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Saigon: A city on motorbikes

Monday, November 27, 2017, 20:00 GMT+7

The first sound anyone living in Ho Chi Minh City might hear each morning is unlikely to be that of a rooster, but rather that of a motorbike accelerating, be it from afar or just next door.

Statistics from the Ho Chi Minh City Department of Transport reveal that in March 2017, there were 7.3 million motorbikes in the city.

Data from the General Statistics Office of Vietnam (GSO) shows that the city’s official population in 2016 was 8.3 million.

The rationale

With US$700 to $2,000, even Saigonese earning average incomes can afford a brand new bike.

Keeping one is also economical. With a week’s worth of gas costing around $3.5, parking costing around 22 cents, and $25 or so for year-round maintenance, it might amount to an annual expenditure of around $200, still modest compared to the average annual income per capita of $5,400 for Saigonese, according to GSO figures.

Bikes are parked along the street with riders sitting on them. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Bikes are parked along the street with riders sitting on them. Photo: Tuoi Tre

The choice of motorbikes is also based on multiple factors. Some would prefer a huge trunk with sufficient in-scooter space to store their stuff, be it a schoolbag with a laptop or other belongings.

Buyers might also choose between automatic or manual gear, with female riders tending to prefer an automatic 'hop-on-and-ride' version more manageable.

But it is the flexibility of a motorbike that makes it tick.

Tien, a university lecturer in his late 20s residing in Binh Thanh District, gets through his day using his 15-month old scooter.

He rides his two-wheeler to buy a loaf of bread only 500 meters away, to hit the barber's about one kilometer away, and to buy his wife some bubble tea from around the corner.

Riding his scooter, he can stop wherever he wishes: at a roadside convenience store, or at a vendor on the street.

There are also detours he can make as his vehicle is allowed on all public roads, with the exception of the pedestrian precinct in District 1.

Street peddlers at work. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Street peddlers at work. Photo: Tuoi Tre

This kind of flexibility can also result in uniquely Vietnamese scenes: a brand new Yamaha Classico carrying up to three adult passengers, a decades-old ramshackle Honda Wave struggling under gigantic piles of stuff firmly fastened round the backseat, or a generous scooter driver leg-pushing his fellow rider with mechanical problems through a sea of traffic.

Street vendors also cling onto vehicles, selling all kinds of products directly from their backseat, like banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich), porridge, ice-cream, rice paper cakes and coffee.

However, too much flexibility can give rise to recklessness. Every minute or so there is a motorcyclist steering into a car lane, overtaking by a hair's breadth, maneuvering on the pavement, jumping the lights, turning without signaling, and making illegal U-turns.

Parking: another winning point

Compared with car drivers, motorcyclists are at a huge advantage regarding where, how, and when to park.

Before locating the car keys to drive to the city center for some weekend fun, car owners might well already be pondering their parking options, as this can be a frustrating experience.

A man rides a ramshackle motorbike pulling bags on a cart as part of his daily job. Photo: Tuoi Tre
A man rides a ramshackle motorbike pulling bags on a cart as part of his daily job. Photo: Tuoi Tre

In Saigon, as Ho Chi Minh City is still called by many, motorbikes have the upper hand. Riders have the tacit privilege of parking at will: on the pavement, in the middle of the road, in front of a street-side coffee shop. The distance between parking and destinations, therefore, becomes minimized.

On the pathways of parks and riverside public spaces, parked bikes prove even more functional: they can serve as seats for couples going on low-cost dates.

The foreigner experience

Foreign visitors to Saigon might find themselves staring at death's door.

Eric, one 35-year-old American who has lived in the city for three years, tells of his first day finding his feet around the southern city: "I was thrilled. But my wife was scared to bits."

"It was a bit hard to figure out where those scooters were going, but after a while I learned that no one was going to hit us," he adds.

When asked what advice he would give to fellow foreigners, he laughs: "Keep calm and go with the flow. Blend in with the Saigonese motorcyclists and you'll see their bark is far worse than their bite." Eric considers himself a competent rider.

Overseas visitors not familiar with the idea of balancing their way forward on a two-wheeler can put themselves to the test with 'Motorbike for Rent' services available everywhere in the downtown area, including the backpackers' hub of Bui Vien Street.

Riders have to walk their bikes through knee-deep water in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Riders have to walk their bikes through knee-deep water in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Vulnerable to weather

The bike is also an open-air travel option, which means riders are at the mercy of the weather conditions.

On a hot day, motorcyclists must bear the cramped sensation of wearing a helmet, while the harsh sunshine beats down on them, scorching hot air that strikes the face, and all the protective clothing, like shades, gloves, socks, coats, and all the usual gear that cover many ladies from top to toe.

Conversely, during the wet season, riders may end up wading and pushing their dead engines through ‘aromatic’ knee-deep water for kilometers.

Despite all these potential drawbacks, bikes in Saigon are here to stay.

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Duc Tien / Tuoi Tre News

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