Sitting on impossibly small plastic chairs which appear stolen from a McDonald’s kid section, we watch a mother-daughter duo toil over a steaming pot of iconic Vietnamese pho. They look up only to hand bowls to hungry customers, and again disappear under cylindrical cone hats.
Saigon, the colonial name of Ho Chi Minh City - is street voyeurism at its best, and the ubiquitous honking, sputtering scooters dominate. We watch a confluence of young nouveau-rich Vietnamese with jet black hair lean on scooters outside bars with new Samsung’s fixed to their ears. Poor vendors stand close, hawking cigarettes and Bánh mì sandwiches to them, to complement their tipsy scoot home. There are westerners: an assortment of old male expats with young Vietnamese girlfriends; the flip-flop-Thailand-beer-shirt travelers; and us - a Canadian and an Australian, studying the patterns of scooter drivers. Contemplating the idea of buying two and driving north.
Scooters in Vietnam are often a lasting memory of travellers. For the Vietnamese, they’re so much more: a recent symbol of freedom from the grip of the central communist bureaucracy. They make up 95% of all motor vehicles in Vietnam and eat up all roadways including sidewalks - if you walk into a vietnamese house or business, there’s likely a scooter parked somewhere inside among the furniture.
Scooters are inclusive - workers drive them as workhorses with bags of concrete strapped on the back, farmers drive them ferrying fruit, vegetables and unrestrained chickens, business people in ironed slacks and button-ups drive them to work, a family of four sits comfortably, but six will also do.
My Canadian bike memories include riding on my mom’s bicycle rack as a child, and much later in university, fitting three on a scooter and towing two friends behind on skateboards - that night ended with police sirens, a minor traffic violation and an 85.00$ ticket split five ways. Here in Vietnam, though, anything goes.
We considered an offer, an exceptionally high-mileage Yamaha scooter and a Honda Win motorcycle - a Chinese made Honda knockoff with a characteristic red communist star painted on the gas tank. We scrapped the motorcycle idea after stalling in a Saigon parking lot.
We ended up buying two different scooters from another seller. We dubbed them the Pho Pho machine after the soup and ‘Uncle Ho,’ named respectfully after the genial nickname of the former revolutionary and president Ho Chi Minh, whose imposing smiling statue stands everywhere.
The decision to purchase scooters wasn’t difficult, however I appreciate the caution expressed from well-intentioned friends and families. Aside from traffic fatalities leading the cause of death in Vietnam, our travel health insurance would be void in an accident, hospitals are few and far between, and I’m led to believe the police would have the final word in any traffic dispute.
Driving a scooter in Vietnam isn’t as ad hoc as some may believe, and for many it’s a common feature of traveling the South East Asia loop. Top Gear further popularized the activity, and youth hostels around Saigon often have numerous scooters outside the front, with welded traveler racks held on by cheap bungees. The process is simple - buy a motorbike, semi-automatic or automatic scooter somewhere between 150 - 250$, drive it up the conveniently slim country, and sell it at the other end for roughly the same.
Regulation of foreign ownership of motorbikes in Vietnam is murky. Officially, a Vietnamese drivers license is required. But, in a country of scarcity, road legality isn’t the top concern; a ‘blue card’ registration with an unknown Vietnamese person’s name on it, we were told, holds up fine when police pull you over.
Joining the procession of bikes and driving out of Saigon was as freeing as the first day of our vacation one month earlier in Australia. To leave Saigon we ferried across a river, and putting the bikes on a boat, the breeze of the water replaced the city smog in our lungs.
The streets were sometimes chaotic, but like a school of fish we all swam with the current, moving for honking trucks and slowing down for cows being herded across the road. In Vietnam size matters and the larger the vehicle, the more right of way they’re entitled to. Trucks have the right of way, cars have the right of way. Water buffalo and cows definitely have the right of way. The speed limit is typically 50 kpm and drivers are all required to wear a helmet - most look like plastic baseball helmets.
We stayed off the notorious highway 1; took roads less traveled. Traveling by scooter gave us unparalleled views of diverse landscapes, at our own pace, including remote communities and cultures we would otherwise have missed.
We began a nice routine, waking up with the dawn in humble homesteads or hotels, stopping for gas bought in coca cola bottles from roadside shops, and eating at noisy outdoor restaurants selling Pho, ice beer or cold coffee with a dollop of condensed milk.
Vietnam is the 14th largest country by population and has almost three times more people than Canada, making it convenient for roadside breakdowns. Vietnamese scooter mechanics are pros - a quick spin around the block and he’ll trace the problem to a clogged carburetor or burnt spark plug. We’d often run over a nail, walk 200 meters, and find a man with a roadside caravan equipped with a compressor. After fixing our flat, one mechanic offered to sell us his dog for 10,000 dong, roughly 50 cents and half of what we paid to have the flat fixed. The dog was cute, but sadly we had no room on our bikes for a road dog.
I began to see Vietnam in a different light than the one shown in Canadian high school studies, or what older people watched in the 1970s nightly news. Many of the locations we drove through were household names in America’s first ‘T.V war’ - throw on a Bruce Springsteen track and you’ll likely hear a reference. Much of the surrounding countryside we traveled through has now shed its old American war monikers and places such as Hamburger Hill and Rockpile are today genial farming communities which produce your Nescafe coffee. As important as it is to reflect on the atrocities of this war, Vietnam has to move beyond its war zone branding.
Vietnam is changing, Ho Chi Minh would not recognize the youth who carry traditional culture toward western capitalism. Contradictions are everywhere, a hammer and sickle flag in front of a strip of McDonalds, KFCs and Starbucks - the rhetoric of communism remains, but Ho Chi Minh’s hope for an autonomous state, distinct from the brutal French colonialists, and later the Americans, fell before post-war embargoes, isolation and famine. Modern Vietnam is no basket case state proving its people are resilient survivors.
As we traveled north, summer became winter. Sunny beaches were replaced by cold and rainy roads. Vietnam's climate is deceptively diverse and our flip-flop and T-shirt uniform was no match for 14°C, leading us to buy 25$ 'North-fake' jackets and ponchos.
After three weeks we cut our scooter trip short and, sadly, decided to sell the bikes in Phong Gna, a UNESCO tourist town in its infancy which now boasts the worlds largest cave. After taking the bikes for one last goodbye, we sold them for 300$ and two sleeper bus tickets to Hanoi.
There are safer alternatives to traveling in Vietnam, but the scooters enriched our experience. Scooters allowed us to be more than mere tourists; we were travellers joining in the buzz and anarchy. They illustrate that Vietnams charm isn't always in the restored UNESCO sites, but in the flyover country of endless rice fields, grazing buffalo, fairytale waterfalls, women in conical hats and small minority villages with children who yell pleasantries as you ride by.