Saigon by Scooter

Last week I went back to Saigon to spend Têt with my grandmother, aunt, uncle and cousins. Têt is the lunar new year, commonly referred to both here and in the West as Chinese New Year, and it’s pretty much the holiday in Vietnam — as it is in Singapore. My office here was closed for the week starting on Tue afternoon, so it was the perfect opportunity to take advantage of the incredibly convenient proximity of this city to Vietnam. The flight took less than two hours — two hours!

It was my third time to Saigon and the best, most fun visit I’ve made yet — a uniformly terrific vacation. There’s a lot of reasons behind that, not the least of which is the time I was able to spend with my family, but maybe the simplest or most succinct is that I learned how to drive in Saigon.

Driving in that city means mastering a scooter, generally a Honda. That’s not a particularly remarkable feat in and of itself, but if you could see the traffic in Saigon — unyieldingly dense, at once stuttering and fluid, and possessed of only a passing regard for the law — it might seem at least a measure more impressive.

“Riding that Honda scooter through the arterial streets and alleyways, I felt on top of the world.”

I took to the streets with great alacrity and increasing confidence over the five-plus days I was there. The better I got at negotiating traffic, the more at home I felt. I can recall in particular one particular dusk, when the afternoon sun was dissolving to shadows. The city was relatively quiet on this holiday, but it’s never without life, always teeming with a scooter population, bicycles, motorcycles, random pedestrians floating in and out of traffic like leaves on a river current. I drove past countless loiterers in front of restaurants and shops, and innumerable sidewalk vendors vending the cheap stuffs of the new year celebration: flags, banners, balloons in the shape of animals and bedecked with erratic rainbows of bright, child-like color. I felt on top of the world while riding through the arterial streets and alleyways, alive and sure of myself and uncomplicated by the various unmentionable messes in other parts of my life. I wanted to raise my hands up in the air and give a shout of undetermined joy, something nonspecific, unbridled. I was home, and not just that but free in a way, at least while I drove. Great burdens and entanglements had been lifted from me, or temporarily made weightless by where I stood on the face of the Earth. The feeling of being triumphant for no particular reason, that’s the feeling of coming home.