Published on June 6th, 2013 | by Ann Rickard0
Ho Chi Minh City
Four million people live in Saigon and every one of them is out to kill me. You may think me paranoid but I know this to be true. They rush towards me in their hundreds, some masked, others with killer expressions focussed entirely on me.
They put me to mind of Roman gladiators on their chariots as they charge and advance, closer and closer. I try to stare them down but it’s no use, and then, just when they are upon me and about to knock me over and leave me lying dead in their wake, something compels them to move smoothly and swiftly around me, like a river flows around a boulder.
I’m still alive. Miracle.
This is what it is like every day in Saigon – or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now called – from early morning to the wee hours as you try to cross the road in the face of thousands of motor cyclists. Of course they don’t really want you dead. At least not all the four million of them. Just the two million who own motorcycles.
The motorcycle is the main mode of transport in Vietnam, used by teenagers to the very ancient.
There are plenty of cars and trucks on the road too but it is the never-ending, fast-flowing river of motorcycles that gives every visitor to the city a fascinating glimpse into another lifestyle – along with the constant fear of death.
Antoine Lhuguenot, General Manager of the Sofitel Saigon Plaza where we have been cocooned in tranquil luxury before going out into the hot streets to do battle with the motorcyclists each day, told us there are a thousand new motorcycles coming on to the roads every week in the city.
“People must register when they buy a bike so we know how many more are getting on their bikes every week,” he said. “The only way to deal with them when you cross the street is to walk out into the stream, keep going, do not hesitate, never stop, and above all, never run. Just keep going and they will flow around you.”
And so they do. How they manoeuvre in their thousands so expertly and smoothly without hitting each other is a small phenomenon and, once you accept that they really don’t want to kill you, crossing the road becomes a bit of sport.
The contrast to the quiet luxury of the Sofitel Saigon Plaza on the tree-lined Le Duan Boulevard, to the noise and heat in the city is most agreeable.
TheSofitel hotel chain is renowned for the comfort of its beds and we’ve slept the sleep of the innocent to wake each morning to make coffee from the machine in our grand oval mini bar, an intriguing piece of furniture that looks like a giant steam basket.
It’s been difficult to tear ourselves away from the succour of the hotel, but we have done our duty and toured the War Remnants Museum, a confronting but essential place to visit when in Saigon.
After a couple of hours standing before explicit pictures of some of the horrifying effects of war, relief is essential and we find it at the Ben Than Market, a sprawling and noisy space where the fake designer labels are almost outdone by the colour and variety of the local food on offer.
The next day an early morning walk takes us to the Notre Dame Cathedral and then down Dong Kho Street where the foreign reporters gathered during the war and now where the big brand names have their shops.
After walking down to the Saigon River, already bustling with activity at this early hour, we decide we’ve taken to the vibrant city, and make our way back to the Sofitel looking forward to a bit of sport with the motor cyclists.
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