Monday, May 26, 2008

Saigon on Wheels - Scooter City

In the spring of 2004 I went to Vietnam for the first time. As a youth growing up in America in the 1970's, Vietnam was a place I only knew as a tragic war. With talk in the press of increasing ties between the two former enemies, and the possibility of a lifting of the U.S. trade embargo, my instincts told me that the time was ripe for a visit. I also wanted to visit Vietnam quickly, before the onslaught of U.S. journalists that would be sure to follow any warming of relations between the two nations.

I wanted to do a story about the emerging youth culture in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) as a reflection of the first post-war generation's mood and habits. Arriving in that bustling, free-spirited city, I soon realized that my initial idea wasn't panning out. The Vietnamese youth culture is very tame compared to other places like Berlin, Belfast and the U.S. where I had worked. After a brief panic (I was there at my own expense) I realized my ultimate story had been passing right in front of my eyes: the motorbike culture of Saigon. It was a moment of visual inspiration, and I immediately changed gears to produce a photo essay that would show some of the unique qualities and some of the current mood of a country we know so little about.

This was a completely new experience for me. It was as though a new set of eyes had been given to me.

For the next two weeks, I spent an average of six dirty, dusty hours a day on the back of a hired motorbike in Saigon, cruising the alleyways, thoroughfares, and crowded markets of the city, constantly searching for photographs that would reveal the ways that motorbikes had taken over both the streets and psyche of Saigon.

With a turn of the wheel, Saigon has become like Bangkok was a decade ago, filled with the incessant rattling of motorbike traffic.In just the last two years the number of motorbike licenses in the city has skyrocketed from 40,000 to nearly 900,000, earning it the nickname "Scooter City".

Saigon's motorbike craze is on the leading edge of the economic revolution sweeping through Vietnam. It has rejuvenated what had become a sleepy, drab, and backward State-run city, into a bustling, colorful free-market, and activity has already returned to pre-1975 levels.

With increased foreign investment, new construction and new jobs, there is an air of hope that fifteen years of economic stagnation are over. People aren't talking so much about leaving the country anymore, but of staying to take part in the burgeoning boom. The Saigonese wheeler/dealer spirit, which never really died, is experiencing a rebirth that is powered by Honda engines on wheels.

This new explosion of energy and excitement is the perfect metaphor for Vietnam. The tension caused by years of economic and social suppression has finally snapped and the recoil has produced a new motto, song voi, or "living fast". Saigon's streets are a constant circus of swirling movement. Every night, especially on weekends, most of the youth dress up, get onto their bikes, and start racing and swerving in swarms all around the city. Girls in party dresses and guys in their Sunday best pass whole families that are on a single scooter. Young toughs in baggy denims and the appropriate rebellious poses share the road with grey-haired couples out for what in the past would have been an evening stroll. The whole cavalcade of Saigonese society roars around and around, until they eventually get bored and calmly make their way home for the night.

Virtually every aspect of daily life is played out in the commotion of the streets. There is a potent mixture between the waves of motorbikes, the slower-paced cyclos (three-wheelers pedaled by a driver), bicycles and pedestrians. All too often, bikes are packed with people and merchandise piled far too high and wide for comfort. Thankfully, automobile traffic remains light in Saigon, primarily due to the government's limit on the number of car permits allowed in the city.

If and when they change this policy, the streets of Saigon, which are small and narrow by Bangkok's standards, will become completely choked. This frightening scenerio has forced the government to put a stop to the legal importation of used motorbikes as well as limiting the number of new motorbikes allowed to enter Saigon to 8,000 per year.

Saigon's motorbike culture is characterized by the intense intimacy of its colorful and bustling streets. Most vehicles travel at relatively slow speeds, so accidents are few and tempers rarely flare when people brush or nudge each other. People are constantly treated to an armslength view of their fellow commuters. Conversations, even flirtations, are spontaneous, casual and common. The famously Confucian temperament of the Vietnamese gracefully lends itself to this phenomena. Even in the worst traffic jams, people remain calm, poised and always armed with a smile instead of a sneer when the smoggy, slow and crowded conditions become too much to handle.

The South is Vietnam's California, and Saigon is its Los Angeles. The South is a relatively new place for the Vietnamese, who have lived along the Red River Delta of the North around Hanoi for thousands of years. Not until the 1700's, when the South was conquered from the Cambodians, did the Vietnamese inhabit Saigon and the Mekong Delta in large numbers. The strength of the South has always been its freewheeling spirit, which like California, arose from the frontier quality of the region.

The spirit of enterprise in the South is largely a byproduct of years of colonial occupation. First the French ruled for almost one hundred years, then came a brief tenure under the Japanese with help from the Vichy French during WWII, and finally the Americans held sway another 20 years. As if that wasn't enough, Saigon was then subjected to fifteen years of socialism's stifling effects. After the Vietcong guerrillas had come in from the jungles to claim their hard won victory in 1975, their heedless attempt to build a visionary socialist state instead became a time of tyranny and waste.

Needless to say, the Vietnamese would have had a tough time economically after the American war. South Vietnam, when it existed as a separate entity from 1954 to 1975, was an artificial society, propped up by the United States. The former Saigon regime was totally corrupt and often brutal in its attempts to suppress communism, and due to its reliance on America's support, never developed a solid economy.

Now all that is history and the scent of progress is in the air. The process of doi moi, or "renovation", was originally begun under the Communists in the late 1980's, but is now flourishing with Saigon's reinvigorated spirit of enterprise. As the city regains its luster, there's a new potential battle to be waged - the onslaught of unchecked growth and the social and environmental problems that often come with it - and in this case its on two wheels.

With a population of over four million, this former French provincial town, with its tree shaded streets, old colonial architecture and gentle charms, still retains its small town feel. For now, Saigon is still a refreshing change from Asia's many crowded cities, and it epitomizes the transitional stage between bicycles and automobiles that many of Asia's great cities have experienced. For the time being Saigon residents are revved up and unwittingly creating a version of Bangkok, crowded into ten tiny blocks and hopped up to the max. Its that very raciness and flash which makes Saigon so exciting to many Vietnamese, and embodies the ghosts of Bangkok past and future.