'Saigon' has always been a town on two wheels. Now that horsepower has replaced pedal power, why not see the city as the locals do - from the back of a motorbike. Christina Pfeiffer takes a spin.
'There are eight million people in [Vietnam's] Ho Chi Minh City and six million of them ride motorbikes,' says my guide, Toan, in a voice so soft I can barely hear him above the din created by the swirling sea of motorbikes around us. I'm terrified as I cling to his waist from the back of his cheap, Chinese-made machine; no one is wearing helmets and it seems as if everyone in Saigon (as most people continue to call it) must be on the road. I involuntarily let out a shriek as we enter a roundabout. Motorbikes and cars come at us from all directions but Toan simply shrugs them off. 'Relax, don't worry. The traffic is good today,' he soothes. 'And I do have a licence,' he adds, not at all reassuringly. Toan, after all, was a pot-luck pick from an untold number of motorcyclists offering unofficial guided tours straight off the kerb for a few US dollars.
In the past few years, thousands - if not millions - of Ho Chi Minh City's bicycles have been replaced by 100cc motorbikes, which ferry the city's workers, housewives and teenagers to markets, cafes, nightclubs and offices.
Motorbikes weave chaotically around us as Toan tells me the French occupied Indochina in 1858 and that, as the capital of the colonised region, Saigon benefited from elegant French architecture. As we scoot past what was once Saigon's best hotel, the Majestic, a 1925 French colonial pile on the corner of what used to be Rue Catinat and the waterfront Quai de Belgique, I wonder if I'll make it back to my hotel in one piece. To my relief, we pull up outside the Majestic for a peek, its marble floors evoking more colonial memories.
Down Dong Khoi Street (Rue Catinat) stands the city's oldest hotel, the Continental, made famous by Graham Greene novel The Quiet American. Opposite, dominating Lam Son Square, the stately Saigon Opera House stands regally beside manicured lawns complete with French-style fountains.
Toan continues to ride around the inner city's District One, allowing me to take in more French architectural delights from my backseat perch. There is the city's train station-like general post office, designed by Gustave Eiffel, architect of the eponymous tower, and the neo-romanesque Notre Dame cathedral. We speed past the Reunification Palace, originally built as the home of the French governor general. The palace played a symbolic role in the fall of Saigon, in April 1975, when its gates were breached by North Vietnamese tanks and the victors' flag was flown from a balcony.
Besides giving easy access to the city's main historical landmarks, a motorbike is a good way to experience real life among the people of Ho Chi Minh City. Toan pulls up at the Thu Thiem ferry terminal, thrusts some dong at the attendant and rides through a passageway that leads onto a ferry filled with more motorbikes. The ferry is packed so tightly I'm almost literally rubbing shoulders with
the other riders and passengers. Riding pillion is a pregnant woman who looks due any instant. A youth on a dilapidated excuse of a motorbike stares curiously at me while I admire the flowing traditional ao dai worn by a young girl straddling a bike of her own.
On the other side of the Saigon River, we ride through the back streets and discover the suburbs. Rows of single-storey homes stand with doors thrown open. Children play badminton in the streets and workers sip coffee during breaks at roadside stalls. We stop to sample water coconuts sold from a wooden boat moored on the bank of a river.
On our way back to the city centre we ride through the Pham Ngu Lao district, popular with backpackers for its cheap hotels and delectable ... snails. 'Everyone in Saigon likes snails,' says Toan as he orders two types from another roadside stall. The first is a small, scroll-shaped seaside specimen cooked in coconut milk and lemongrass sauce; the second is a round paddyfield dweller that tastes like a mussel.
Yesterday, I visited the Cu Chi tunnels, one of the most famous battlegrounds of the Vietnam war. It was here that the North Vietnamese Army plotted some of their most successful incursions into enemy territory, notably the Tet Offensive of 1968. Begun in 1948 to give the Viet Minh resistance fighters a place in which to evade the sweeps of the occupying French forces, they had grown to a length of 200km by 1965. We toured bunkers, hospitals, kitchens, storage rooms, weapons dumps and command rooms, peered through trapdoors and dined on wartime fare of tapioca and tea as we listened to tales of how civilians and fighters lived in the tunnels.
Uneven steps led us deep underground into a dark, cramped space. I shuffled along for 30 metres in a crouching position. My legs ached and I poured with sweat. After an eternity my mind began to play games and to relieve some tension I cried out, 'How much longer?' into the darkness. Responses came in panicked tones as my companions tried to control their claustrophobia.
To my relief, an offshoot from the main passageway suddenly appeared and I clambered up some stairs to find myself in a jungle clearing. (I later discovered that if I had followed the main tunnel I'd have found myself crawling.)
The tunnels, which with their schools, hospitals and meeting rooms almost amounted to underground towns, were dug entirely with hand tools and fitted with underwater wells and vents to disperse cooking smoke. The children who hid in them were able to come out only at night, meaning that many didn't see the sun for years. That period of Vietnamese history is graphically illustrated at the War Remnants Museum, which features horrifying displays of torture instruments, war victims' photographs, tanks, aircraft and field guns. That is another stop on Toan's tour - and another story.