In Travel | On 07-06-2011
In Saigon, the iconic vehicle is still the cyclo. Twenty years ago, they ruled the roads here, driven as often as not by disenfranchised veterans of the old regime who would embark upon stories from ‘Before 1975’ as soon as they embarked upon a fare. The fate of the cyclo isn’t all that certain. My guess is that it’s destined to become a curiosity.
|The Vespa in Saigon
The Vespa, well, that’s another matter. Not quite as iconic as the cyclo, the Vespa still carries tremendous clout about town. Its design chops are chic, unlike the cyclo’s. And it’s still an efficient way to move through this city, unlike the cyclo. I’d go so far as to say the Vespa belongs to the most practical class of vehicles for getting around.
In the popular imagination, the Vespa in Saigon is part of the city’s lore. In our collective mind’s eye, the driver is an attractive young woman, in her early 20s, wearing a large-brimmed hat and elbow-length gloves as she toots across town. For a glimpse of just how prevalent the Vespa was in this city, check out this image here.
But make no mistake. The Vespa is no mere dinosaur. Indeed, touring this city by Vespa is compulsory for any visitor. Yes, you should walk Dong Khoi St. and have a drink on the rooftop terrace of the old wing of the Caravelle Hotel. The Presidential Palace, yes. The Botanical Gardens and Ho Chi Minh City Museum, yes, yes.
But the Vespa, absolutely. One recent Saturday evening, I took a tour with Vietnam Vespa Tours. There were a group of us, celebrating a friend’s birthday, who’d come out for the Vespa’s. We set off from a café in Saigon’s backpacker district at about 6 o’clock in the evening, each a passenger on the back of a Vespa driven by local and ex-pat drivers.
We cruised through the back streets of District 4, and it was here that I understood the appeal I couldn’t quite fathom from a distance. Most of the time, when I have to drive around this city, I’m in a car. It’s air-conditioned, and I’m insulated.
On the back of a Vespa, I was uninsulated. There was nothing but speed between me and local residents whose lives spilled from the doors and windows of the homes we passed. I felt more like a participant in the life of the city, much less a spectator however much observation I was up to on the back of my Vespa.
We ate at a seafood restaurant in a far-flung neighborhood, and then got back on the bikes for another tour in still very busy but less frenetic traffic. I didn’t see much that I hadn’t seen before but on the back of that Vespa I felt much more a part of the city’s fabric.
Eventually, of course, we stopped at a little out of way café in District 3. We climbed the stairs to a room full of locals where two or three singers, sans microphone, accompanied a pianist, singing French and Vietnamese songs.
There was authenticity in that room, something unvarnished and uncorrupted by all of the technology and other currents of the day that seek homogenization. That is what you get on the back of a Vespa.