There’s a checklist for expats arriving in Saigon, and it goes something like: Apply for jobs, secure transport, get an apartment.
I’ve done it all backwards, starting with renting a room, continuing with applying for a few jobs, and then getting a bicycle.
You read that right. I decided to buy a bicycle in one of the most densely populated areas of the world with not-so-great (read: basically nonexistent) cycling infrastructure.
The overarching culture here favors motorbikes. Top advice shared from old expats to new involves techniques for renting/riding/parking motorbikes, and it’s almost a given that you’ll need one to commute to work. Even lone tourists employ motorbike taxis to take them places faster than the average taxi.
There are cars as well, but in the city center those are mostly small taxis. So traffic makeup is motivated drivers with lithe vehicles who follow most rules unless it’s past midnight and there’s no one on the roads anyway.
If someone plans to do something unexpected at any time of day, they honk. Running a red light? Honk. Passing on the right? Honk. Turning left across three lanes of roundabout traffic? Honk.
For an American, this makes for a noisy, angry-sounding city, full of scary travel decisions and insane drivers.
With a shifted perspective — namely observing all of this from a child-sized plastic stool on a sidewalk while eating whatever the street vendor decided she wanted to sell today and drinking iced jasmine tea — the horns are courteous, the drivers vigilant and defensive. Roads are full of confident people and diverse options for getting from Point A to Point B.
Despite all these realized positives, I’m still not ready to take the plunge into owning a motorized vehicle in a strange city.
There’s too much potential speed, and I’ve never driven a motorcycle, motorized scooter, or anything similar.
I went for the familiar option instead. The way I figure, I’m already halfway around the world, interviewing for a job I’ve never had, surrounded by people I don’t really know. My traumatized mind probably appreciates a little bit of normalcy, even if that means sweating through my clothes within 30 seconds of being outside instead of a whole minute.
And other people ride bicycles as well. I counted about one for every 100 motorbikes from the window of a cafe yesterday.
There were teenagers on trick bikes, food vendors pedaling slowly with pre-taped pitches playing from megaphones on a loop, students with backpacks riding in baskets, and businesspeople in spotless work shoes.
I’ve joined a diverse subculture.
The best part is that I’m interacting with the city instead of relying on taxis and letting the city slip by past barely-tinted windows.
Even though a motorbike would provide a similar experience, it would be a little too fast, and you can bet I’d be halfway to Hanoi before I realized I’d made one wrong turn.
This leads to the second best part about having the controllable speed of a bike. With my penchant for getting lost, I can appear less of a target on a bicycle than if I were to walk, bewildered and staring at street signs. I can pedal slowly and not look lost. There’s no way to slowly rev a motorbike without looking like a complete n00b.
Next on my backwards checklist: Buy a towel.