While the cà phê sữa đá is an undisputed cornerstone of Vietnamese life and part of everyone's introduction to Vietnam, the cheaper cà phê nóngs are where the richer experiences are to be had. A cà phê nóng, essentially 'hot coffee', has a consistency most closely resembling tar and a spicy kind of warmth most closely reminiscent of Christmas. Or being hugged at Christmas. In a warm jumper. Whilst standing in front of a fire. And if none of this sounds appealing in 34°c heat then you'd be forgiven for thinking so. However, the seductive nature of this pure-spiced-rocket-fuel-infused-blackstuff as it rolls along the side of the glass is powerful. It's lazy and slothful and obstinate and, importantly, delicious. The coffee teases as it drips from its metallic home into the glass, as reluctant to move as you are impatient to drink. But the waiting is part of the fun. Once you manage to coax it out of its home the results are both pleasurable and confusing. One is imbued with an incredible energy and a need to do something and at the same time confounded by the heat and realisation that there is really nothing to do. The processs is over in a matter of minutes and, like most things in Saigon, creates feelings of being both relaxation and hypertension simultaneously.
The art of driving slow in Vietnam is hard learned but even more handsomely rewarded. The temptation is always to drive fast in Saigon. Always to fill the gap. Always to keep on moving. It's easy to get yourself into the mindset that you must do so, given the frantic pace of the city, but this will only ever lead to a sense of dissatisfaction. If you feel like you should always be moving fast, then you are going to spend the majority of your time feeling like you've been done some sort of serious injustice. There is simply not enough space to do so. Driving in the city is all acceleration and hard breaking; all gaps missed and lights changing from green to red. That is, until you realise there is another way. Take a trip with one of the local Old Boys and you'll immediately be served another perspective on Saigon. Their snail-like pace and general refusal to indulge in any sort of mania seems maddening at first, but once you try it for yourself, you soon see that this is the only way to drive around the city. Then, Saigon moves at your pace. Then, you are in control.
The uncertainty of driving in Saigon is not due to the number of other drivers - which is fixed and uncontrollable - but rather one's mood which is fickle and, unfortunately, also uncontrollable. There are times when it can seem like you're moving through the traffic as if the whole thing has been preordained; where the world feels knitted together as you flow along the at once obvious and incomprehensible 'path'. And then there are others when even the mildest of jerks of the bike beside you can feel like an clear and unquestionable threat to your very being. Given this unpredictability, it's easier to imagine the whole process as a hyper-realistic video game than something that is actually happening in your physical world. Then, the city comes one big biking all-terrain course equipped with bonus points for curb hops and gold stars for dodging banh mi ladies. This may seem personally irresponsible and generally disrespectful towards Gods of the Roads in Saigon, but then any rational assessment of the safety of driving in this city would only serve to paralyze those attempting to do so and hence make their endeavor even more dangerous.
The bus from Mien Tay station in Saigon's west side to Can Tho is like a relic from the past. Unlike Vietnam's more modern inter-city buses, there was no wifi, no free water, and no one that spoke English. The bus didn't even have a departure time. And that was fine. The driver smoked cigarettes while he waited for the coach to fill and the passengers were entertained by the various street sellers who hopped on board to dispense everything from Choco Pies to jay cloths. Well, that's not true. I was entertained by the various traders boarding the bus to sell their wares. The rest of the bus were apparently grateful as no one left without selling something, regardless of how flimsy their offering. Light entertainment aside, there was a full-blown argument between a mother, baby* and some sort of bus station official for the more nefarious observers. I've no idea what this was about but it seemed far too serious for the case of mistaken seating which I had interpreted it as given their various gesticulations. Who knows? Perhaps the mother was as disappointed with the snacks on offer as I was. Once on the road, the bus operated a revolving door policy led by our also tobacco keen conductor. His chief job was to shout at groups of people who were stood at the side of the road at seemingly random intervals. The bus never really slowed down enough to let anyone on but I assume the courtesy was appreciated none the less. I fell asleep after about an hour so it's difficult to recount what happened on the rest of this journey, but for the blog's sake, let's imagine it was incredibly entertaining. *note: the baby took no part in this argument
If one was to list the qualities desirable for driving in Saigon, 'awareness' would probably be up there. It's a busy city, after all, with a lot of moving parts. You need to know what's going on. And yet there could be nothing more debilitating than being 'aware' whilst driving in Saigon. Awareness suggests you have at least some knowledge or idea of what's going on around you but anyone claiming to have achieved this loftiest of goals whilst driving around the city would also likely have the marginally less celebrated achievement of rear ending the bike in front of them. There is simply too much going on, too much to compute, too much to be aware of. Even a sideways glance at that-bar-you-were-in-last-week during rush hour can leave you getting overly acquainted with the bike in front. Instead, it is better to be blissfully unaware, to accept your almost certain irrelevance in the larger scheme of life and take up your position in the shol. Once one is aware of the rear tyre directly in front of them and only the rear tyre directly in front of them can they truly let go and achieve biking enlightenment. Otherwise, one is destined to spend their days moving from near miss to near miss, always reserving their greatest anger for the one that happened most recently.
Walking in Saigon is, like most things in life, both easy and difficult at the same time. It seems important to point out that almost NO ONE walks in the city. Or at least views walking is anything more than that thing you have to do to get on your bike. Bed to bike. Bike to bed. It's a simple process. So telling someone from Saigon that you've just walked for 30 mins is akin to telling someone in western society - let's say, your mother - that you've started taking smack. It doesn't process. It's easy to see why this is the case. Saigon is warm. And sticky. And no one in the history of human conversation has ever come back from a good walk describing it as 'warm and sticky'. But then there are advantages to walking too.The general aversion to bipedal transportation means that the paths are free. And everyone driving means that traffic is crazy. By walking you get to see the city at a much slower pace and are much less likely arrive at your destination stressed and raging about 'some dude' who cut you up. Yes it takes longer. And yes, it's more sweaty. But my entire life experience to date has taught me that things that take longer and are sweaty are nearly almost always good for you.
The path and the road should never be seen as separate entities in Saigon but rather two different spaces waiting to be filled. Driving on the path is as acceptable as walking out into oncoming traffic. There are no rules, or at least no observable ones. The closest thing one could get some sort of shared code would be that motion is always preferable to no motion, regardless of the circumstance. Going the wrong way up a one way street is totally fine. Driving in the wrong lane during rush hour will cause nothing more than mild annoyance. But stopping in any other situation than to avoid a direct collision is strictly taboo. Understanding and accepting this lawlessness is essential to getting around Saigon. The city boasts many zebra crossings but the observance of which has gone the way of all other road rules i.e. strict non-observance. The only thing that matters is whether the space you are trying to enter into is occupied or unoccupied. Once you accept this, the whole process becomes a lot easier.