03 August, 2008

Joyride in Ho Chi Minh City

That is what is called in HCMC (aka Saigon) as a cyclo, a non-motorized form of transport that used to be popular but has now been supplanted by the four million motorbikes roaring throughout the city. Scores of cyclo drivers still hang around Ben Thanh market and try to get tourists to go on a leisurely tour around town. I had successfully resisted their overtures (as well as those of the dogged female merchants inside the market who constantly grabbed at my arm as I passed within shouting distance of their stalls), and thought I would leave Saigon without having experienced a cyclo ride. Little did I know that Bun had arranged for cyclos to ferry us to the bus terminal for the long bus ride to Phnom Penh, thus as I stepped out of the hotel to my surprise a horde of drivers rushed forward to grab my luggage and usher me to their cyclo.

So off we were on a joyride! Even though each cyclo only holds one person, given the excess weight both on my frame and the accompanying baggage, I was worried that my gaunt driver would run out of gas (bad intended pun) before we reached the bus terminal about ten minutes away. He didn't seem to mind though, and started pedalling our cyclo right smack into crazy Saigon traffic. So we drifted along the streets at a glacial pace, giving plenty of time to contemplate everyday life taking place before our eyes. My amazement at the lack of vehicles in front of us sometimes gave way to sympathy for the motorbike drivers impatiently waiting to overtake our cyclo on their way to urgent business in this rapidly developing commercial heart of Vietnam. There were panic-filled moments as well especially when our throwback means of transport would attempt a left hand turn (how does one signal?) despite an oncoming rush of far bigger mechanical beasts, and I would suddenly become conscious of the absence of any steel or aluminum protective barriers around my body. As would be expected, my driver remained stoic and his expression unchanging all throughout this somewhat exhilarating experience, and I have to admit, just as I was getting the hang of it and learning to suppress the urge to scream "Look out!", we had reached the bus terminal. Alas, the joyride proved to be all too brief.

Given that all my body parts remained intact, I felt compelled to give a small tip to Stoic Gaunt Driver for his deft maneuvering amidst all that chaotic traffic. I reached inside my pocket and blindly grabbed one of the remaining Vietnamese dong (US$=16,500 dong) currency bills in my possession. I took out the note, flashed my best smile and offered it to Stoic Gaunt Driver. He took one look at my hand, his expression turned into one of disgust, then he gave a hearty laugh, turned to the other drivers and made some comments to them while pointing to my outstretched palm. I looked down and was aghast to see that I was holding a 500 dong (US$0.03) note, pretty much close to worthless and worthy of derision even for cyclo drivers. (In fairness to me, they're pretty hard to tell apart - lame excuse). Chastened by the group of drivers laughing in my face, I simply retreated and went in search of the bus to Phnom Penh. Notwithstanding my major faux pas, I totally enjoyed the experience and Stoic Gaunt Driver proving not to be that stoic after all.

1 comment:

Tor said...

Sounds like a joyride especially those left turns...

funny ancedote about the 500 dong note. I totally see myself doing that, I'm so bad with hard cash :)

...now if you really wanted a joyride you should have gone on a bike. In Caracas they have mototaxis i.e. you go on the back and hold on for your life as the driver speeds through traffic and up narrow steep roads. Not that I ever went on one.