TRAVELS DU JOUR
a  magazine  of  travel  and  discovery
 
 

by George Oxford Miller


Forget the Ball Drop at Times Square or the fireworks over Sydney Harbor, the world’s most exciting New Year’s Eve event takes place in the streets of Saigon. The annual celebration in the wooded park around Notre Dame Cathedral combines Disney’s wildest dreams of a light show and Pamplona’s daredevil running of the bulls.


From a few blocks away the spontaneous extravaganza looks like a sci-fi movie set in the runaway future, but in Southeast Asia, the future is now. Millions of lights drape the broad avenue and wrap the trees to form an electric corridor of pulsing color. Over each intersection, arches of lights with giant disco balls shoot laser beams across the crowds. Masses mill through the park, but the real action occurs in the sardine-packed streets.


Saigon is a city of six million people and four million motor scooters, and tonight most seem squeezed into the city center. Packed shoulder to shoulder, tens of thousands of scooters flow through the street with the inexorable pace of a mud flood. The curb-to-curb tide sweeps down the street, around the cathedral square, and back in a Mobius loop of ceaseless movement. Helmeted couples, many with one, two, and sometimes three children sandwiched between them, steer their bikes effortlessly through the creeping  flow.


The spectacle draws us forward like the irresistible call of a Siren. First, we stroll through the park and join the sideline festivities. Tonight, everyone’s a kid at the carnival with sparklers, flashing light toys, and balloons. Vendors add to the thrill with cotton candy, ice cream, and the all-time favorite, dried squid. One artist entertains by creating intricately detailed dragons and animals on a stick with a colored rice-flour version of Silly Putty. When I admire the whimsical creatures, a lady offers to give me one she just bought, but at an equivalent of 25 cents each, I graciously decline her generosity and buy my own.


Finally, my wife and I face our inevitable destiny: we must find the courage to join the locals who fearlessly step into the consuming flow of motorcycles and cross the street. The running of the bulls couldn’t be any more daunting.


Traffic in Vietnam confounds all Western concepts of orderly logic. It’s way too Zen for our thought patterns. While we try to grab a fistful of water, Asians go with the flow. Think of a street as a surging river. The current sweeps the cars, trucks, busses, motor scooters, bikes, cyclos, pedestrians, water buffalos, and flocks of waddling ducklings along all in unconcerned harmony.


Rules about lanes, stop signs, and traffic lights become meaningless in the ever-converging river of traffic. If not rules, negotiating the flow does require technique: use every available inch of road space at all times and don’t disturb the orderly flow. Like rafting around rocks in a white-water stream, keep moving and swerve at the appropriate moment to avoid head-ons, crossing traffic, and slow-moving targets.


We’ve observed that crossing a four-lane street streaming with speeding vehicles is simple in concept, just step into the flow and walk at a steady pace. The traffic magically parts around you like the Biblical sea around Moses. But only if you have unwavering faith and maintain a predictable pace. We grasp hands and become one with the flow. I try to visualize a cork bobbing in the current instead of a rabbit on the interstate. The scooters part around us and we emerge on the other side buzzed from our close encounter with unadulterated Vietnam.


Our 19-day Overseas Adventure Travel tour of Vietnam takes us from Hanoi and Halong Bay to Ho Chi Minh City (still called Saigon by locals), but it’s the unscheduled encounters, from crossing the city streets to wandering down village lanes, that give us the heart-to-heart connections with these resilient people.























After a sobering visit to the Viet Cong tunnels at Cu Chi west of Saigon, our tour leader, Quang, stops the bus at a little village just off the highway. We walk between flooded paddies to a paved sidewalk that leads past a row of small, brick houses. Each has a vegetable garden in the front and a little farmstead in the back with chickens, ducks, and pigs. Some have a water buffalo to plow the surrounding rice paddies. Each family receives a farming allotment for rice, about 30 by 100 feet per family member, so mechanized planting is economically out of the question.


As a group of 16 gawky Americans, we stroll through the village with our digital cameras documenting every corner and every move the residents make. Instead of resenting the intrusion, they smile, wave, pose for our cameras, and bring out their babies for us to see.


At one house, dozens of family members stand in the yard and around tables overflowing with dishes of food. They invite us in to help celebrate the third-year anniversary of the death of the family patriarch. We file in and light incense sticks at a table altar with a photo of the deceased, then toast him with jiggers of rice wine. After repeated toasts, they invite us to dine, but we respectively decline. We take their photos, they take ours, and everybody hugs. We leave with our hearts filled by the rich hospitality of our global-village neighbors.


When the Communist government initiated a market economy and opened its borders to tourism in the 1990s, visitors discovered a nation of farmers, fishermen, and small business people as resilient to political turmoil as to the vicissitudes of nature. Since the 20th century began, the population has endured wars with China, Japan, France, and America, yet they carry on with the Buddhist spirit of forgiveness and hope. Our tour leader Quang explained the underlying philosophy, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift. That’s why they call it the present.”


Dodging the barrage of motor scooters every time we cross a street, I understand why the Vietnamese consider every day a gift. Next time, I’ll rent my own scooter and really experience the existential flow of this enduring nation.



 
Vietnam

From crowded cities to one-lane villages, the Vietnamese welcome visitors to experience their country.

Saigon Streets and Village Lanes

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