Ho Chi Minh City is awash in motorbikes. Great floods pour down the main streets. Tributaries merge seamlessly and, to our Western eyes, terrifyingly dangerously, adding constantly to the volume. Occasionally little streams wash out to the sides, but this flow has a destination which is nowhere near where we are. The whole flow is in constant motion, nothing stops: Intersections have no lights and just involve an inter-mixing of the flows according to rules which seem more of nature than of man. Here the flow stops for a moment and then bursts forth; there two rivulets meet in a frothing of horns and waving arms; everywhere there is noise and action and motion.
We jumped into the flow this morning, four little scooters added to the mix. Our drivers were from Vietnam’s only all-woman tour company and steered us through the maelstrom with great aplomb. What did we see?
We went to the colonial-era post office designed by Gustav Eiffel and there met a lovely, tiny old man who is the last letter-writer in Vietnam. He’s now 83 and since he was 17 he has sat in the Post Office and translated letters between Vietnamese, French and English. He’s like a living symbol of the overlapping influences that this country has been hit with in the last century. He now sits in the midst of this bustling, vaulted piece of living history beneath a French map of the telegraph system and a huge picture of Ho Chi Minh and surrounded by school groups clutching the letters they come here to send overseas.
We stood outside the Reunification Palace on the spot where the North Vietnamese tanks smashed through the gates in the symbol that ended the War. We sat and looked at the CIA headquarters in the Freemont Apartments with it’s cubic plinth on top where the final American helicopters evacuated some, but by no means all, of the locals who had worked for them. We visited the spot where the head of the local Buddhists set himself on fire in 1963 in a protest that echoed around the world. We whizzed through China Town past snaggles of small shops and huge markets while sipping sugar cane drinks on the move. We had a moment of quiet in a Temple and exchanged the smell of incense for exhaust fumes.
We learnt that marriage is a big thing for the Vietnamese. Even the Buddhists rent white dresses and, about three months before the wedding, stand in front of the catholic cathedral to have their photographs taken. We found out that everyone lives in very small, crowded houses and apartments – so they take any opportunity to ride their motorbike or go and sit with friends in a coffee shop or a park ‘for privacy’. We were told that burning offerings in the temples for the dead to use on the afterlife is a significant religious observance and that you can now buy replica iPhones to burn so that your family will have the latest technology after death.
The temple’s quiet was a short-lived respite though. Everywhere there were people, and everywhere there were motorbikes – the seven million people who live here have well over three million bikes between them. Ho Chi Minh City is not an attractive place. It has suffered mightily from war damage combined with careless rebuilding and new construction. It’s polluted and crowded. But it’s also full of life and there’s no better way to see it than from the midst of the river of motorbikes that is its defining feature.
Of course the best way to recover after a morning on a motorbike is a dip in real water….