We took a bus from our little slice of heaven in Cambodia and arrived an hour later at the border with Vietnam. We were instructed to hand our passports to our driver and get out of the bus. The bus driver gave our passports to someone else and then drove away through the border with all of our luggage, leaving us to stand around in the hot sun and wonder what was going on. We trusted that our passports were in safe hands (though whose hands they were in we had no idea) and that we’d find our bus and luggage waiting for us on the other side. Very slowly we made our way through several stages of immigration and border control, got our body temperatures read as a measure against the spread of ebola, and two hours later were reunited with our passports, bus and luggage on the Vietnamese side of the border.Austin stared out the window of the bus, taking in the new scenery and giggling childishly to herself at the unfamiliar words written on roadside signs: “lo bun,” “phuc hao,” “bich taim.” After 8 hours we arrived to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), formerly known as Saigon. We’d planned to meet Joel, a Torontonian friend of ours whom we’d first met last year in Morocco, at our hotel. He’d arrived in the city earlier the same afternoon. The hotel we’d chosen had been recommended to us by Abby & James, an American couple we’d met the previous week in Cambodia who were also staying there. When Joel greeted us at the hotel we were giddy with excitement at seeing our friend after a full year apart and the promise of big adventures together.We spent several days in HCMC with Joel, Abby and James. We spent most of that time walking around and eating delicious street food. Besides the coffee – which is super strong and almost unbearably sweet – our favorite snacks included freshly pressed sugar cane juice and something like a taco that is cooked over coals and made of rice paper filled with ground pork, fried quail eggs and various sauces. We also ate a lot of pho. We spent an afternoon at the War Remnants Museum which includes graphic depictions of the atrocities of the American War (known in the USA as the Vietnam War). The various exhibits include reproductions of the “tiger cages” in which the South Vietnamese government kept political prisoners and photographs documenting the generation-spanning effects of Agent Orange. We also visited the tunnels of Cu Chi to learn about the enormous network used by the Viet Cong.Interacting with the crazy traffic in HCMC was a new activity for us. Vietnam traffic is a different kind of crazy than the crazy traffic we’d grown accustomed to in India. Most of the vehicles are scooters or motorcycles and there are lots and lots and lots of them. The roads are like rivers that flow with some kind of chaotic grace. The scooters scoot amongst and around one another, responding intuitively to one another as though a school of fish. The rules of the road seem very few and go something like this:
- Always yield to larger vehicles.
- Pay attention to the vehicle ahead of you, for it will maneuver without regard to the vehicles behind it.
- Do not stop. When making a turn, simply merge into the traffic without looking. The traffic will accommodate your presence.
- Be predictable and do not hesitate.
It was a bit terrifying learning how to cross the street on foot in HCMC but we caught on quickly. Here’s how to cross safely:
- Look for oncoming buses, remembering that traffic flows in both directions on both sides of the street. Let any buses pass before stepping into the street; buses yield to no one and will result in certain death. If no buses are in sight, step confidently into the street, no matter how many scooters are heading straight for you.
- Walk slowly but assuredly toward the middle of the street whilst keeping a watchful eye for buses. Scooters will avoid you. Do not hesitate or let your confidence falter for even a moment. This will confuse drivers and lead to certain death. Pausing to avoid collisions with scoters is permitted, but changing direction or walking backward are strongly discouraged.
- When you reach the painted line, pause. Repeat steps 1-3 for oncoming traffic from the right side. Remember to breathe.
- If you feel too scared to cross the street, wait until a local person crosses. Stick to their leeward side as if you were their shadow and you will make it safely to the other side. The elderly make for especially good crossing partners; they are easy to keep up with and vehicles seem to take a little extra care not to run them over.
We had come to Vietnam with the intention of buying motorcycles in the south and riding north toward Hanoi on a glorious road trip with nothing but the wind in our hair and the open road ahead of us. Seeing the traffic in HCMC had us immediately considering a plan B, C or D. We thought we’d have a better chance of continuing our lives if we started our ride anywhere else. So the three of us woke up on our third day in HCMC, purchased some last-minute plane tickets, and that evening found ourselves in a guest house in Hoi An, a small town about 850 km to the north. Abby and James were also there by that time, and we’ve noticed we feel content to follow one step behind them throughout SE Asia.We decided our glorious motorcycle road trip would begin in Hoi An, a quieter place with less traffic, much more suitable for one person with about 6 rides under her belt (Austin), one person with more experience 20 years ago (David) and one absolute total beginner who mostly understands how a clutch works (Joel). And while we were there we all went to the tailor to get some new shirts made. In hindsight we probably should have gotten matching motorcycle outfits.But one mustn’t put the cart before the horse. So first we’d need to find ourselves some horses.