Life on two motorised wheels - Saigon
Writing & taking photos: Jasmin Krpan
In the early dawn, when roosters are still just wandering around, on the streets of Saigon, first scooters are already in motion. And, Saigon is a city with more than 3 million scooters. Loaded with little room to spare, tens of thousands scooters are starting with their morning delivery routines in this multi-million people Vietnam city. This scooters are delivering practically everything that this city needs. From the food for the lucky people that are still sleeping, clothes to sell, electronic appliances, plastic plumbing pipes for specialized shops up to various textile raw material that will someday end up as somebody's t-shirt. Also, from the outskirts of Saigon, scooters are coming in, loaded with freshly catched crabs from Mekong river delta that is slowly piercing its way from the distant Himalayas. This crabs will be used in, at least, ten different recepies in order to feed business people in modern center of Saigon.
In the same time, along with standard scooter deliveries into the south Vietnam megalopolis, first scooter repair service and ''logistical'' helpers are coming out. Once the ''army'' of few hundred thousands people start their gallop on their working places, they will have more than enough to repair. Strategically positioned on every few hundred meters, they will help anyone in trouble......just to get them to work on time. Flat tire or complete motor meltdown, they can repair just about anything. Until it lasts.......
Buying a new scooter in Saigon, although one of the richest Vietnam cities, is still a luxurious undertaking. Consequently, on the streets you can still find mostly very old models, dating from the past when Vietnam was a part of communist block under thight Soviet survelliance. This real ''scooter veterans'' from communist era can mostly be found in early dawn, hidden under their laod of mostly anything that you can think of. Most of the load that You can find on this scooters, for sure, would even surprise famous Soviet engineers, known for building extremely durable stuff.
This brings us to tire repairs...... In Saigon, any tire repair is a 10 minute work. Evenly positioned on the side of the incoming roads, they are quick and they repair everything on spot. Simple equipment – bucket full of water, rubber patches, some sealant...... Roadside tire repairs are as common as roadblocks during Zagreb rush hour.
Streets are starting to change significantly when the wake-up alarms are done with ringing. Saigon population is going to work. Delivery scooters are slowly fading......Now, you can see totally different ''cargo'' on the same scooters. From kids, grownups, up to parents with kids and grandparents with grandchildren. Total chaos. Often, you can see this children sleeping. Specially during long long way back from Saigon downtown. Understandably, beside sleeping, you can find people doing various ''ACTIVITES'' while travelling on scooters – eating, learning...... They are really trying to use their time spent on overcrowded streets in overcrowded magalopolis.
Talking about security and driving discipline......well, it is definately an art-form that seems to be pretty scary for the oridinary forigner. Scooters and other motorbikes are literally squeezed from one side of the street to the other, but, what is more amazing, they are all starting to drive at the same time in all the possible directions without crashing!!! Two way street is easily tranformed into fourway one, because everybody are using one lane for twoway traffic. To make it simple, everyone is driving in directions they find appropriate. In this driving conditions, one way traffic is unheard of.
It is a wonder of somekind that nobody is angry or frustrated with non-existence of any traffic rules and, it seems, everyone is at peace with this ''war'' on streets. Pedestrians? Are there any? Of course, not all of 7 000 000 Saigon inhabitants are motorised. But, they do have a very developed skill when crossing this overcrowded and chaotic roads. Understandably, any existing traffic lights or pedestrian crossings are completely useless. So, they ase the following skill. They just start to move very slowly, trying to normaly walk across the street. This way, all the motorised traffic paticipants have enough time to avoid any collision with slow moving pedestrians. From the side of the road it looks like a spanish corrida where pedestrians are matadores and motorised vehicles are bulls. But, importantly, pedestrian isn't the one trying to avoid scooters.......it is just the opposite. The feeling of crossing this roads in this way is unforgetable feeling and, actually, is seems to be less dangerous than avoiding a bull in corrida. Of course, leap of faith is needed. Don't look left or right. Just walk straight an don't panic. To be honest, author of this text was never hit by a scooter or injured in any way.
How frustrating an ordinary street crossing can be, you can see on every foreigner trying to cross a street just a little further from the Saigon downtown. Unlike police that is keeping pedestrians (foreign ones) safe in downtown, there is nobody to help you outside of it.
Once the rush hour is over, Saigon is slowly entering a little bit less chaotic traffic. Although the roads are emptier (but, just a little bit), scooters and other motorised two-wheel vehicels are still flowing into downtown area. Wider streets of modern part of Saigon are now finally a bit easier to navigate, but older parts (built in French colonial time) that are more crooked and crowded are still full of two-wheel trouble.
What is definately changed, are people on scooters. There are more women and girls, instead of delivery men. Fashion details and other estetic characteristics are becoming more important when driving or parking your scooter. Speaking about fashion and its trends, it seems that Saigon girls and women are following the same influences as do girls and women in Zagreb, Split or Rijeka. But, very important difference is the following - while fashion in Croatia is presented while walking on the street, in Saigon, it is presented while driving scooters. Of course, fashion and trends are visible in the same intensity on clothes as on scooters, helmets and other equipment you would expect to be worn by a person driving a scooter.
If there is a right time for showing yourself, it is definately a night time in Saigon. This is the time of the day when all your fashion and estetic choices are becoming very important.
It is no surprise that motorised vehicles are also a vital part of nightlife in Saigon. Instead of spending their time in bars or clubs, young people love to spend their free time cruising on their scooters and just going around downtown. Of course, the most popular places are always part of their itinerary. Understandably, all cool things end up on social networks......
As you can imagine, there is a law that forbbides using mobile phones while driving, but, as in Croatia, there is no too big policing about it. Moreover, you can easily exchange your law breaking behaviour for an honest ''donation'' to a local policeman. Unfortunately, vietnamese police is not a benchmark in their approach in introducing laws.
So, if you are looking for an ordinary car, you can easily understand that there is no too much space for them. Although, you can find some four-wheeled vehicles, strictly limited to taxis with 6 or more seats. More importantly, they use the same tire repairs as scooters do. How convinient.
Taking everything into account, you would conclude that Saigon traffic participants are using the worst tires in the world. But, when you have more than few milions scooters driving around this multi-milion city, it should be easy to understand.
This typical life on two wheeled vehicles is something that Saigon inhabitants are doing everyday and usually, deep into the night. Except obivious traffic restrictions, one of the important things that are causing this is absence of cooler periods during day and night. The same goes for tropical rain........ When rain comes pouring down, drivers are stoping just for few seconds in order to cover themselves with practical raincovers. Very quickly, they are continuing into the busy traffic. Like with tires, very quickly, you can find thousands of merchants along the streets ready to sell anykind of raincover that you can use. Usually, for a noutoriosly low price.....
Finally, as in almost every Southeast Asia city, public transport is very scarce and with very limited driving and service schedule. So, not to have a scooter on your hand would be a very very bad thing.