It took me almost five months, but I’ve finally worked up the courage and inspiration to rent a motorbike in the city. I’ve been driving for a few weeks now and I love it, but let’s back up a bit and see how I got to this point.
When I first got to Saigon I was terrified of the traffic. I mostly walked everywhere for the first couple weeks, but even walking is no easy feat here. If you are lucky enough to be on a sidewalk, you still have to look out for bikes driving and parking in the area designated for pedestrians. After I finished my TESOL certification I started walking less and taking xe oms (motorbike taxis) more because I had to travel across the city to visit different schools. There is no subway system here and the buses scare me, so xe oms became my only real option for transportation. Xe om literally means “motorbike hug,” and has said name because riders on the bike often “hug” the driver to hold on while riding. Xe Oms are generally inexpensive ($1-$2 per ride), but are not always the most convenient form of transportation for a couple of reasons. First, there is no organization or company that xe om drivers work for, you just have to figure out which guys on the streets are drivers. There is no designated uniform, so sometimes it’s really hard to figure out who is a driver and who is not. It’s also really embarrassing to go up to some guy and ask for a ride and then find out that he isn’t a driver. Second, some areas are full of drivers and others you can walk for blocks and not find a driver. When it’s hot out, you are pressed for time, or it’s late at night, you just want to be able to hop on a moto and ride home, but that’s not always possible. Finally, although single rides are cheap, they add up. If you need to run errands around the city you can end up spending almost $10 a day for transportation. Not the most economical form of transportation here.
So with all this said, why did it take me five long months to get a bike? BECAUSE IT’S SCARY!!! Not only is traffic crazy, but maneuvering a motorbike is a daunting task. My fear of driving kept me off the roads and content with taking xe oms for about four months. When February rolled around I started thinking about seriously getting a motorbike. I figured if I really wanted to make a life for myself here, I’d have to eventually start driving. While in Mui Ne, Annie and I rented a bike and practiced out in the countryside where there was almost no traffic. However, the trip ended up only increasing my fear of driving, not making me more comfortable with it. We rented one automatic bike and I found the thing big and heavy and especially with a person on the back, I felt like I’d never be able to maneuver a bike around the city.
After a few more frustrating weeks dealing with xe oms and encouragement from my driving friends here, I decided to make an active effort to get comfortable on a bike. The area of the city where I live in is way too crowded to practice driving, so my friend Javier took me out to District 7 to practice on his Honda Wave. Since I found the automatic bike too big for comfort, I decided I wanted to drive a manual bike instead. District 7 is only a twenty minute drive outside of the center of town, but feels miles and miles away from the city. There are wide streets, free standing houses, and nearly traffic free streets. It’s the closest thing to a suburb you’ll find in Vietnam. After an entire afternoon cruising around District 7 I finally felt ready to get the bike.
Due to some logistical problems (places not having bikes ready right away), it took me a couple weeks after practicing to rent my bike. By that time I had lost some of my motivation to drive and when my bike was finally delivered to me I let it sit in my parking garage for a few days before actually taking it out on the roads. But I eventually worked up the courage and began driving. It was so scary at first and for the first few days I’d have to psych myself up each time I got on the bike. However, after I got over my initial fear, driving turned into a rather enjoyable experience. When you look out onto the traffic in Saigon it seems crazy and unnavigable, but once you get out on the road you see that it’s a system of organized chaos. Sure there are millions of motorbikes, cars, trucks and buses on the roads of Saigon, but it somehow all works.
It’s almost impossible to explain what driving is like here so I’ll leave you guys with a couple of pictures. I’ll try to get some more pictures of the traffic and post them on here later.