chicago in places. Spacious roundabouts with wide lanes of traffic dot the city. We found one such roundabout and took four turns around as Luis and Dur snapped photos and caught us smiling and laughing on their video cameras.
I kept half an eye on the kids–Phan and I were pretty far out front, so I couldn’t see them except when we paused at a stop light, or got caught in a traffic jam. The first time I saw Atticus he had a wide-eyed I-Can’t-Believe-You-Made-Me-Go-On-This-Insane-Ride look on his face. Or perhaps it was the You-Are-A-Really-Irresponsible-Parent look. I couldn’t tell. When Eleanor’s scooter pulled up, she was, of course, chattering away in that stream of consciousness, Jack Kerouac sort of way of hers.
Our first stop was one of the thousands of open-air restaurants that serves street food to workers on their way home. There was a great deal of confusion about vegetarians. The Vietnamese think that fish is not meat so we got a few helpings of fish-based street food and I’m pretty sure that one of the dishes had pork in it. Sujata and Atticus ate the fish, but, of course shunned the pork. Eleanor and I took a pass on all of it until fully meat-free dishes were served.
After that, we rode around the city for nearly an hour and a half–that’s a really long time to be on a scooter. I’m 6′ 3″ so my knees stuck out the sides in an awkward, probably semi-dangerous way. Every time Eleanor’s scooter pulled up to Phan and me Eleanor would admonish me to pull my knees in. That said, I was comfortable and happy as we rode on.
The sun set and the lights from the cafes began to replace the sunlight. Saigon residents seem to live their lives outside–the sidewalk cafes and open-air restaurants are always full and they get more crowded as the evening wears on. One of my favorite Saigon scenes was a long line of scooters on the sidewalk and behind the scooters a crowded cafe with men and women and children eating their dinners and enjoying each other’s’ company.
We stopped for dinner at a local barbeque joint–the kind of place we’d never have found on our own. This time, they served us all vegetarian food, except for the frog that was wrapped up in tin foil and that we unwittingly barbequed. Geez.
After dinner, our Saigon Food Tour hosts told us they had one more place to take us. We wound our way through District 4, zoomed through the Saigon River Tunnel and then popped up on the other side, in District 1. It was past nine pm and at that point we’d been on the bikes for nearly three hours. By then the hot afternoon streets gave way to a cool, breezy evening. The streets were emptying out a bit, so Phan and the rest of our drivers opened up their engines and we sped down a wide, open boulevard that turned into a dark, narrow street. We were barreling toward the Saigon River–I could see the city lights flickering off its placid surface. I noticed rows and rows of scooters parked on the side of the street and couples leaned against a long parapet that held back the river. We made a quick right turn. There were loads of people here, mostly couples, arm and arm, walking along the street, perched on the parapet or decamped on blankets–everyone gazing at the bright lights of Saigon from across the river. As our entourage came to a stop, I looked to my right and was nearly blinded by bright white lights high overhead. As my eyes adjusted, I realized that we were underneath the eight iconic, enormous Heineken billboards that mast the east side of the Saigon River. Vietnam has some pretty good beer but the Vietnamese love Heineken because the Heineken red star looks almost exactly like the star of the Vietnamese national flag.
That’s fair enough, I’m alright with Heineken.
Phan told me that this spot was the exact spot where he and his girlfriend of five years got back together after separating for a nearly six months. I looked around and noticed all manner of young couples arm and arm, cheek to cheek, enjoying their lives and settled into this relaxed, romantic scene. As I gazed around at the light from the Heineken billboards shining down on all these people and as I looked across the river at the the tall buildings of Saigon, I thought that this was really the stuff of a Bruce Springsteen song–barefoot girls sitting on the hood of a Dodge and all that. Bruce would would love this side of the Saigon River.
It was late, the kids were tired. So was I. We got on our scooters and headed home.