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Missed in Saigon

Jonathan van Bilsen



February 1, 2009

Missed in Saigon

It was noon when I arrived in Saigon last month and the sun was bright and hot. I had a bit of spare time so I decided to go shopping at the local market. A five minute cab ride from my hotel placed me in the centre of the city at one of the largest traffic circles I have ever seen.

Saigon is officially known as Ho Chi Min City, but no one uses the name, not even the airport where the initials SAI are used. It is important to note that Saigon has eight million people and more than 3 million motorcycles. Cars carry a tax surcharge of 200 percent so most people cannot afford them. The city has created special motorcycle lanes to make traffic safer. Unfortunately it does not seem to work.

There are traffic lights at major intersections, but they appear to be more for decoration than anything else. People will stop… if they feel like it, but there is no way of telling what the intention of a driver is at any given moment.

I stood along the traffic circle mesmerized by what appeared to be mass confusion. Thousands of motorcycles and scooters drove wildly, weaving in and out of the six or so roads fed by the traffic circle. 

The time for me to cross the roads had come and I was ready. I stared in the direction of the traffic and waited for an opening. There was none. Twenty minutes passed and I was still standing in the same spot.

Finally, someone with a good command of English, told me to simply start walking and always keep my eyes focussed on the drivers approaching. He explained they would navigate around me. I simply stared in disbelief and shook my head. “It is how it works,” he replied to my bewildering glance. “As long as you continue to walk forward you will be fine,” he said, as he waived a finger at me. “Never take a step backward because you will throw them off. To do so is suicide.”

The man left and I ventured forth. I began to walk slowly, watching the eyes of as many drivers as I could. The traffic was a sea of endless motorcycles about 10-12 across. I kept walking and after what appeared an eternity, made it to the island in the centre of the circle.

I walked along the edge for a few minutes and realized I had to make another crossing to reach the market. Quite confident by my recent success at navigating the traffic, I set forth again. Motorcycles were buzzing by me at fairly fast speeds and I felt thousands of eyes staring at the tourist, who had obviously never done this before.

Although the motorcycles are smaller, with a maximum speed of 80 kilometres an hour, it is still quite fast, especially when coupled with the number of people on each motorcycle. This makes for an amazing system based on disorder. The law restricts the number of passengers to two, plus the driver; however, I counted four and five people on most bikes. Those with only one or two people were often laden with giant packages, chesterfields, bails of straw and so forth. 

Small, plastic bucket seats are fastened to the crossbar and toddlers poke their heads forward. Dad grasps the handlebars making sure junior does not fall out while mom sits toward the back. Between the parents are up to two additional children, crammed in, laughing and watching the sights, quite accustomed to the chaos around them. On rainy days the driver wears a giant poncho, which drapes over all the passengers behind him or her.

I stood beside the road, quite proud at having conquered two extremely busy streets. I looked at the market and realized I had one more set of lanes to tackle. I set out and found that the Vietnamese system for crossing roads actually worked. I made it across safely, but breathed deeply when I reached my destination. 

I was about to enter the market when I heard a crash directly behind me. Two motorcycles had collided and one man was sprawled out on the road, his crate of goods scattered around him. Hundreds of drivers skirted the scene and continued on their way. The second driver had stopped and walked to the fallen man, now getting to his feet. They exchanged words and the second man returned to his motorcycle and continued on his way. A moment later the first man gathered his belongings, strapped them to his motorbike and continued his trek. I shook my head in awe.

I spent several weeks in Vietnam and slowly grew accustomed to the methodology of maneuvering the traffic. Now when I stand at the corner of Perry and Queen Streets, about to cross, I am grateful that all drivers in Port Perry obey the four way stop. 

Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit

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