The main modes of transportation in Saigon are on the back of a moped or in a cyclo, which is a bicycle carriage type of deal. The moped was the first thing I used and it’s clearly not for the faint of heart. My driver seemed to negotiate space where there was none, drove on the wrong side of the street, cut off vehicles much larger than his and generally disobeyed any semblance of traffic laws. He was not alone in doing this. Traffic in Vietnam is absolutely horrendous.
The total amount of cars and buses is relatively low, but it seems like every man, woman and child has a moped. They all constantly fight for the same space on the narrow roads. Crossing the street is even more interesting. Crosswalks are almost nonexistent and it’s possible to walk across Saigon and never stop moving. To cross the street, you simply step off the curb. I found it amazing how quickly I became accustomed to jaywalking and putting my life in serious danger every time I tried to cross the street. By the end of the trip, however, I would come to believe that pedestrians are the safest people on the roads. The millions of tiny mopeds seem more aware of pedestrians than they do of actual street traffic.
But all of this talk is moot, because I did meet the coolest cyclo driver in all of Vietnam and possibly in the entire world, Thien. I was walking back to the ship and was just a few minutes away when the same cyclo driver who I had had earlier in the day drives up next to me. He looked at me and just said “Back to ship?”
I knew I was close and told him so. He replied (they all know the exact same phrases in English…one of which is when bargaining they’ll say “No! Good price! Good for me, good for you, good for both of us!” I have no idea where they all learned that) “No, it very far.” I leveled with the guy and said, “Dude, I know how close I am. You’re not gonna get a ride.”
He realized pretty quick that I wasn’t interested and then he said, “Okay, I take you to my favorite bar for free.” I was interested in that, so I hopped right in.
We passed really close to the ship I was living on and I thought maybe there had been some miscommunication at some point, but then we veered off into the small neighborhoods that surrounded the docks. It was funny because it immediately went from very touristy to very Vietnamese. All the Vietnamese on the sidewalks gave me and Thien (the cyclo driver) weird looks. We drove down crooked streets and had to go around dogs and potholes and the like. Finally we came to a small, family owned restaurant.
Thien ordered us a round of drinks and we got to talking. I learned all about his family. My Vietnamese it at about a zero comprehension level, but Thien had surprisingly good English. I couldn’t understand it all, but he told me about his family and his twenty-two years as a cyclo driver. He told me where to go to shop and what prices to expect. It was tough though, because I couldn’t tell if he was saying things were priced “cheap money” or “ship money” or “shit money.” It was nice to actually talk to a local face to face, one on one. The beers kept coming, but through out the entire time people were still shocked I was sitting there eating in their presence. Apparently they don’t get many Westerners there.
Early on in the meal I was under the false impression that it was all comped, but it wasn’t. We got a significant amount of drinks…a lot…and a dinner and it all came out to be $7. The beauty of Vietnam is that even if you just have a few dollars in your pocket, you can get anything and go anywhere. By now it had gotten kinda late and Thien agreed to take me back to the ship. It started raining and it had gotten very dark. Thien was zigzagging a little bit…the moped drivers did a good job of avoiding him.
We snaked across the crooked streets back to the ship and by the time we got there, I was in too good of a mood to say no to whatever price he asked of me. He charged me 300,000 dong and we both knew it was a rip off. Even a rip off in Vietnam is still more than a fair price. A lot of times, the squabble between a price between a buyer (us) and a seller (them) would be between the asking $2 and the offered $1.
Or it would be $1.50 and $1. In the end, our dollar goes so much farther in their eyes than it does in ours. 300,000 dong comes out to be $21 and that was the most money I spent on anything the entire trip. It was absolutely worth it and that $21 does so much more for him than it does for me. Plus it was worth the price just to be able to say that I had gotten drunk with my cyclo driver.