I have been asked to produce a Saigon City guide for a travel website. At first this seemed rather simple, I’ve been living here for the past 8 months and have gotten to know the city very well. However, living in a city and visiting a city are very different experiences; I live here now and seldom do touristy things. In fact, as a resident in Saigon, I try to stay away from touristy things much like when I was a resident in NYC!
So in order to prepare for the city guide gig, I thought I better try to do a few more touristy things around Saigon. I traveled through Saigon 2 years ago and already did all of the standard tourist stops – the War Museum, the Reunification Palace, Ben Thanh Market, Backpacker district, the Zoo, Cu Chi Tunnels, Cao Dai Temple, Mekong Delta Tour; so I was determined to find a tourist activity I hadn’t already participated in. I decided upon the tour that oozed tourist – the cyclo tour. However since I live in District 1 near all of the typical tourist sites (as noted above), I felt like I wanted to see a different area so I chose a cyclo tour of District 5 (also called Cholon) and District 8. I grabbed my friend Josefin, who has only lived here 3 months, and she came with me early on Sunday morning.
We dressed the part – we had our cameras, hats (no, not the conical ones…I didn’t take the tourist role THAT far!), sunscreen, and bottles of water. I had been given the name of a good cyclo driver, Binh (or Ben for the Vietnamese challenged) and did tours through District 5 and 8. I called him earlier in the week to set up a meeting point and negotiate price. His English was certainly good enough and he seemed very organized and reliable, a rarity in Vietnam!
As requested we met Binh and his partner (he will bring as many other drivers as you have people in your group) at the Le Hong Phong high school in District 5. He was on time and off we went at 9:30AM.
Let me first explain what a cyclo tour is; you sit in an old cyclo (3 wheeled bicycle contraption with a ‘bucket’ seat) and let a guy peddle you around the city. Ben and his friend didn’t provide any running commentary, nor did we stop often. They simply peddled us for 2 ½ hours. Now, I’m sure that if we had asked Binh to stop, he would have. Or if we had asked him questions about what we were seeing, he would have answered them; but since we were somewhat ‘locals’ we didn’t have a ton of questions – we just wanted to view some different surroundings.
What I absolutely loved about this tour was that it was one of the rare times that I could just sit and take it all in without having to be on guard. I didn’t have to worry about the traffic whizzing by me, the person cutting me off, the motorbike going the wrong way down the street, a pedestrian crossing the street, someone driving on the sidewalk, nor did I have to worry at which direction I was going. I was a complete passenger and I loved it. It reminded me of a simpler time when I was a tourist in this city, when you could simply sit back and watch what was going on around you and not necessarily have to interact with it. However now since I am a motorbike driver, it’s a completely different experience; there’s no relaxing. Hell, as a pedestrian just walking down the sidewalk I can’t ‘stroll’, else I’ll have a motorbike beeping at me to get out of the way, or I’ll run into the motorbikes being parked and maneuvered on the sidewalks. Living here and relaxing seems to be an impossible combination.
This was my time to relax and simply take photos and videos, something I had been dying to do for a while. The cyclo pace was perfect to take it all in and be able to do photography at the same time. The traffic flowed around us as we navigated the traffic circles, and small alleyways.
Since it was Sunday, the market streets were booming. Each of the streets that surround the main market building in Cholon are specialized. There was a bean street, a motorbike parts street, a pet street, a shoe street, a mechanic street, a temple street, and a meat street to name a few. The streets were bustling with activity and purchases. However what I enjoyed most was photographing the many motorbikes being loaded up and weighted down with goods from the market. Transport via motorbikes never cease to amaze me in this city.
I saw some things that I had never seen before such as someone with a box of goods stacked so high that they even had a box strapped to the front wheel fender of the bike!
As we passed through the motorbike street I saw every feasible part of a motorbike there was; headlight, wheel, rims, side panels, handle bars, engine parts, and seats. After seeing all of this I’m more convinced than ever that my little Yamaha Nuovo motorbike which I rent has been put together piece by piece with super glue. Seriously, I think they simply stuck the Yamaha logo on it. One thing about the Vietnamese is that they can fix anything; they are super mechanics. As we drove around the market streets I saw bikes that looked as if they were simply skeleton bikes, yet they ran as if they were shiny and new.
As Josefin and I were peddled up and down the busy streets at a slow pace, everyone seemed excited to see us. All of a sudden we were considered tourists again. People waved at us, yelled hello, smiled, stared, and laughed. I yelled “sin chao” back to them, with a big smile across my face. I was having a deja-vu moment from 2 years ago when I traveled throughout Vietnam for 5 weeks. I all of a sudden remembered the joy of being a tourist.
All of my daily living inconveniences melted away and I soaked up the attention in a good way. The Vietnamese all seemed so friendly and excited to see us. I thought to myself, this is why I’m here; this is why I loved Vietnam so much enough to come back and live here. In day to day life here, this feeling is often forgotten as you get caught up in the difficulties of living abroad and they can overshadow the joy of living abroad at times. For these 2 ½ hours, I felt as if I had my travel mojo back!
We moved from the crowded market streets of Cholon, through some massive, bumpy construction (view the video below for my commentary on the infrastructure construction) and through to the quieter District 8 along the river. The whole feeling changed. Gone were the horns and the big buses and in place of it were more bicycles, and boats tied up along the river bank unloading bricks, bananas, and coal. All of a sudden you felt as if you were getting a small taste of the Mekong Delta within HCMC. In addition, out in District 8 we seemed like even more of an oddity as I doubt many tourists get out there on a regular basis. Binh and the other driver stopped near the ferry and sat us in the shade, supplied us with water and fresh pineapple from the nearby fruit lady and they took a much needed rest!
We hopped back in the cyclo and continued for another hour of cylo’ing around small alley ways and river fronts. Right at noon, we pulled up to a main corner and Binh told us our tour was complete. We paid him 200,000 VN Dong each (12 USD) for their 2 ½ hours of hard work. I felt that it was a decent bargain for the amount of time spent. Plus, I was able to see a whole new part of the city in slow motion without the stress of having to navigate it myself for once – I would have paid double the amount for that!
Nguyen Nam Binh (Ben)
Mobile phone number:0937265071 or 0993608721.