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Day 64 – The French Should Stick to Food (Saigon by Motorbike)

May 6, 2010

Dateline: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam – Thursday, May 6, 2010

I hate the French. Not for everything, mind you. Of course, I love them as parents. I love them as chefs. I love them as little people with funny mustaches and silly hats. I hate them, however, as city planners. They are utter failures when it comes to designing a practical city. Because of them, my day was a debacle.

After a late breakfast of pancakes and writing at a local café, I went in search of a motorbike. The old guy who I rented from gave me three options: a snazzy new automatic for $7/day; an old automatic for $5/day; a crappy old manual for $4. Is there any question? I went for the cheapest option.

Right off the bat the bike felt better than the one I lived through in Phnom Penh. The gears shifted easily. The gear ratio felt more rational; I could shift through three gears not just two. I felt good as I powered my way through traffic. I slid in and out of the motorbike herd enjoying the artificial breeze.

I stopped at a light and a Vietnamese guy turned to me, an amused smile on his face, and pointed at the front of my bike and said something. In my imagination he said, “See that part there? That’s the one that’s going to fall off and kill you.” The bike was definitely old and a bit underpowered, but I didn’t care. I was moving for four bucks.

I laughed and said, “I don’t speak Vietnamese.” He laughed and zipped off, perhaps to tell his friends about the American who’d died on the streets of Vietnam.

I drove down a main boulevard for a bit when I realized I didn’t have any gas. The gauge was actually below the red. Suddenly, I couldn’t help but notice the bike hiccupping like it was on its last legs. I slowed down to conserve gas and started looking for a station. A distressing amount of time later, I still hadn’t found one. I decided to turn off the big road and search elsewhere. I had visions of running out of gas and pushing the thing down the side of the road in the heat.

Just when I was on the verge of asking for directions (desperate times), I found a station. Tank full, I threw myself back into traffic. The plan was to go to a pagoda in a different part of town. First though, I had to find a main road to orient myself.

Finding that main road took, unfortunately, three hours. Three midday-sun-baked hours. The following thoughts crossed my mind as I wandered HCMC:

**”Traffic in Vietnam seems more sane than Phnom Penh traffic—the reality is that it’s twice as mad.”

The drivers here seem to pay more attention to traffic lights. That gives the illusion of sanity. I think, though, that this “sanity” is really “necessity.” The reason why drivers respect traffic lights here more than in Phnom Penh is because they have to—there are way more people.

My Viet Cong guide said there are 10 million people in HCMC and 9 million motorbikes. Stand at a busy street corner and you start to believe him. There are also a ton of cars. If the guide’s math is right, there are robots driving vehicles around this city.

The overwhelming numbers means that if you don’t stop at traffic lights, at least for a moment, you will be trampled by every kind of wheeled vehicle known to man. Those murderous robots might even hit you twice.

The “rules” are much the same as in Phnom Penh. People still drive on the wrong side of the road, block traffic, and push hot dog stands through busy intersections. They just do it a bit more cautiously. A bit.

Phnom Penh is also a smaller city. A quaint village really, compared to the sprawling metropolis that is HCMC. You can turn off a main road in Phnom Penh and escape the masses. Take a break from the madness and motor through a quiet neighborhood.

In HCMC, there’s no respite. The madness never ends. Kilometer after kilometer of wide boulevard is crammed with humanity. It’s like there’s a U2 concert and Super Bowl in every direction. That, mixed with the heat, makes trying to find your way around all the harder.

**”WTF, is that the airport?”

After driving for one hour I saw an airliner take off from my left to my right. That’s when I realized I was near the international airport. This surprised me. The airport is north of the city and I kind of thought I’d been driving south. This is kind of like how I imagine it’d be like if my parents told me I was born a hermaphrodite and they’d chosen to make me a male by having me undergo thousands of hours of baby genital plastic surgery—finding this out is totally screwed up, but what am I going to do now other than deal? No use crying or complaining. Can’t go back in time and change things or wonder what it’d be like if I was south instead of north.

**”Lonely Planet can shove its head in a squat toilet.”

The HCMC city map in the guidebook I have is donkey butt. It labels streets intermittently, omits streets, and gives no indication of one-way versus two-way. I turned on the publisher when I pulled out my map and tried to locate where I was in relation to the airport. They might as well have dropped a pile of toothpicks on a piece of paper and called it a map. Almost nothing was labeled and what was labeled didn’t tell me if it was a big or small street. If I’m fair about it, though, it probably wouldn’t have made any difference because. . .

**”Every street in HCMC seems like a main boulevard.”

I pulled over whenever I hit what looked like a big street. I’d pull out the map and see if I could match up the street name with one labeled on the map. I figured if it was a big street it must be a main street and thus warrant a mention on even a crappy Lonely Planet map.

No luck. Turns out HCMC is so big that there are hundreds of streets that look like main streets. Hunting for a main street is worse than trying to find the fattest kid in fat camp, it’s like trying to find the skinniest heroin addict at Studio 54 with all the disco lights going while you’re piss drunk and high. Everything looks like pink elephants.

I kept pulling over and trying to find “Tung Dung Trang” or “Thi Quat Khoi Thanh” on the map. It never worked. Phoc Thinay.

**”The sun is bullshit.”

I tried to go Boy Scout and use the sun for navigation. Sun sets in the west and rises in the east, right? What they don’t ever tell you is that using the sun only works if it’s near the horizon. When it’s anywhere more than 45 degrees in the sky you might as well spin a bottle and pretend that where it lands is north. Any other time, the sun makes totally unhelpful shadows, especially when you’re closer to the equator like I am.

Apparently, Boy Scouts all live in Canada and only hike at the beginning or end of the day. They and their frickin’ sun are totally useless.

**”Burn in hell French planners. Burn in hell.”

The French originally colonized Vietnam and during their reign Saigon took its present form. That means lots of Franco influenced city planning. There are plenty of roundabouts and, best of all, almost none of the streets are parallel. Those that are don’t stay that way for very long. That means getting from Point A to Point B is like trying to maneuver your way through a pissed off girlfriend’s logic—put too much effort into it and you’ll find yourself trying to gouge your eyes out with a wet noodle. Best to just accept it as it is and move on.

I swear to you. Look at an overhead map of HCMC. Googlemaps it. Seriously. I’ll wait. There’s nothing there to hang on to direction-wise. When I’m lost I usually head off in one direction and wait until I hit a landmark of some kind (a river, highway, giant building, etc.). That’s nearly impossible when a city won’t let you travel in a straight line for very long.

Just when you think you’ve figured out where you’re going, you hit a roundabout or the road curves away from your destination. I always thought Washington, D.C. was bad. D.C.’s got nothing on what the French have done to HCMC.

The city is big, too. The sprawl goes on forever. Even near the airport, where the roads thin a bit, there are still neighborhoods with little back alley streets, turn offs, and roundabouts. It never ends.

It sure is pretty though. The odd angles create boulevards that meet at interesting intersections. The roundabouts give the city an old world feel.

It’s so French. A lovely piece of art but a total failure function-wise. The spaghetti noodle streets combine with the weird-to-Westerner street names to make a maze worthy of the most skilled rats. I, unfortunately, am one dumb rodent.

Eventually I stumbled my way to the Saigon River (I think) and then staggered my way back to the tiny sliver of HCMC that I recognized. The thing that tipped me that I was close: a gaudy sign stuffed with headshots of pop stars (I think) advertising (I think) an upcoming concert. I thought I recognized it from my moto cab ride from the day before. For once my thinking got it right. I limped back into my hotel and unparched my dry throat with five gallons of water and a soda.

I sat there trying to decide whether I dared venture back out into the maze. Weary, I decided that I wouldn’t let the city conquer me, dammit. I embraced some Vietnamese defiance and I hopped back on the bike.

I found my way to the Notre Dame cathedral, another gift from the French. It’s big. It’s red. It has stained glass depicting Vietnamese on their knees before the sweet Virgin Mary. Very progressive.

I also stood outside the entrance to the Reunification Palace, the place you see in pics of the fall of Saigon. It’s the place where the tank crashed the gate.

These were consolation prizes, really. The day, on the whole, was a bit of a disaster. Lots of driving around, lost in the heat. If I take some personal responsibility, it’s mostly my fault for not paying attention to where I was going when searching for gas. If I had, I could have backtracked to where I started and easily found my way to the pagoda (I think).

Luckily, it’s much easier to blame the French.


Random Note: This was written in a café playing almost exclusively Western music. One song that I didn’t recognize had the following lyric: “This used to be a fun house, now it’s full of evil clowns.” Man pop music sucks. Either that or, to enjoy it, you’ve got to get more high than you did back in the day. If that’s the case, it must take a haystack size mound of burning weed to take some of this stuff seriously.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. sally permalink
    May 12, 2010 11:11 am

    I always assumed you were Filipino, or pacific islander, or asian-american, but, based on your navigation skills, maybe you have more east asian in you than i thought.

    • May 13, 2010 4:38 am

      I’m Brown. I think that’s enough. Note that I’ve been mistaken as Thai, Malay, Cambodian, and Vietnamese by natives of each country. I plan on writing about this soon.

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