Nov 18, 2014
Saigon's Fascinating Motorbike Culture
GPS waypoint: 10°48'51.5"N 106°37'57.2"E
Location: Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam
Vietnam has about 12 million motorbikes, conservatively. Motorbikes outnumber cars 21 to 1. Saigon's motorbike culture is one of its many unique traditions. Only in Saigon have I experienced a swarming of motorcycles coming from every direction, filtering through each other at an intersection....and miraculously, they all come through without any mishap - like a school of fish that move tightly together but don't touch! Pedestrian lanes are no guarantee of safety - you're still playing Russian Roulette if you'll make it in one piece to the other side. There is simply no chance to wait it out as the flow is continuous...you have to be assertive with split second timing when crossing the street.
Tuyen and her Bike
On my first day, Tuyen took me around Saigon on her motorbike. That was my first time to experience Saigon's surreal motorbike culture. Initially, I freaked-out, but Tuyen's skilled riding instilled confidence. She would know exactly when to assert and when to give-in at a swarm of oncoming motorbikes. She rides like a man and makes no hesitation when cutting through a stream of motorbikes. I stayed on the safe side and let her do all the riding as I held tight on her back - it beats out riding a roller coaster!
Motorbikes are the great gender equalizer in Saigon. Pretty women dressed in short skirts and high heels ride their bikes and tough it out with the guys. The mark of a Saigon lady is a muffler burn on her leg...no matter how beautiful! When I see alovely lady in shorts (the trending style in shorts is really short shorts, revealing part of the butt cheek, but veiled by a long shirt) or dress, I look for the burn mark...and more often than not, there it is. Women are careful not to blemish their skins - their faces and arms are covered when riding. They even have a long wrap-around skirt to shield their legs from the sun and prying eyes.
Every country has its fair share of motorcycles and its riders. Saigon however, defies every known convention of motorcycle culture by virtue of its sheer number, density and omnipresence, creating its own unique challenges and norm. At some point, pedestrians, commuters, car drivers and the general public had to adjust to the motorbike craze that has taken over and shaped the city. The scene is simply surreal!
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Sakura Hostel Cholon
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- AO Show, Ho Chi Minh City Apr 10, 2015
- Free English Apr 1, 2015
- Teaching English to Vietnamese Apr 1, 2015
- 20 Days in Ho Chi Minh City Mar 22 - Apr 12, 2015
- Discovering Ho Chi Minh City's Cafe Culture Nov 9 - Dec 17, 2014
- Ho Chi Minh City's Fascinating Motorbike Culture Nov 18, 2014
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How to Get to District 1 (HCMC) from the Airport (Tan Son Nhat International Airport)
- take the #109 Airport Bus (5:30am to 1:00am, departs every 15-20 minutes, 45 mins, 20k Dong or $1.00) Route: International Terminal - Domestic Terminal (Tan Son Nhat International Airport) - Truong Son - Tran Quoc Hoan - Hoang Van Thu - Nguyen Van Troi - Nam Ky Khoi Nghia - Ham Nghi - Le Lai - Ben Thanh Bus Station - Pham Ngu Lao - 23/9 Park
- get off at 23/9 Park to get to the cluster of backpacker hostels
Ho Chi Minh City Travel Tips
- best money changer rates in District 1 is Ha Tam Jewelry near Ben Thanh (refer to map for location)
- unlike most destinations in Thailand, Cambodia or Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City is too big for the major bus companies to provide a drop-off service with their shuttle minivans. If you are coming by bus, you get off either at the Western Bus Station or Eastern Bus Station depending on where you are coming from. From there, you can take the cheap local bus, the Xe Buyt to get you closer to your destination.
- you can get around the city by moto-taxi or rent a motorbike - but be warned that motorbike riding in Ho Chi Minh City is unlike riding anywhere else in Asia!
Ho Chi Minh City Cost Index
Budget price in budget places (US$1 = Vietnam Dong VND 23,255 = Php 53.20 as of Aug 1, 2016)
- baguette sandwich (banh mi)
- noodle soup (pho)
- black filtered coffee
- sugar cane juice (nuoc mia)
- fresh coconut
- one beer bottle
- 1.5 liter drinking water
- bicycle rental, 24 hours
- cheap lodging
- motorcycle ride
- rice meals (com tam)
- motorbike rental
Vietnam FYI / Tips / Dos and Don'ts
- Hanoi Grapevine HCMC Update - for the latest events in Vietnam
- Vietnam establishments will not accept US dollars, unlike Cambodia. You have to use Vietnam Dong (US$1 = Vietnam Dong VND 23,255 = Php 53.20 as of Aug 1, 2016)
- Vietnamese smokers will smoke in air-conditioned establishments, air-conditioned buses packed with people including women, children and babies. They also smoke inside hospitals with no smoking signs.
- Vietnam ranks almost the same as Thailand and Cambodia for cheap price. Laos, Myanmar and Malaysia cost more
- internet speed is generally fast and reliable but during important events like Tet holiday, election, etc., it slows down
- Vietnamese generally do not speak or understand much English. It will be a challenge.
- best to dress appropriately, not revealing too much skin (Saigon is an exception - the ladies there set the trend in very short shorts)
- remove your shoes when entering a home or place of worship
- ask first before taking someone's picture. If they say no, don't persist or offer money
- best to carry your hotel's business card with you when going out. You can just show it to the cab driver or XeOm driver if they don't understand English
- leave your valuables, passport, travel tickets, etc. with the hotel's safety deposit box
- when lying down, don't point your feet or the soles of your shoes to anyone or to a family altar
- carry only enough cash for your needs that day
- don't lose your temper in public - Vietnamese people are warm, generous and polite. They look down on people who lose their composure
- don't take pictures of military installations - you can go to jail
- refrain from taking videos of minority people until permitted to do so
General Travel Tips
- arrive early - in case there is a snag (visa snag, documentation snag, transport ticket snag, etc.), you will have ample time to troubleshoot the problem if you arrive early (to the airport, to the bus terminal, etc.)
- put detailed itinerary on the Calendar apps of your smart-phone according to timelines - this is where you do all your thinking and planning. Once written down, you don't have to think anymore while you are on the journey...you just follow the steps. This frees your mind for something else that might happen while you are already en route
- avoiding scams - as a general rule, I ignore the touts or anyone I don't know who call out to me. The calling comes in many forms - "Hi! Where are you from?", "Excuse me! Excuse me!", "Where are you going?". I don't look them in the eye and I remain non-verbal with them. If you reply to them, you just gave them an 'in' to hound you. In order not to look rude, I smile and wave the 'not interested' hand to them, without looking at them.
- power bank - hand-carry your power bank. Do not check it in. You can be called in when you are already inside the plane to go all the way to the loading dock so you can personally remove the power bank...and chances are, you'll have to surrender it to them. And you might delay the plane departure!
Nov 18, 2014
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