If there’s one thing you notice first about Saigon, it’s Saigon traffic. More specifically, the two-wheeled kind of traffic — motorbikes of every size, shape and colour, coming at you from every direction. It seems everyone over the age of 16 in Saigon has a motorbike, and at any given moment, half of them are riding them.
I’ve seen motorbike cities before. Beijing, for example, where the whole family climbs aboard and motors around while mom drives with one hand and eats a snack with the other. In Saigon, it’s more of a one- or two-person thing — with this many cycles, I guess everyone has his own. But it’s the sheer numbers that impress. At busy downtown streetcorners, it’s as if an army is invading, or the whole Tour de France has decided to forget about bicycles and hop on a scooter.
All of which makes negotiating the Saigon traffic a challenge, to say the least. Driving into town, my taxi driver wove his way through the crowded streets as cyclists flowed around us like water, almost scraping the sides of the cab. At times, one or the other would stop just in time to avoid a collision. A motorbike would shoot out from the sidewalk to fill a hole that opened for a split second, or miraculously slide across a seam to cross four lanes of surging traffic.
Speaking of sidewalks, they’re part of the motorcycle parade as well. No room on the road? No problem — the cyclist will just ride his or her scooter down the sidewalk for a block or two. So if you’re a pedestrian, keep an eye open. Walking back to the hotel in the afternoon, I felt a breeze on my arm and looked over to see four motor scooters whizzing by me on the right. I’ve heard of bicycle lanes, but motorcycle lanes?
Some visitors are put off by the Saigon traffic. If you’re from a small town, it’s enough to make you want to run right back to Hooterville. For me, it just brings back long-ago memories of Bombay (nowadays Mumbai). After a few days, I got so used to the traffic chaos that I waded through it like the natives, letting the cars and bikes and rickshaws move around me like a school of fish. That’s how it works in Saigon, too: wait for a gap in the endless stream of vehicles and just go. Everyone does it, and somehow, they live to tell the tale.