Saigon by Vespa

We’ve had some friends in town recently – Sarah and Manjit – and took them out to experience the sights and sounds Saigon has to offer, on the back of vintage Vespas

 “Vietnam Vespa Adventures” is the brain child of Steve Mueller, a guy as equally fanatical with the bikes themselves as much as he is with the country in which he has now resided for thirteen years.  Steve’s website offers some useful history on the noble Vespa (the Italian word for “Wasp” – I’ll give you that one for free) and his company’s aim is to provide clients with a perspective on Vietnam otherwise unavailable to the average tourist.

The format is nice and simple – for the city tours you ride pillion on the back of one of Steve’s impressive collection of bikes, stopping to take in off-the-beaten track local eateries or learn an interesting fact about the country’s heritage.  Out of the city, you can opt for one of the longer cross country excursions and take the reins (or handlebars, more accurately) yourself.

Lou and I had previously been on Steve’s “Saigon After Dark” tour, a three hour ride through the bright, and often low, lights of the city’s many districts, all buzzing with the evening duties of street-food eating and drinking.  The tour stopped half a dozen times to showcase the delights of local fine dining.  We tasted bánh xèo – crispy pancakes wrapped in mustard and betal leaves and dipped in chilli sauce – as well as hot and spicy clams, snails in tamarind sauce, sweet and sour crispy frog, and crab claw with lime salt.

The evening’s zipping about from restaurant to street vendor climaxed with a cà phê sữa đá (Vietnamese iced coffee) at a secret café frequented by classical music lovers, and offering a daily line up of local singers performing next to a piano in a dingy, but stylishly furnished, upstairs den.  Before we ultimately finished up in Yoko a popular haunt for up and coming live bands, where we enjoyed mojitos, and watching the country’s answer to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, who were grinding away to the thrill of a packed out, smoke-filled audience.

Aside from wondering since then how I might a.) afford and b.) justify, buying one of Steve’s stock of two-wheelers, we thought this to be an ideal way to show friends a slice of life in Saigon, and were curious as to what was on offer during the daylight hours tour.

With the idea sold to Sarah and Manjit, we began our second adventure slightly sceptical that the delicious smorgasbord of night time food and beverages dished up for us first time round could be bettered on the more sightseeing-centred daytime tour. 

Our fears were quashed, however, within minutes of stopping at our first “sight”, an unassuming park café with a special feature – which was that each morning, from daybreak, about two dozen gentleman arrive there for tea, coffee, cigarettes and chat, bringing with them intricately arranged and maintained wooden cages, inside which were housed songbirds of a variety of colours and breeds, complete with ornate little perches and ceramic pots of live maggots and crickets to keep the birds happy.

The cages are hung around the café on blue frames and, essentially, are on display to the public, in an act of pride on behalf of their owners – some of whom were not so keen on close-up photos being taken of their prize assets, whereas others more encouraging towards Lou for mug-shots as as soon as they realised she had the camera in tow.

Whatever your standpoint on the debate about birds being in cages, you could not argue this to be anything but unique in its exposé of the pastimes of some of the city’s, mainly retired, men.

As we sipped the day’s first drinks, the very innocence and simplicity of the scene in front of us stoked our conversation as a group: maybe some of the men and their winged companions were being actively shepherded out of their homes each day by their wives?  for others, was it more simply a right of passage they had earned after years of working?

Such was the intriguing tenor of our tour then established.

From the musical enclaves of the park onto Chinatown, weaving our way down the thinnest back streets past sequin sellers and through flower markets, stopping at some of the city’s famous Chinese herbal medicine stores, where sacks of dried artichokes and mollusc-shaped discs of plantain and banana were on display, looking decidedly good for you, given the fact that they almost certainly were going to taste vile.

One of the larger covered markets we visited was winding down for the morning as we parked up our bikes, which made it easier to navigate down the wet floors of fish guts and vegetable off-cuts sloshing about.  We reached a group of fishmongers at work, surrounded by large tubs of catfish and snapper, in various states of being soon for the cooking pot.

One young seller at the end – a pretty-faced girl framed in a headscarf, and head to toe in the matching suited pyjama outfits favoured by locals – sat about three inches from the floor on a wooden stool, preparing her final frogs for the day.  What we witnessed next was a masterclass in skinning you’d be hard pressed to beat, as she deftly cut off the frog’s head with a pair of scissors and peeled back the skin as you would take off a jumper.  Speechless, we grinned our approval, declined that particular purchase, and moved on.

Shopping complete, the tour took us to several temples and pagodas, each unassumingly nestled behind ram-shackled buildings and providing a serene vacuum of space away from the noise of the street.  Inside one of these, and after lighting our obligatory incense sticks, we strolled around the outer rose painted corridors, past rooms of makeshift shrines, and elderly “officials” snoozing in hammocks, and for a moment gathered our thoughts away from the normal humdrum of life.

There were groups of school children roving around us, on their mid-morning break from the classrooms next door, and we noticed some of them huddled around a plastic container on the floor.  On inspection we discovered that one of them, named Hoa, had brought his pet scorpion to school that day!  We knew that, over here, anything with a heartbeat generally made for a plausible menu item, but this insight was a new one to add to the “only in Vietnam” list that anyone living here inevitably draws up from day one.

The more we acclimatise to life here, the more noticeable it is that through the many aspects of Vietnamese culture, there appears to be a comfortable acceptance of the hand dealt to you in life, and of accepting others into your world.

This adage rang true in particular when the tour pulled into a derelict factory building, long since out of service and now used for funeral wakes.  The place is adorned with a shrine at the front door, and provides cordoned-off open areas for family members to come for as long as three days at a time without sleeping, to sit, pray, drink tea, and honour their loved one.

Upon entering we were invited as a group to join one of these families, lighting incense, bowing in front of the decorated coffin, and sharing drinks and sweets with old and young, all of whom seemed genuinely touched we were partaking in their grief and their celebration.

Hats off to Steve and his team.  It’s a great concept to transform the Saigon tourist from nervy crosser-of-the-street and into part of the city’s scooterarti.  Better still to then immerse them in some of the more intimate behaviours and activities that comprise the intoxicating pulse of this place.

More pictures below by Lou – backseat driver video ©Manjit

Our motley Vespa drivers crew
Roses by the lorry load
No street too narrow for a scooter
Having fun with a scorpion

4 thoughts on “Saigon by Vespa

  1. Jenny Falcon November 17, 2011 / 2:03 am

    Absolutely fascinating, Tim – but to me – wimp that I am – the thought of careering round busy streets on the back of a Vespa sounds terrifying!
    Didn’t like the idea of the skinned frog much, either!

    • saigonsays November 17, 2011 / 11:08 am

      Thanks Jenny – you’ll just have to come out next year with Mum and Dad and try them – scooters and frogs – for yourself :+)
      LOL x

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