o a year of writing ends and a new year of teaching (my lucky 13th year) begins, for I’ve taken a position at Saigon South International School teaching I.B. English and 10th grade English. I will be driving every morning for 15 – 20 minutes from district 4 down to Phu My Hung, south of the city, to get to my classroom.
I’ve been making the drive the last few weeks for new teacher orientation, starting around 6:50 or 7, when the city seems already wide awake and buzzing with activity. Let no more assumptions be made that Saigon is a city of idleness, its citizens nostalgic loafers in cafes drinking cafe sua da and complaining of failed relationships all day, for in the morning, I join a legion of motorbike traffic shuttling workers to their places of labor.
Banh mi, banh cuon, juice, soy milk and tea vendors set up shop on the arteries of the city for these morning commuters, making snap transactions on the fly. If I leave on the early side, at the open square where I turn from Vinh Toi into Khanh Hoi street, I’ll see old folks mingle with young upstarts playing badminton for their morning workout, sharing the pavement with the motorbike’s rumble.
Then there’s the ubiquitous morning dudes with their rolled up shirts exhibiting protuberant stomachs all fishing on the bridges, the traffic cops at the major intersections, the banh mi or ice delivery motorbikes already on their routes.
After the frequent red lights of my district 4, Khanh Hoi turns into Nguyen Huu Tho across the bridge and the street grows wide. I pass by flower shops on the outskirts of district 7, green, leaf covered stalls, pots and plants break up the view of the dilapidated pastel of houses in D4, and I enjoy an uninterrupted cruise past Sunrise apartments and various new constructions of Novaland in mid completion, their cranes and metal spines climbing the sky. Cement and construction workers are finishing their night shift. The lit up Lotte Mart and vivocity mall appear to my left. I pass through it all and over another bridge when the traffic flow slows. There, motorbikes and cars await with nervous anticipation our turns at making the most intimidating left known to drivers.
The most intimidating left turn known to drivers in the city is the left turn from Nguyen Huu Tho into Nguyen Van Linh, from a leisurely wide boulevard into the madness of a six lanes highway, following one’s own traffic but avoiding left turning traffic coming from the opposite direction, as well as occasional remnants of side traffic from the highway, weaving through cars from your own lane that seek to continue straight ahead, and participating in the honking madness of every driver of every vehicle determined to make their presence known to all people in the vicinity. You share the experience with hundreds of other motorbikers, trucks making their morning deliveries, buses ferrying school children, private cars and smaller construction trucks. It’s a complete cluster…fun.
My tactic is usually to find a left signalling big car, duck in behind it, and shadow it on the left turn, until it cuts its sharp left into its interior lane; at that point, I sling shot it out of my car shelter with a couple friendly beeps of the horn to let oncoming traffic know that I’m alive and intend to stay that way, and then I perform a patient motorbike surf, a graceful arc into my new outside lane, while oncoming motorbikes to my right acknowledge my passing by abutting closely next to my fenders moving through. If I wanted to, I could stretch out my right arm and high five this wave of oncoming motorbike drivers that zooms forward right after my passing. If I wanted to.
I call this turn the “cafe sua da”, or Vietnamese coffee of my day, for the interaction of humanity and the intimate brush with other drivers always give a jolt of adrenaline and buzz to my vitals.
After the nerves have settled somewhat, I grab a banh mi from banh mi 362, ask for an actual cafe sua da to be deposited in my reusable hard plastic and reusable straw mug (purchased 4.99 from a Staples in America!), and head up to my classroom, ready for the day.