“I’ve fallen off twice,” she tilted her head back and laughed, as if it was a big joke. I looked at her with wide eyes.
It was a Wednesday night and we were at Chill Bar in the centre of Saigon. The rooftop bar was heaving. Young Entrepreneurs of Saigon, a crowd made up of people within that group, were sipping on expensive cocktails, the women dressed in short skirts and high heels, some of the men in suits.
From the 27th floor, we peered down at the traffic zooming below. The headlights made a twinkling tail in the scooters’ wake, but there was no denying that at 9pm the streets were still busy.
I’d been introduced to the young Vietnamese woman through my landlord, and she’d just finished telling me the story about how falling off her scooter twice had landed her in hospital. I was shocked, but not surprised.
Actually, it amazed me it hadn’t happened to her more often.
Why? Well, take a look at this video for an insight into how crazy the traffic in Saigon can get.
Dave and I hadn’t been brave enough to tackle the traffic in Saigon on a scooter. We were struggling to cross the road amid the manic criss-crossing of cars and scooters coming from all directions, let alone willing enough to jump on the back of a scooter and join the rush ourselves.
Although Dave had managed to get the hang of riding a scooter enough to write this post about driving one safely, and I’d mastered the art of the perfect companion on the back, we just couldn’t sum up the courage to ride a scooter solo.
But we wanted to know what it was like to be a part of that mess of traffic. Somehow, it worked and created organises chaos. We wanted to know how.
Vietnam Vespa Adventures
As you probably already know by now, Dave and I aren’t really tour people. We often like to go out on our own, and if you can experience something independently, then we feel that (for us) it’s better to do it solo.
But riding a scooter was not going to be an independent journey for us.
Enter Vietnam Vespa Adventures. Our friends who’d visited us from China the week earlier said they’d used this company to do a tour of the Meekong Delta and raved highly of it. “They really knew their stuff and it was a great day,” our friend Kevin said.
I logged on to their website and saw they had a day tour around Saigon’s centre called the Insider’s Saigon tour. They were going to take us on a highlight tour of the city. Mode of transport? A vintage Vespa.
We were in.
A park where the birds socialise
We were picked up from our apartment at 8am, still yawning. We woke up quickly as we jumped on the back of a Vespa and our guides manoeuvred into the thick of rush hour traffic. Intense! A bus nearly clipped our scooter, but my driver was non-plussed, I think near misses are far from a rare occurrence in Saigon.
We were taken to Tao Dan Park and found it busy with men drinking coffee on small tables as their caged birds chirped to each other above them.
“These birds aren’t for sale,” our guide Dat explained. “They are owned by these men, who come to the park each morning between 7 and 9. They like to see their birds socialise with one another.”
But looking around us, it was clear that the men were enjoying the socialising, sipping on strong café sua das, just as much as their birds were.
Memorial to an amazing act that defies belief
Our next stop wasn’t so light-hearted. We hopped back on the Vespas and scootered off to the
Thích Quảng Đức memorial. Now, this Buddhist monk’s name may not have any recognition for you, but you probably remember this photo that was broadcast around the world:Thích Quảng Đức burned himself to death on the 10th of June 1963 in the middle of Saigon, without making a noise nor moving a muscle, deep in meditation. Why’d he do it? He was protesting against the government’s attempts to ban Buddhism throughout Vietnam.
The memorial is built on the same site where Thích Quảng Đức sacrificed himself and it’s a striking tribute to someone willing to stand up for what they believe in – even through the most painful of deaths.
District 10’s flower market
We headed back into the traffic, this time weaving through small alleyways where washing hung overhead and small children played on the streets.
I was starting to realise that travelling on a scooter gets you places a lot faster than taxis do in Saigon, allowing you to swiftly zoom around any obstacle standing in your way.
Perhaps to brighten our mood after the sombre memorial, we stopped off at the flower market in District 10.
This is truly a local scene and huge flower arrangements crowd market stall fronts, their blooms pushing on to the crowded streets of Saigon.
“White flowers are given to people who are grieving, or used at funerals,” Dat explained.
“I thought you were about to say they were used for weddings!” I retorted.
“No! For weddings we use bright colours like red.”
Glad I got that sorted out before I am ever to attend a Vietnamese wedding offering flowers as a gift.
Most of the flowers are brought into Saigon from Dalat or Hanoi. We walked through the flower stalls as Dat explained that 3am was when the market was the liveliest, as vendors come early to buy from wholesalers, putting together their fresh arrangements before the locals arrived to purchase them.
Dat told us you could buy a bunch of 50 fresh roses for just $2. TWO DOLLARS! Imagine that. Dave now has no excuse not to buy me flowers ever again…
Swiftly back on the scooters, we raced to Cholon, also known as Saigon’s Chinatown, in District 5. Chinese people have lived here for hundreds of years, dating back to the 1700s.
The Binh Tay market is at the centre of the area, selling everything from boxes of cigarettes to spools of fabric for sewing together new designs.
We stopped off at Quan Âm Temple, a Chinese pagoda featuring a small pond, brightly coloured murals and blessings hanging from the ceilings.I enjoyed the visit, but what was to come next would be the highlight of the tour for me.
A short scoot away, still in District 5, we were taken to the Temple of 10,000 Buddas. The name is no exaggeration. As we made our way up the steps of the working monastery, we entered this beautiful golden room.
There were indeed 10,000 buddas surrounding us. They were even in the lotus leaves unfolding from beneath the giant budda that dominated the middle of the room.
Modern District 2
Back on the Vespas, we headed on over to District 2. I was already familiar with the area, as it’s where I take my art class each week. It is home to many European expats and swanky high rise buildings dominate the skyline.
“It’s a new area,” Dat explained. “It used to be swamp land but the government sold it off to build these expensive developments and rejuvenate the area.”
As we looked across the Saigon River to District 1, the mishmash between old and new Saigon was strikingly evident. Small, squat buildings sat in between huge sky rise business blocks, their windows gleaming in the sunshine. An old fishing boat slowly made its way up the river, as a newer boat passed it.
Vespa kings and queens
Okay, so Dave and I haven’t managed to ride our own scooters in Saigon still. What we did learn on the Vespa tour is that tackling Saigon’s scooter traffic head on is not for beginners. Our guides made us feel comfortable as they drive in Saigon’s traffic daily. They were experts in the art of Vespa travel.
As for us? Not so much. I never thought I’d say this, but… give me Bali’s traffic jams any day over Saigon’s rush hour!
Thank you to Vietnam Vespa Adventures for providing us with two complimentary tours. As always, our opinions and comments are our own.
What you need to know
Cost: US$69 per person. This includes a good quality helmet, transport on a Vespa with your own driver and lunch back at their headquarters. (The lunch is Western fare but tasty!)
When to go: The tours run twice a day – from 8:30am to 12:30pm and 12 to 4:30pm.
How to get there: Vietnam Vespa Adventures will pick you up from your hotel and drop you back at the end of the tour.
Other information: Vietnam Vespa Adventures offers four different adventures in and around Saigon, and the others look great too. You can check them out here.