Just driving around in Vietnam is fun. You never know what you’ll see.
Our mission these next few days is to cruise the Mekong delta canals on a boat we’ve arranged to meet us about three hours drive south of Saigon. The driver down there is a precious older gentleman without a word of English and we have no Vietnamese besides some pleasantries and the names of some food.
He’s a pro driver, no doubt about that, in a nice golf shirt and slacks, and he works the car the eight blocks from the hotel down to the Saigon River and then follows it south out of town, beyond Cho Lon, Saigon’s sprawling Chinatown, and holds a steady course until the center falls away.
He gets the left lane and proceeds slowly, a campaign strategy he follows every bloody deliberate inch down there and later, back. He has a deep and resonant voice I don’t understand.
We first came to Saigon nearly twenty years ago. Cycles are still the main way Saigon Man and Woman get around, but since then they’ve largely dispensed with the demure way women rode the back of scooters, both legs to one side. Back then many more women wore the traditional Ao Dai, the thin, body length robe. Maybe that made it hard to sit any other way. Some women still sit that way but today most ride behind their man like they do in America. (There are a lot less pajamas nowadays, too). It makes good sense, the way things work. Eight million people just don’t take up as much room on scooters.
Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon
Steady ahead. If he hurtles all the way up to 60 kph, even on long, empty stretches, he seems to embarrass himself when he discovers as much and slows down. Maybe he’s working by the hour and if they say this trip should take three and a half hours then no way will he make it in three hours and a quarter.
The river becomes more of a canal. After a half hour the industrial outskirts present themselves, less kempt than in town, still dense, low-rise residential peppered throughout. Smart electric road signs overhead show the way. It’s a divided six lane highway for cars with about a two car-sized lane outside in each direction for cycles, and this goes on for miles and miles.
A web of canals starts. It’s really hazy today and I think it’s really hazy almost all the time. High forecast at only 89 today. It’s December. Winter.
A guy with a cart jammed with coconuts goes chugging by, pulling it with his cycle. A young man with sheaves of office paperwork on his lap angles off to the right. A most unlikely place for the Mercedes Benz Haxaco dealership, and then a stretch of corrugated roof and iron bar buildings, followed by a tended-green-space flyby, with the “584 Group” high-rises set back off the road. I am not sure why, but here is an empty lot full of dozens of mannequins dressed in ladies clothes.
Just about every hundred meters stand banh mi carts by the road. Restaurants that serve a variety of foods are for tourists. Vietnamese people eat at a pho restaurant for pho, a banh mi cart for banh mi and so on.
A dense section of replacement radiator vendors rises up beside a bunch of chest-high fan stores. Brick store. Fruit and vegetable carts. All of a sudden an exodus of huge, tall tour buses swoops and squeezes in with us humble cars and scooters and muscles us all to the verge.
Canals run every which way now and there are signs down here for copper, aluminum and plastics manufacturers, and wild fields sometimes along the canals, sometimes wetlands sometimes traffic and bustle and dump trucks way taller than your car, and fast, and in close and menacing.
A plant known to botanists as eichhornia crassipes, and to everyone else as water hyacinth, thrives in dirty water, and the random industrialization of the Mekong delta means it has come to the right place. Where we cross canals it is not clear that boats could navigate among the invasive, free-floating plants and indeed, later, aboard a Mercruiser with seats for 16, the pilot will be forced to stop and fight repeatedly to disentangle the motor from the plants.
Trash collectors pedal along, riding the wrong way with collapsed cardboard boxes tied to the back of their bikes. Photocopy! Baguettes. Dried fowl hang behind glass in rolling carts parked at the roadside.
Everywhere the length of this country women, men and boys hold down low plastic stools out by the road in front of shops and I will never reconcile their sanguinity with their proximity to the highway.
It’s never exactly rural but after 45 more minutes I imagine I spy clouds discernable through the permahaze settled back over Saigon and I even talk myself into believing the sky may be a little bit blue. Unlike in town, trees, bananas and ferns move up to the verge.
With all the cycles around here, Honda is a common name. A cycle shop puts a hundred stylin’ helmets in its show window. Next door an open-air, under cover restaurant has just as many chairs.
Furniture: Headboards, many of the same bureaus in different stores. They MUST price fix, or they’d cut each others’ throats.
Eventually traffic lights begin to just flash yellow and the road runs rail-straight to the south.
There is a story to tell (another time) about the route to Latinization of the Vietnamese language. After enough Ca Fes and Ca Phes and Cà Phês, I begin to wonder if Shop Ti Ni is a tongue in cheek ‘little shop,’ which, it turns out, is exactly what it is.
So I wonder if ‘Mai Man’ is trying to act cool.
Out here they seem to have settled into a repetitive rural diet. Restaurant (road stand) advertising is centered around the ubiquitous pho and banh mi, but there is more:
- banh canh: a thick noodle from tapioca flour or a mixture of rice and tapioca flour.
- heo quay: a crispy roast pork
- hu tiu: clear noodle soup with pork and/or shrimp
- bun rieu: meat, rice vermicelli soup, and
- com phan, which I can’t seem to find out about. “family food,” maybe.
All of these roadhouses beckon you in to plastic tables and chairs to enjoy your lunch with, likely as not, welders’ arcs next door. Or a floor tile showroom.
Oh no! Just along the side of the road there, the most earnest man has lost his load of joss sticks, doubtless meant to make him a Chinese New Year fortune next month. His whole sorry load bumped off his cycle and burst its packages along the road and you’ll never see a more industrious gathering effort.
You can install lots of pumps in your gas station in a place like this because your customers’ cycles can kind of angle in in a way cars can’t.
After more than an hour and a half, now 50 kilometers south of downtown, we drive past the Tan Huong Industrial Zone, down in the Binh Chanh district. It’s newish and it’s huge, 200 hectares and already only 40 hectares unfilled. Every trip to Asia leaves me smiling at its capricious city planning. Here now comes a cluster of bridal shops.
A man riding pillion holds an eight rung bamboo ladder. It sticks out past the front of the scooter over the driver. That can’t be comfortable for either of them.
Sometimes the storefronts come to ten feet from traffic, with scooter parking, the terrace with plastic stools for the proprietors and the area for commerce in front of that, between the building and all the scooters, intercity buses and us, cruising right on by.
Now, completely nowhere special, we take a right onto a four lane divided highway with a maybe additional four feet per direction for scooters. The eye can see farther out here. Banana trees, right up to the road sometimes. We swing back left, back in the original mostly southerly direction. Then another right, and after two full hours, banana trees and their tropical fruited kin grow right up hard by the road and now, gradually, women have begun to use the don ganh, the shoulder yoke carrying pole.
The don ganh is a metaphor for motherly love. With her baskets of fruit or flowers or ceramics or who knows what for sale, mama shoulders the burden of providing for the family.
Don Ganh pole, non-metaphorically
Live-aboard boats line the canals tied up to the sides. Roadhouses are open-air under cover, offering shade with your banh canh and hammocks alongside for a relaxing roadside siesta after lunch. They hang side by side in rows, sometimes alternating with chairs.
Traffic police pull people over with their little blue and white police sticks. In a brief rural stretch, brilliant, deep green verdant paddies grow young rice. I don’t imagine you can grow harvest after harvest (at peril of soil depletion), but you could with this weather.
By now the road is a single undifferentiated slab, informally apportioned as a section on each side for scooters, and a loose, slightly larger third for both directions of cars, trucks and buses. We slam to a sweet, complete stop for a mother hen and her four chicks, wee babies all. She has fluttered out of the way of a car approaching on our left, the chicks are stranded on our right and all of Vietnam, at least the whole of this road, comes to a stop until the family is reunited.
And suddenly we are in a different, proper city with traffic jams and dead stops. Packaged goods are mostly red and yellow. Store after store. Red and yellow. A church displays Chinese temple architecture but with two crosses on top.
After three hours the Can Tho bridge, a monster, looms up across the Bassac River, the Mekong’s biggest contributory channel. Reasonably new (2010) and expensive (some US$342.6 million), it’s 2.75 kilometres long, Japanese built. A 90-meter section of an approach ramp collapsed during construction killing a disputed number of workers, but at least fifty.
It replaced a network of ferries.
Eventually a sign welcomes us to Sa Dec City. Now that the sign says we’re here our silent driver takes the opportunity to free himself from his seat belt. For what, some relaxed, safe city driving?
He sets himself apart from American male drivers by asking directions at a bus stop, directions that yield a right turn on Duong Hung Vuond, and then some local juking, back and forth to a street along the water where we stop beside the vegetable market.
The produce truck just ahead has its back door rolled up. It works with FedEx efficiency. Eggplants, cucumbers, cabbages and potatoes are stacked in bags filled to bursting. The red onion man cycles up and throws on two bags, cycles off. The ginger man rides up on a scooter and places three see-through bags on the ground at the back of the truck. He toots his little horn as he drives away, summoning the truck’s packing boy from a plastic chair down by the river, who packs them in.
Meanwhile across the street, two mere boys bring a cart up to the curb and heave a stack of five bags of rice, each as big as they are, one on top of the other and drive off. A very young woman, maybe the daughter of the shop owner because these little businesses are a family affair, tugs and tussles and drags the top two right back off and sideways onto the ground, opens and rolls back the tops and begins to weigh out smaller bags on a little green scale.
Meanwhile our driver has been on the phone. Soon as he stopped behind the produce truck he flipped on his blinkers and made two phone calls. In between them an incoming call. Another placed, another incoming. We don’t know where we are going.
He makes another call. The engine and the air conditioning are on. Now it’s been fifteen minutes. Across the way a team of three baggers and two women in non las get a production line going. In minutes we have a dozen and a half smaller bags. (Non las are those round, pointy top peasant hats. Coolie hats, some call them.)
Non La hats
We drive off, nothing seems to prompt it. The driver takes another call and we turn around and park in the same place on the other side of the street.
Bikes, shops, scooters, commerce. Busy busy busy. Plastic trash bins and stacks of buckets drive by on scooters. Another incoming call. We can hear that some of these are men and some are female. There is a team working on finding our boat for us. Twenty minutes.
We drive back the other way, and then back up again.
Now when he hangs up, instantly another call is incoming. Too many calls back and forth for us to believe there’s anything organized going on here. But there is, of course, and in the end we find our ship, the Gecko Eyes II, was anchored a scant block away the whole while, just blocked from view by all the activity of the market.
The corner shop approaches three dozen ten-kilo bags filled and still working as our host on the boat, Phuc, finds the car and climbs in, name tag around his neck.
Rice at that market in Sa Dec
Click here to take a five-minute ride through Saigon on the back of a scooter.
A few more photos. Click ’em to enlarge them:
Got time to buy me a cup of coffee?