Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam: A Mecca for Motorbikes

by Brian Carroll on February 25, 2013

Post image for Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam: A Mecca for Motorbikes Flying into Vietnam marked a change in not only countries for me, but a way of traveling. Having traveled around Thailand and Cambodia by myself, my time in Vietnam was going to be spent traveling with a good buddy of mine from LA who just so happened to go by the same name as me.

This is normal

The first stop on our “Vietnam Goodwill Tour,” as my buddy Brian so eloquently coined it, was Ho Chi Minh, a city famous for its abundance of motorbikes. This was clearly evident within just five minutes of leaving the airport. It seemed as if cars were outnumbered by motorbikes 20:1. Not only were the number of motorbikes unbelievable, but the number of people that were regularly squeezed on to a single motorbike was a sight to see in itself. You'd regularly see a family of three to four riding a single motorbike with the children sandwiched between parents. If someone were to do the equivalent in the US, it'd take all of five minutes for someone to call child protective services. Overall, our record on a single motorbike sighting was five people. Five people!! In a car, we all complain that it's too cramped if there are that many people in it... While watching the motorbikes drive by was an attraction in itself, it made crossing the street a challenge, if not altogether dangerous endeavor in its own right. That's because it seems that no traffic rules exist. Four way intersections are just that – there are no stop signs, quite often no lights or any sort of traffic cop moving traffic along. All vehicles just basically go in at the same time and one way or another, make it out. It's a free for all! In an environment like this, pedestrians sit at the bottom of the traffic food chain. So being a pedestrian in Ho Chi Minh is equivalent to being the frog in Frogger. You know you have to cross the street, but it almost seems like a death sentence to do so. And if you dare look at your cell phone while walking, you'd be flattened in a minute. Ultimately, what it requires is the confidence to step into the street and not hesitate as you move across it. Most of the time, drivers recognize the pace you're moving at and essentially drive around you, as if they were a school of fish. But not keeping your wits about you is dangerous as motorbikes at times seem to come from every which direction (not to mention on the sidewalk). I'm going to post a few videos here shortly to give you a better sense once I have them uploaded.  Video does this much better justice. While I could probably write a few pages on the motorbiking around Ho Chi Minh, there is slightly more to the area than that alone.

Not a pro-US place

On the first day that Brian and I explored Ho Chi Minh, we decided to check out some of the historical sites in the area related to the Vietnam War, most notably their “War Remnants Museum.” It was interesting to have the chance to view this period of time through the lens of the Vietnamese. I'd just say that it's obvious that the history books written about the Vietnam War (or “American War” as the Vietnamese define it) were going to be completely different depending on which country you were reading them from. While the pictures and artifacts seen at the museum were true representations of the war (and quite often horrific and eye opening, especially what the US did with “Agent Orange”), it would be quite a stretch to say that the way the material was presented was unbiased. As an example, I remember seeing a basic pic of an American soldier walking a Vietnamese POW with the caption along the lines of “American soldier taking POW for torture.” Needless to say, Brian and I felt this would not be the appropriate place for any sort of U-S-A chant.

Brian, Brian and Kirsty

By random chance, on our way to find this museum, we ran into another tourist from the UK who was just as lost as the two of us trying to get there. Her name was Kirsty and she was out here as part of a teaching english internship program that was about to begin. Anyways, the three of us quickly joined forces, checking out the museum, wandering through Ho Chi Minh and meeting up for drinks with her other internees later that night.  

Brian and I were forced to hang out with a group of 8 or so girls...terrible

We all got along so well, that among us and the larger group of teachers, we all hung out during the rest of our time in Ho Chi Minh and made tentative plans with some of them to meetup in other parts of the country, as our itineraries were similar. It made for a very social and enjoyable start of our Vietnam travels. In the main backpacker hub where we met at night, there is a street where everybody gathers for beers (usually around $.50). The thing is that you basically just sit in tiny plastic patio chairs (the type you'd see in a kindergarten class) along the sidewalk. As the sidewalk fills up, the chairs spill on the street where motorbikes are driving through, narrowing their lane. Being 6'2" has it's advantages, sitting in these chairs is not one of them.

A tight squeeze in the tunnels

In addition to our visit to the War Museum, we also made a trip out to the Cu Chi Tunnels. These are the vast tunnels the Vietnamese used during the war that have been made famous in a number of American movies. Our trip started out with a slightly skewed video in which we were told about the area and the American Devils who blew up everything – the women, the children, the homes, the buddha statues and the ducks. Yes, the ducks! We wiped out all their ducks – which would be a recurring them for the rest of our travels. Outside of the entertaining video, we were walked through the jungle and shown the types of traps the Vietnamese used in the war, before we had a chance to crawl through the tunnels. Brian and I crawled through until we got to a point where we basically couldn't fit (I think because we're both fat Americans...). It was very cool to check out but not the best thing if you're claustrophobic or don't like small spaces. It also happened to be the beginning of Tet, which is the Chinese New Year. This was both good and bad. Good in the sense that we'd be in Vietnam for one of their biggest holidays of the year. Bad in the sense that the holiday basically ran a week, most transportation was booked and many things shut down. Luckily we were able to book a last minute flight out of Ho Chi Minh leaving on New Years Eve, as a few days in Ho Chi Minh was enough. Our next destination would be the beaches of Nha Trang, which is considered the best beach destination in the country.

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