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  • Writer's pictureAaron Mead

Saigon: City of the Scooter

I’m working in Saigon (officially Ho Chi Minh City) for a couple of weeks on a project. Work has been pretty demanding, so I haven’t seen much of the city yet, but one thing is very clear: in Saigon, the scooter is king.

Every morning and evening our team is shuttled between our work site and our hotel in a private van—driven by someone else, thank heaven! On these journeys we are surrounded by streams of scooters going every which way. I would guess that the ratio of scooters to non-scooters on the road is at least 10 to 1.

In traffic, I feel like a blood cell, traveling out through an artery and back through a vein, surrounded by other blood cells and platelets, swirling and flowing around me. The traffic is dynamic, alive, and organic. It seems like chaos at first, but in fact there is an underlying order to it, and accidents are very rare. Everyone is following the path of least resistance, people drive slower, and it all somehow works. Things I’ve marveled at in traffic:

(1) Parents riding scooters with little children in front of them, either nodding off or munching on breakfast. No seat belts, no car seats, no helmets. Probably no auto insurance, health insurance, or personal injury lawyers either! It’s just a different deal over here.

(2) “Ninja women” riding scooters with every bit of skin covered by hats, face masks, scarves, and gloves. This is partly because the air quality is so bad in the city—especially at street-level where the exhaust-cocktail is brewed—but also partly because tanned skin is a sign of low social status. It indicates that you labor outside, rather than in some air-conditioned office tower (or not at all). How different from American culture, in which a tan is a sign of leisure: if you’re tanned, you’ve been at the beach instead of being stuck in the office.

(3) Uber-scooters (pictured above). Yes, Uber-scooters. We have had much debate on our commutes over Uber-scooter etiquette: How exactly should you hold on? Should you hold on to the driver in front of you? If so, how? Only with your legs? Hands too? If not, should you just hold on to the handle in the back? The Vietnamese generally seem much less touch-averse than Americans (delightfully so, in my view), but the conclusion of our research has been that you should just hold on with your legs and not cling to the driver with your hands.

(4) Left turns. Basically, scooters (and cars) just nose out into traffic and play a slow-motion game of chicken. When the nosing group reaches critical mass, oncoming traffic lets them through and on they go. Somehow it works.

(5) Trash collectors and city gardeners walking and leaving their trash bins in the middle of a traveling lane on a busy street. People just go around them, no big deal. Seems like they are asking to get flattened, but they don’t.

(6) A band with their instruments strapped to their backs while driving scooters. We saw a digital keyboard and a guitar, apparently on their way to a gig. People also stack and strap all kinds of large packages to the back of their scooters. I’m amazed they stay upright.

(7) Pedestrian crossings. Saigon is definitely not California, where one foot in the cross-walk is supposed to make traffic stop for you. However, people still step into cross-walks with almost as much boldness as a Californian. I’ve seen people crossing very busy streets in morning rush-hour traffic, even outside of cross-walks. The key is to go slowly but steadily. If you try to avoid traffic by going quickly, that’s when you get into trouble. Going slowly allows the traffic to predict where you’re going and move around you. I almost got hit tonight on my way to dinner, but only because I stupidly got nervous and darted quickly in front of a scooter to get out of its way. If I had just slowed and allowed it to go in front of me, all would have been well. Again, the technique feels suicidal, but somehow it all works.

Saigon’s scooter culture exemplifies one reason I love traveling in developing countries: economic circumstances and culture combine produce fascinatingly different ways of life. Of course, the same holds for different developed countries to some extent: there are obviously contrasts between, say, the U.S. and European countries. But, the contrasts between western and developing countries are just so much more radical that they routinely leave my jaw on the ground.

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