Late in 1994, Tanya and Jay took one of the most memorable trips of their lives, a 16-day bicycle trip through Vietnam. We were joined by six other maniacs and were led by two 20-something guides from Berkeley, who at times admitted they’d never been to some of the out-of-the-way places we visited. It was a simpler time in some ways for Vietnam. There was no internet, no smart or cell phones. Digital cameras were in their infancy. The US had no diplomatic relations with Vietnam and we had to get our “stapled-in” passport visas through either Mexico or Canada. As white-skinned Westerners we were an oddity as we cycled through the central highlands and stopped in places like Dalat, Pleiku and Bien My Thuot (sp?). Groups of youngsters would run beside us, asking the often-heard questions: “Where you from?”, “Where you go?” and “What’s your name?” In our home, Jay still has a framed photo taken of him surrounded by kids looking on in curiosity and amazement as the polaroid picture he had just taken of them begins to develop. It was a trip to remember. Vietnam in 1994 was just beginning to re-emerge into the world’s consciousness, but not as a place associated with war and suffering, but as a hopeful engine in the already fast-growing Asian economy.
Our 1994 trip began in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and we were able to spend a couple of days there before mounting our Trek hybrids and cycling north. Tanya’s most vivid recollection of the city was that of a chaotic traffic mess, with mostly bicycles competing with a few motorbikes and cyclos. Pedestrians were pretty much on their own and had to take a zen-like attitude as they simply plunged into the swarming mass to cross the broad Saigon streets. Anyone on foot who thought they might wait until traffic thinned was destined to spend the rest of the afternoon waiting on the corner.
So, what a surprise we both had when we visited the city this time. The bicycles have been replaced by motorbikes, there are now lots of cars, and traffic is still very heavy. But now, instead of what before seemed like a giant free-for-all, there was a distinct pattern of organization. Now, it could be that in 1994, the traffic was still organized and as Saigon neophytes we just didn’t recognize it. But today, crosswalks are very common and there are lots of pedestrian walk/don’t walk lights. One still needs to adopt a cautious but steady and aware attitude when crossing boulevards but it just wasn’t the chaos we remembered.
Of course, Saigon has changed dramatically since we were last there. Some landmarks remain, like the Continental Hotel, the Notre Dame Cathedral and the French-designed city hall. But the old Rex Hotel is recognizable only by its name and skyscrapers cover the downtown. Marble and glass business buildings house tenants found in any major city: Nike, Intel, Samsung, etc. Fewer young women wear the traditional ao dai and young people, in general, are dressing in a more casual and universal manner. The city will be getting its first subway line next year and this place is clearly moving full speed ahead, anticipating more growth. Saigon is an exciting city and we look forward to re-visiting soon.