Want to experience Vietnam like a local? Get on the back of a scooter.
By Heather Mundt
There is a cacophony of restless honking in Ho Chi Minh City as our group of orange Vespas zips through the neon-bedazzled streets and alleyways of Vietnam’s largest metropolis. The warm air is frenetic, heavy with diesel fumes from too many vehicles crammed tightly together, evidenced by the searing motor exhaust radiating just inches from my bare legs each time we stop at a traffic light.
Ahead of me, I see my two sons “riding pillion” behind professional Vespa Adventures drivers on their respective scooters, one reaching his hand out to touch a car gently as he whizzes by, the other pulling his surgical mask down from his face to flash a smile as he dashes forward.
Under any other circumstances, everything about this scenario—the noise, the smell, the crowds and the fear of watching my kids being driven by a stranger through seemingly infinite pandemonium—would have me on edge. But I’ve barely stopped smiling in my mask throughout our Vespa Adventures “Saigon After Dark” tour, billed as “part night excursion, part street-food adventure” to experience the city’s nightlife like a local.
“Riding a scooter here is frenetic but organized, like a school of fish,” says my husband, Michael. “You’re all moving together at the same speed, almost like there’s an invisible conductor leading choreographed chaos. But once you’re part of that, it doesn’t seem so frenetic.”
Indeed, it’s one thing to be a pedestrian among the hordes of scooters in this city—still called by its pre-war name, Saigon—wading into waves of mask-clad drivers with fear and trepidation as if in a live-action version of one of my favorite ‘80s video games, Frogger.
It’s another thing altogether to be part of that horde, more “flowing river” than “intimidating wave,” jetting through gaps and nooks so efficiently it’s no wonder motorbikes are the country’s most popular mode of transportation. Cars in this country are taxed upwards of 200 percent, many guides told us, so scooters are a way of life in the city.
“Guests who come to Vietnam want to try a scooter. You get to look at everything, see the traffic; you can feel like you’re really a local,” says our guide, Alina, who rides alongside us on her own orange Vespa throughout the evening. “Tonight, you are Vietnamese.”
The tour comprises five stops, including three restaurants and two live-music venues. As we sit for drinks and appetizers at our first destination, Vespa Adventures’ Café Zoom—the Vespa-themed starting point for many of the company’s tours—our group marvels at what I call the “polite anarchy” of Vietnamese traffic.
“Is there one law we didn’t just break?” Michael asks Alina, laughing. “Going against traffic. Running a red light. Driving on the sidewalk. We saw it all.”
“Eight-point-five million scooters in Saigon; 8.5 million rules,” she says. (Various sources estimate the city’s population between 11 and 13 million.)
“If you’re walking on the street, it seems so crazy and dangerous,” says Vespa Adventures Founder Steve Mueller, an American expatriate who launched the company in 2007 to share his love of Vietnam and its motorbike culture. “But once you’re (on a bike), it all makes sense. Somehow with that many people, things still flow.”
Traveling along main drags and tiny alleyways flashing colorful signs of orange, green and pink—advertising electronics, liquor and especially pho, the country’s famous brothy noodle soup—I’m amazed by the number of children I see riding as passengers. And I’m reminded what one of our Vietnamese guides told us earlier: “We are born on the scooter.”
As we make our way to our next destinations—restaurants where we’re served heaps of rice, lemongrass, and giant savory pancakes—I notice a motorist driving with a toddler, his child tucked neatly between himself and the handlebars on a raised child’s seat.
At another stoplight, I spot a family of four next to me: two daughters bookended by parents, a toddler clinging to her father as he drives, the mother holding a sleeping infant against her chest. To me, they resemble an octopus heaped atop a tiny scooter.
A father of two boys who regularly drives them via scooter, Mueller wants families to feel safe when they take one of his tours.
“Parents are always worried about their kids, especially riding on the back of a scooter in Vietnam,” he says. “We put a lot of effort into training drivers.”
A scooter ride is a “must-do” for anyone visiting Vietnam, he says.
“If you really want to feel like a local, get on the back of a motorbike and feel the exhilaration of being among the people,” he says.
And if you don’t?
Quite simply, Alina says, “It means you haven’t visited Saigon.”
Good to Know
Cruise Excursion We took our Vespa adventure as part of a shore excursion one night on a two-week Windstar cruise from Bangkok to Hong Kong in November 2018. The Vietnamese stops included Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City; locals call it by its pre-war name), Danang (we opted for a trip to Hoi An that day) and Ha Long Bay.
Multigenerational Success We picked a cruise because we were traveling with our kids, 12 and 10, and their two grandmothers. We wanted to see Asia, but with multi-generations, we knew a cruise would be ideal for all ages.
Bad Weather Made Good An impending tropical depression made us miss our stop in Nha Trang but the scooter tour was one of the last-minute excursions offered when the ship had to stay an extra night in Saigon due to poor weather.
Worth Every Penny The scooter trip costs $97 per person, 30 percent less for kids under 12. (Of course, it is more expensive if you buy it onboard a cruise ship 😉 We were the only five passengers to take the trip–us four plus my mother–and it was undoubtedly the best excursion of the trip if not one of the all-time best of all the cruise excursions we’ve experienced. We felt like the rest of the passengers really missed out!
Street Food & Lounge Music The Vespa tour took us to five stops. They included three restaurants, a bar and a lounge in a rickety old building, where we heard musicians sing so beautifully, I cried. The only bad part of the scooter tour was that we were stuffed to the gills with so much delicious food.
More Saigon Vietnam is amazing, and, surprisingly, they don’t seem to hate Americans. They call the Vietnam War “The American War,” and there’s a fascinating museum that we stopped in on our own called The War Remnants Museum that was so incredible. I was shocked at how emotional I became seeing it all, especially seeing the exhibits on the effects of Agent Orange. Powerful.
Next Time! I would love to take a land tour to see more of the country, particularly Hanoi, which we missed and hear is a highlight. I also would have loved to see more of Thailand because we all loved the three days we spent there before boarding the ship. Basically, we all want to go back to Southeast Asia!
Heather Mundt – July 2019
The Colorado native and her husband feared having kids would mean sacrificing their love of travel. Instead, they realized they could enjoy traveling just as much with our two boys in tow. Relaxing? Not really. But she wouldn’t want it any other way.
© ROAM Family Travel 2019 – All rights reserved
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