Saigon – Can Tho

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
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Driving riff #1

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 riff #1

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.

 

Traffic riff #2

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.

Traffic riff #1

The first time you cross a road in Saigon is like voluntarily walking into a stampede of raging wildebeest who've all got car horns attached to their head. Your brain simply does not compute. 

Your average tourist spends their first 2-3 mins in Saigon standing on a curb, swaying in indecision, as thoughts of 'What the fuck?' and 'Why am I here?' play ceaselessly in their head. When they eventually realise they're going to just have to start walking they've invariably forgotten where they were going by the time they've reached the other side.

The only way to successfully cross the road is to walk straight out with your hand held aloft like a mixture between Clark Kent and a Lollipop Lady on crack. It seems entirely ridiculous, but you soon realise that the oncoming bikes will simply swerve out of your way. The only rule of the roads in Saigon is that motion must be the goal at all times. Running over pedestrians, however undoubtedly tempting, is obviously contradictory to this goal.