While I have a motorbike and have been riding it for a month now, taking taxis or ubers is a better way to meet and converse in Vietnamese with others in the city. Plus, when it pours in Saigon, getting a ride in a car is the only option if you need to get somewhere, still relatively dry.


Uber is no longer a novelty in Saigon, having arrived here almost exactly two years ago – two years in Saigon is about 10 regular city years, considering the pace of change here. Uber Moto, an app for motorbike transport, is even younger (clocking in three months as of this post), but already just as often used. Being a newly adapted app, Uber’s a little rough around the edges, but most of the time it’s a better option than taxis, which are costlier and longer to locate. You’ll run the gamut of rides with people clueless about locations and fiddling with their GPS on their phones, seemingly driving a car for the first time, to experienced former taxi drivers who are thoroughly familiar with the city. And thanks to the app, you don’t really get taken for a ride, a still too frequent experience in a city full of hustle.

So here’s an interesting tidbit of a conversation I had with an uber driver last night:

It was my first uber black taken from the airport (my cousin’s home in an apartment next to it) to my flat in district 4. My dad slept for half the way and asked questions/talked for the other half. Hung is a young guy, 28, but he looks much younger than his age, friendly, talkative, one might even call him a bit suave. The conversation is all in Vietnamese and is translated as best as I can with my limited language skills to English.

Me: How long have you driven an uber?
Hung: I drove a taxi for the county for three years and switched over to uber this past year. It’s easier work.
Me: Is it better work overall?
Hung: Well, there’s still busy hours and light hours. But I like the job better because you’re more independent and you don’t have a boss you have to answer to. I hated having to deal with a boss. You can drive your own hours as long or as short as you want to with an Uber.

At this point, Hung asked where we’re from in the states, because he could tell we were Viet Kieu, Vietnamese who’ve lived abroad, not from here. My dad answered that he’s from Texas, so I just let that be the answer, though I lived for a long time in Hong Kong and had just moved here. It would have taken too long to explain.

Hung: Ah Texas. Students can own guns there you know, uncle (we address each other according to observed age and applying that to a family relationship. Thus my dad should be called “uncle” to Hung, and he would call me “big brother”).
Dad: What? No, no, students can’t own guns. That’s absurd.
Hung: Yes, my friend left the country and goes to the university there and he says students can own guns. He says everyone is worried about shootings so they think about getting guns and he can own one if he wants to.
–We quickly shift the subject and he tells us about his family’s experience in trying to leave the country.
Hung: You know my own family had papers to leave the country when the war was over. We all had the right. But my maternal grandfather sold all the papers to another family and we’re stuck here.
Dad: That’s the first time I’ve heard of such a thing!
Hung: Oh yeah, after it ended some families were really privileged. We could go if we wanted to but my grandfather didn’t want to leave. So they sold our names for the trip out of the country. My mother was so upset. I was too young to care. So sad, right? We could have left the country and lived life abroad, like you, but our papers were traded to another family. Now somewhere in the United States or Europe a different family is living with our names, pretending to be us. And instead of living abroad I’m here driving an uber for a living. I hear all the time from friends that have left and I think about why I couldn’t go. It always bothers me. But now it’s easier. The country is more successful and a little easier to live in.

It was quite a long trip, so we learned alot about Hung’s life, how he has just started a family (at 27) and about to have a kid. We also learned a lot about how the city is changing.

Hung: I’m a Saigon guy. Born and lived here all my life. I’ll call this city Saigon all the way. I traveled to Malaysia for five days and people asked me where I’m from. I tell them Ho Chi Minh city and no one knew what that was.
Dad: Those countries always traded those days with Saigon. The country changed the name and no one cares enough to know the new name.

We were starting to get to our road then, Ben Van Don, a beautiful wide two lane road by the river separating district 1 from district 4. Hung started to tell us how the road had changed and my dad joined in.

Dad: Back then this section of the river was so smelly. Oh, so smelly. Like shit and waste…
Me: How come?
Hung: Oh it’s changed a lot even from my day.
Dad: People lived nearby and there were markets and all the waste would pour through into the stream.

And indeed amongst the changes in the city, I’d imagine this is one of those that improved it significantly. Gentrification and development might not always be pejoratives. Ben Van Don, this wide lane boulevard, has become one of my favorite motorbike rides in the evening, when a cool breeze from the river and the wide view of the bright lights of district catches the spokes of the wheels and push you to drive a little faster just for the thrill of speed and wind. It’s exhilarating to accelerate and feel the city pulsing and pushing you along. Or even then as I rolled down the windows, sitting inside Hung’s new Ford Focus and listening to missed chances, to tickets and a different life sold through papers, identities lost, and new possibilities created, it felt good to breathe the city air and briefly imagine a fast ride down a wide lane highway that could belong to any pulsing, breathing newly built city.

Length of ride: 28 minutes. total cost: 7usd.