Saigon, or as its officially known, Ho Chi Minh City, is the land of the scooter. I’ve heard various numbers thrown around but the general consensus is that there are around 38 million scooters within this one sprawling city. Everywhere you look people are rushing by, weaving in and out of traffic, dodging cars, trucks, bikes, street vendors, pedestrians, dogs, and in our case Harley-Davidson’s. The locals carry anything and everything on the scooters, and their ability to balance large boxes, bags of rice, ladders, bricks, wood, and the whole family (two adults and three children taking the record) is extraordinary and in our three days here we didn’t witness one accident, or any sign of annoyance. Riders simply carry on, never looking flustered, simply giving way when required, or just going around obstacles. Its simply amazing how the traffic flows, and the scooters remind me of water flowing down rivers, going around boulders and corners but never stopping, a constant flow that is a little mesmerising to watch. You can’t help but wonder where they are all going. Without scooters though you’d imagine this city would grind to a halt, its roads and urban sprawl would not be able to handle the sheer size of the population, so I guess part of the use of scooters and other motorbikes has come out of a kind of necessity. The endless number of scooters gives the city an infectious energy, like its constantly moving forward at a rapid rate. It’s hard to know where to look with so much happening, and so many colours, that being in Saigon is an assault on your senses. One of my favourite moments on the streets of Saigon is when the thunderstorms roll in, there’s little warning before torrential rain batters down. Suddenly, the scooters go through a transformation, as all the riders pull on raincoats and ponchos each with a different colour or pattern. Although the streetscape changes, the traffic and flow continues unabated. Still, nobody here complains, it’s simply Saigon.
I came here to film a story for HDTV (Harley-Davidson television), on how an Aussie guy has opened up the first Harley-Davidson dealership in Vietnam, and what its like to ride a bike of that size (and distinctive sound) through the city. Riding a large touring bike like a Harley-Davidson Ultra Limited turned many heads in Saigon, the sound of the bike itself drew a lot of attention, and people stopped and stared and took photos and marvelled at the sheer audacity of these mechanical beasts. The bikes proved their real value once the dealer principal, Lawson, led us out on the highways heading for the coast and Monkey Island, where we could really put the foot down (so to speak) and race along -although, dodging large pot holes meant you needed to have your attention on the road at all times. We crossed the Saigon River by ferry, and passed through many little towns. We checked out the monkeys at Monkey Island, where one of the locals who had joined us had half of his sunglasses stolen, not sure what the monkey planned to do with the other half. Arriving back in the city, we missed the turn off and lost our lead rider, so we ended up having to find our own way back through peak hour traffic to the dealership to return the bikes. Words (nor visuals) cannot describe that experience, Harley’s moving through congested streets with millimetres of clearance between you and a bus -I’m just glad it wasn’t me riding, I just sat on the back and was left pretty impressed with the ability of Adam who was riding. I think some of the locals found it a little funny what we were trying to do, but if Lawson keeps going as strong as he has been, they might have to get used to sharing the road with the pipes of a Harley-Davidson.
During filming we visited other places around the city, stopping to check out some roadside vendors and an area known as the “bike market”. This was a huge area of packed and narrow streets where every part on a motorbike or scooter could be found, or made, or fixed, or customised. We were a sight to see wondering down the busy roads dodging buyers and sellers, the locals didn’t know what to make of us Aussies -there weren’t any foreigners in this part. We also went to the night markets where we haggled with the vendors and the guys stocked up on cheap goods.
We stayed at the Sofitel Hotel, an upmarket establishment in district 1 (Saigon is divided into 24 districts by numbers and names) that was constantly busy with mainly older travellers or business people, but it featured quite an impressive rooftop pool with a wicked view of the city. Saigon has some great looking new age buildings that provided colourful shows of lights in all sorts of patterns. One night I had drinks with a local girl, who was well travelled, educated, and held a good paying job. She taught me a lot about her perspective, and some of the cultural differences she experiences working in wealth management (especially how the Vietnamese prefer to do business with people based on how they feel about someone or a mystical sign like the same birthday, rather than based on money or financial numbers). I got to see her place in an apartment building alongside the Saigon River that was pretty impressive, I don’t think she appreciates the view from her apartment as much as she ought to.
After filming finished and the show’s producer Steve left to return back to Australia, I stayed on to go solo sleeping at a hostel in the backpacker zone -a dramatic contrast to the Sofitel. The hostel won’t go down on my list of decent hostels, with toilets that were out of order, a rock solid cushion as a pillow, and the smell of vomit lingering in the air from a British girl who couldn’t hold her liquor from the night before. At least you got two free beers with your bed. I wasn’t complaining when I had to make tracks to the airport on the Thursday and board my flight to Da Nang, a city on Vietnam’s mid coast and only an hour’s flight. It had been recommended to me by a friend to check out a little beach in the city of Hoi An called An Bang Beach, and a homestay style hostel by the name of Under The Coconut Tree -sounded pretty perfect to me. To reach An Bang and Hoi An from Da Nang’s airport was a simple 45minute taxi ride, there were other ways of reaching the hostel but as I was only staying for four days I spoiled myself (when I’ve backpacked before it was all local buses and whatever was cheapest). I had also booked a private double bed in my own bungalow, the backpacker’s version of living like a king. I didn’t know too much about this area of Vietnam, only that my friend called this the highlight of his recent solo trip. I hadn’t traveled on my own like this for a long time so I was naturally feeling some trepidation before I arrived. Maybe the taxi driver was too as he turned down the wrong alleyway and we ended up almost driving right onto the beach! He directed me to walk down onto the beach and turn right, luckily I asked a couple of Swedish girls (Ella and Caroline) who were walking past for some directions and they happened to be staying at Under The Coconut Tree too -it helps to ask for directions sometimes, and by the way, the hostel was back up the way we came and to the left.
Under The Coconut Tree was unlike any hostel I’ve ever been to. It’s really hard to describe the vibe of this place with words, but here everyone became friends. Its super laid back, with friendly staff, a great menu for breakfast and lunch, and really cheap beer. It’s also about a thirty second walk to the beach down a sandy path. The whole place was open planned, and my bathroom felt like I was showering outdoors sharing it with plants and frogs. Some of the dorm beds were even outside similar to a hammock. The hostel sat nicely between people’s actual homes, and waking up to the sounds of roosters, and a local woman singing a Vietnamese song was just so nice. Within hours of arriving, I had made several friends and joined a group of 13 for dinner and drinks. Most of them had already been there for several days, a couple of them for weeks, it was that sort of place that trapped travelers in its web, and days blended into each other and time became a sort of distant memory.
It was a relatively quiet night as everyone was prepping for the next day -Halloween! In the morning the sky opened and it poured with rain for hours, up until about 2pm. This didn’t bother anyone though as we all hung out in the common area drinking coffee, complaining about the speed of the Wi-Fi, sharing travel stories, and finding out who was going where and when. I was so jealous of what everyone was doing, and I had the strongest urge to cancel my flights home and stay on, such was the pull of this place. When the rain finally subsided I got a lift on the back of a scooter with Tommy (an American) and got my first chance to wonder around Old Town, a truly neat place where walking takes priority, and the buildings still resemble what they were when they were built in the 12th to 13th century. I got to try some delicious fried pancake with banana, potato, and coconut, and wore a poncho whenever the sky felt like drenching the town again. I got lucky and ran into Nina, another American but who had been living in South Korea, and she threw me on the back of her scooter as we raced back to the beach to start the Halloween festivities. It was going to be a big night.
One of the backpackers who fell into the Hoi An time vortex (I think he’d been here for two weeks, a long time for anyone on the Southeast Asian backpacker trail) was Chris, an Aussie who managed restaurants back at home, and here he sort of became the hostel’s food and beverage guy, helping out in the bar and changing the menu (for the better). He organised a feast of local food including Vietnamese spring rolls and White Rose, a Hoi An style dumpling. Everyone at the hostel ate and partied together, and beers and punch flowed like the earlier rain. In this group everyone was friendly, everyone got along, and we all agreed we’d never seen so many people from so many different places in the one hostel. There were no more than two from any one country, and everyone had a story to tell. I got speaking with many of them including Nicky from Canada who was moving to Amsterdam, and Maggie also from Canada who was riding a scooter down the southern coast. The staff and locals joined in, and I think they had just as much fun as we did, with kids dancing around wearing masks, and Jake, a British guy who was a super talented artist, giving several of us Halloween style face paint (mine was an impressive cut along my forehead with blood to go with it). The group made tracks down to the infamous Infinity bar in Old Town, where every backpacker in the town had gathered to celebrate. We swapped t-shirts, we played beer pong, and we danced. I remember reading a quote about travel one time that went along the lines of ‘you’ll never have the same moment, with the same people, ever again’, and I feel this summed up that night, especially as the majority of the hostel was leaving the very next day. The party ended back at the beach, with an impromptu race to the water, stripping off our clothes, and skinny-dipping in the warm ocean basking in the pale moonlight.
The hang over the next day wasn’t as bad as I expected, and the bright warm sunshine and blue sky definitely helped. A large number of the crew from the night before departed and we said our goodbyes. The hostel was going through a refresh, as hostels often do with travellers, and soon new people would arrive. A small group of us stuck together though, and all but two would be leaving on the Monday (including me). The two Swedes Ella and Caroline, Tommy, Jake, and Claudius from Switzerland, all hung out each day. We spent the next two days hanging at the beach, visiting Old Town, eating, and drinking. We visited the temples at the Marble Mountains, and took an hour’s scooter ride to the ruins at My Son. That was the first time I ever rode a scooter, and I instantly took to it, feeling totally at ease on the bike and loving every second. I didn’t want to get off it, and swerving around the traffic along the roads and highways was just half the fun. It was nice to be the rider this time instead of the pillion. We tried incredible sandwiches with pork and chilli, and ate several Cao Lao’s, a dish unique to Hoi An with pork, noodles, and a soup broth -it was so delicious and crazy cheap. We feasted at a place called Cafe 43 where they served freshly brewed beer for 3000 Dong, equal to about 16 Australian cents, and after three beers and two meals, I spent a grand total of $3.20 AUD. I could spend months just eating in this place, you didn’t need to spend money like a king to feel like one here.
The people of this country were some of the nicest people I’ve ever encountered, and seeing their huge smiling faces will definitely linger in my mind for a long time. When Monday finally arrived it was really bittersweet, I guess especially for me, as the others continue their epic adventures, I fly home back to real life, or whatever that is. I felt genuinely upset to be leaving this place, these people had become not only travel buddies but friends, and I felt like I had been there for weeks rather than just four nights. The irony of solo travel is that you are never on your own. We said goodbye to the Swedes first, and then it was me who was next. After hugs and Facebook swaps, I took my last Hoi An taxi ride to the airport. To my friends, and the guys and girls of the hostel, thanks for an awesome four days. Vietnam, I hope it’s not too long before I see you again, I don’t think it will be.