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Go West Young Men

Our second day in Saigon, which is of course more officially known as Ho Chi Minh city, began with complimentary breakfast. It consisted of sunny side up fried eggs and a baguette. Unfortunately, with it we saw the return of the Bandung-style petroleum-derivative margarine, which refused to melt even in one’s mouth, and left the poor consumer stricken with a greasy interior coating.

I was still struggling to shake the coating from my own mouth when we hopped on the cycles. Our plan that day was to simply wheel west, away from the river, and see where we ended up.

As we rode through Saigon, we began to discover that the city was sectioned off in a very interesting way. More perhaps than any other place we’ve been, certain neighborhoods of Saigon were dedicated to a specific type of shop or service.

Stopping for an obligatory coffee, we spent a moment at a roadside cafe that had set out vinyl deck chairs  providing a good view of the city’s bustle.

Using the restroom meant going into the back of the cafe and meeting the proprietor’s extended family, which of course we were happy to do multiple times.

We went by the area where all the power tools were sold, which transitioned organically into a neighborhood full of working clothes and protective equipment.

With the added protection of our new helmets, we were really beginning to get the hang of wheeling in Saigon. It was not for the weak of heart, that’s to be sure, but it was doable – enjoyable even. The other people in the traffic were mostly quite alert and communicative.

They might not signal their intent in the explicit way that AsiaWheeling does, but our fellow riders’ head motions and shifting in weight spoke volumes about their next driving moves. We were wheeling fast and hard through thick traffic, but I did not feel out of control or unsafe.

One particularly interesting feature of Saigon can be found in the sidewalks.  The majority of them are actually sloped to allow motorcycle traffic to climb on and off as needed.  This makes it much easier to transition into a “Mario Kart” while riding with the rest of traffic, and seems to be a nod by the Ho Chi Minh City urban planners to the necessity for sidewalks in wheeling.

Soon we found ourselves on a street of musical instrument manufacturers. When I saw a fellow hacking away at acoustic guitars and upright basses along the side, I called a waypoint.

Once again, I found that guitar shop owners stand out from all other shop owners in their willingness to simply hang out, chat, and let me play music in their shops with no pretense of sale. We sat around with this particular chap for some time as he brought out guitar after guitar. It seemed a shame, for the man could build quite decent guitars when he put his mind to it, but it seemed that the demand in Saigon was primarily for 30-dollar-piece-of-garbage guitars, which refused to stay tuned even for the duration of a test play, and were made mostly of unfinished splintering pieces of wood. Regardless it was an enjoyable experience, and I exchanged hearty good wishes with the fellow before departing.

It then occurred to us that it was certainly time for more eating. We wheeled along the musical instrument street and watched as it changed into a stamp street. We could not resist stopping at a local stamp producer to investigate the opportunity for production of an AsiaWheeling ink stamp or two. The shopkeeper was, unfortunately, not available to communicate.

Shortly after the stamp street we found our way into a bakery district. This seemed the perfect excuse to engage in a little scarfing of Ban Mi. Ban Mi are the Vietnamese version of the French baguette sandwiches that had been such a welcome addition to the AsiaWheeling lifestyle since our arrival in old French colonies.

Next was a quick cup of coffee at an anime-themed restaurant that seemed to be populated by the lazy well-to-do youth of Saigon, who flopped lackadaisically on pillows and eyed us suspiciously.  From the fourth story of the building, we had a good vantage point to view the city.

Electrical wires were strung en masse, providing power to all those who consumed it so vigorously.

Once we had finished our coffees, we headed back onto the streets, heading once again westward. We made our way along a main westward street that suddenly turned to gravel. The flow of traffic continued unabated though, plunging onward into a giant cloud of dust being thrown up by the many motorbikes and cargo trucks that traveled with us.

We then reached a strange dust-free area in the center of the large stretch of gravel. It soon became clear why this section was dust-free. A large team was conducting some kind of sewer-related operation in the center of the road. Part of the operation required a great pipe to be dumping sewage into the center of the street, which wetted down the gravel and killed the dust cloud. I wheeled by trying to minimize my exposure to the splattering sewage.

From there we made our way onto a smaller street, still plunging westward. The city began to change the farther we went. The buildings were getting smaller and closing in on us.

We stopped along our way to investigate a shop selling a great many folding bicycles. We investigated them and asked the owner how much for each one. He quoted a price of just a little over $30.00. And that was to foreigners, before bargaining. These were some seriously inexpensive bicycles.

From there we kept heading west until the roads became so small and clogged that the smoke and the noise became too much for us and we pulled a rauschenberg onto a parallel street.

This street was much more comfortable in terms of noise and traffic, though it did run alongside a giant river of sewage. Despite the smell, we stopped a few times to investigate interesting operations taking place in this part of town, like this scrap metal business.

From there we headed back into town, and called a waypoint at a large grocery complex. We paid a few cents to park our bikes outside and went inside in search of some Project K9 goods. We were able to find some interesting kitchen supplies and spices therein, and left feeling quite good about the day’s work.

We made our way back toward the neighborhood of our guesthouse just as the sun was beginning to sink low in the sky. In the process of doing this, and not for the first or last time in Saigon, we found ourselves quite lost. As the sun began to sink into the smoggy haze, we continued to make our way around the city. We were  finally able to recognize a bit of our surroundings and suddenly found ourselves outside a large and delicious looking Pho place.

It was time to try again. And this time we were far from disappointed. The Pho was cheap, generously portioned, and accompanied by a giant plate of greens, hot peppers, sliced lime, and the like. We dug in greedily. There is a certain healing quality to this soup. Every time I eat Pho, I walk away quite full, but it is a stomach filled mostly with broth, fresh greens, and rice. And it seems no matter how much I eat, it quickly settles to a comfortable size in my stomach, leaving me refreshed, energetic, and optimistic about life.

Pho, official Vietnamese soup of AsiaWheeling.


  1. Val | June 1st, 2010 | 7:19 pm

    I loved your characterization of Pho and its restorative effects.

    What exactly is the the “K9” project? You’ve made reference to it several times, but I must have missed (or forgotten) an explanation.


  2. Woody | June 1st, 2010 | 7:23 pm

    @ Val

    Project K9 is a kind of Asia-wide treasure hunt that we’re running. Readers can send in requests for items from across our trip, and we’ll seek them out and send them to you. You can read a little more about it in this post:


  3. Mark/Dad | June 7th, 2010 | 5:06 pm

    Thank goodness you found your quality pho!! I know how disappointing that first bowl was to you.

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