Some call Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City if you like, the city of ten million motorbikes. We’re not entirely sure there are ten million motorcycles – estimates vary from 2.5 to five to ten and more – so let’s just settle on millions. Either way, for a small city, that’s a lot of wheels.
Locals like to tell visitors that Saigon has more motorbikes than people. We wouldn’t be surprised if that’s true, and the more affluent locals, especially the rising segment of young, middle class hipsters, had different coloured motorcycles to match their clothes. It certainly seemed that some of the young women had taken great care to coordinate their handbags, shoes, hats, and, well, bikes.
Motorcycle stores and accessories shops are everywhere, including one particular chain that appeared to be on every corner, selling motorcycle helmets, along with all kinds of hats, in a kaleidoscope of colours and countless styles.
Everywhere you look, there are bikes – crowding the streets, fifty abreast, bike abutting bike. It’s surprising there aren’t pile-ups, especially when the traffic lights change and thousands of the wheeled beasts charge forward. Heaven forbid anything or anyone who gets in their way. Including pedestrians.
Crossing the road in Saigon is frightening. It’s intimidating even to other Asians – our Thai friends agree – and those of us who have lived the region’s most frenetic cities. The traffic in Bangkok is calm by comparison. When we returned to the Thai capital we became fearless crossing the road, having survived Saigon.
Bikes cram the footpaths, where temporary car bike parks form outside buildings while people are at work, and around schools when parents wait to pick up their kids, who nonchalantly hop on behind their folks. A whole family piles on a motorbike in the same way parents and a handful of siblings would pile into a car in other places.
In Saigon, at peak hour, it’s essential to stay off the streets – even the footpaths – when not only could you accidentally get run over by a bike reversing out to hit the road, but by frustrated riders, fed up with the gridlock, who jump the kerb and speed along the pavement to the next set of lights. Once one guy does it they all follow and there’s nowhere for you to hide, so it’s best to retreat somewhere safe for a while, like a café.
Here, in Ho Chi Minh City, people even sleep on their bikes – and they sleep soundly too, snoring away. But still they seem simultaneously so precariously balanced, as if one false move might see them fall face down on the footpath, and somehow so comfortable, hands behind their head, rested on the handle bars, knees bent with one leg flung over the other, as if the guy is lying on a garden bench.
But don’t let that put you at ease. That same happy bloke with the smile on his face will be on his bike mounting the footpath within the hour, and letting you know that the footpaths here are just a less congested traffic lane…