Just the vehicle for Vietnam
There are 5 million motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh City. That may sound like a lot but it's not until you're on one, weaving through the chaos of early morning traffic, that you get any real sense of what that means.
Clinging on for dear life to the back of a Vespa, I struggle to watch as my guide swerves nonchalantly through a hornets' nest of motorbikes, cars and trucks, emerging through a haze of exhaust fumes.
Thankfully my driver, Ngo Thi Anh, is in her element. Despite being only about five feet tall, she navigates through the bedlam effortlessly, having ridden a scooter since the age of 15.
At our first stop at Tao Dan Park, I meet Tung Do, an American-raised Vietnamese entrepreneur who two years ago decided to launch a scooter tour company led exclusively by female guides.
"People here told me I was crazy at first," he says. "There were concerns about safety, concerns people would get the wrong idea, but I feel if you want to understand Vietnamese culture, you have to talk to a woman - they are involved in all aspects of life, you get a very different perspective. They also make more cautious drivers."
Despite the initial scepticism, Tung's company, XO Tours, has so far proved a great success. He now operates a selection of excursions focusing on food, nightlife, iconic sights or bespoke itineraries. I've asked him to show me a cross-section of culture most visitors might not see.
It's still early and throughout the park, men sit on plastic stools sipping iced coffee in the morning sun. Some play chess but most have come for another reason; to watch their birds sing. Dozens of handmade wooden birdcages containing magpies, wagtails or nightingales lie scattered on the patchy grass or hang from the tree branches.
From 6am, men from all walks of life congregate, simply to sit and listen. Though most birds are valued at about $30-$50, birds with exceptional voices can fetch thousands of dollars and owners will often release the most loved into the wild when they reach old age as a form of reward.
For breakfast we head to a nearby cafe known as Pho Binh (literally translating to "peace noodles") for a bowl of traditional Vietnamese soup known as "pho". A mix of sliced raw beef, noodles, coriander, bean sprouts, onion and chopped chilli in a savoury broth, it's decent enough but there's an added, unexpected twist to this place.
In a room upstairs, between 1965 and 1968, a group of Vietcong operatives led by owner Ngo Toai planned the Tet Offensive, a surprise attack staged in Saigon and throughout Vietnam during a ceasefire called for the Vietnamese holiday of Tet, the Lunar New Year.
The ferocity and surprise nature of the assault caught the US and South Vietnamese forces off guard and the Saigon US embassy, once thought impenetrable, was occupied for eight hours before US soldiers regained control.
In a secret room upstairs, black-and-white portraits of those involved adorn the walls and a wooden altar acts as the centrepiece.
Behind a framed picture of Buddha above, plans for the attack were supposedly hidden and from the window a steep drop to a narrow alley reveals the site where motorbikes were stashed to be used as getaway vehicles.
Back on the scooter, Ngo continues with her uncanny ability to multitask, frequently peppering me with jovial questions as she navigates the streets.
"There's a method to the madness," she assures me, perhaps noticing my grimace while steering us through traffic that makes Paris's Arc de Triomphe roundabout look tame.
At Tanh Dinh market, a less touristy alternative to the more famous Bin Tanh market, we wander through stalls selling anything from exotic spices and silks to live fish and raw meats, some more readily identifiable than others. At one point, a woman holds a cluster of bloated toads tied with string in front of my face, laughing along with other traders as I recoil.
There are other shopping experiences beyond the markets. The Vietnam Designers House specialises in clothing from fashion industry up-and-comers and while prices might be out of reach for many living here, the clothes are inexpensive by Australian standards. For a more local shopping experience, Ngo suggests Nguyen Trai Street, straddling districts one and five.
The tour ends on a historical note. Inside the Central Post Office designed by Gustave Eiffel, I meet 83-year-old Duong Van Ngo, who has written and translated letters here since he was 17. During the war he would translate love letters to soldiers but now focuses on correspondence to families living overseas. He is as much an institution as the building itself.
At a nearby boxy block of apartment buildings once thought to be the secret CIA headquarters, Tung shows us an iconic photograph by Hubert Van Es depicting a line of South Vietnamese civilians scrambling for a place on board a CIA Air America helicopter the day before the fall of Saigon in 1975.
As Vietcong forces advanced towards the city, many knew it was their last chance to escape. A seat would likely mean the difference between life and death.
Handing me my helmet, Ngo gestures to the back of the bike. We drop from a steep curb, accelerate, and are once again swallowed by the commotion of Ho Chi Minh City.
The writer was a guest of XO Tours.
Sydney Morning Herald