Saigon’s Wild Streets: A Driver’s Perspective

By: Patrick Gaveau

For 10 years I have been a fervent daily observer/experiencer of transportation issues in our city. I began while driving my unregistered 250cc motorbike without license and now “drive” a legal car with papers from/to home everyday. What used to take me 15 minutes in full speed, now takes about 45 minutes in “slow” mode.

My favourite time was during Tet when HCMC's streets were emptied for a week. It was then the best time of the year to drive around to uncover what could not be observed the rest of the year. Today, these “cool down” phenomena last a day or two and many small street vendors remain open. Not the same really.

Back then; we rode dangerously as helmets were optional. That entire free spirit changed abruptly on January 1st 2008, a turning point for us all. I still wonder how did the government managed to implement such important safety legislation within a day!

In those days, police rarely stopped “white foreign” faces, too afraid of miscommunications. Since then, lots of English speaking training was conducted and we, “the Expats” are not treated so differently anymore.

In 2006, traffic “rules” were mainly applicable for “blindsided ladies” who could not see too well. And yes, police street presence was less significant. Except, of course, for the 30 days leading to Tet where a bonus fine was to be collected by police to continue to “protect” us against the lawless drivers. This behavior is now active year round.

Back then traffic congestion was certainly nothing like it is now, as cars were available to the elite mostly. Nevertheless, the main axes were already too crowded with bikes all over, especially at peak hours. So much then, that traffic often took place on the pavement too. These pavement drivers continue to fay their way on unauthorised territory, but more rarely these days.

Today, the leading streets are further saturated, regardless of numerous road improvements and the newly built bridges. Apart from the peak hour’s ever present congestion, you may have noticed that driving in the city center between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. now requires a certain degree of insanity.

The rare times that I do visit the city at these odd hours recently felt like a fashion show. Honda HD, Piaggio and the likes are often driven by well dressed pretty looking boys held tightly by young, lovely long-legged ladies wearing shorts and high heels. Showtime for many; a kind of status empowerment exercise that reminds me of Cannes.

In the past, roads were too often flooded; especially during the heavier Monsoon seasons. This resulted in serious street damages across the city. Flat tires occurred more often, but not all could be blamed on the quality of streets. Much was due to planted nails that finance the nearby tire repair shop business activities. 

Traffic light synchronization is and has always been weak, and much of our daily traffic congestions is the result of that. Other constants include the fact that when a foreigner has an accident, he is always responsible for paying the bill regardless of responsibility. Another steady matter is road signage for directions. It was and remains mostly inappropriate and ineffective, and a special mention is awarded for street address numbers, which most of the time follow no logical order.

Some of the above listed issues can be used as a to-do list to effectively begin to improve traffic and transportation in our city, at least for the short term. If not, we may have to suffer hell for an extra 20 years or so until all metro lines as well as other public transportation methods are fully operational.


How to get a driving license in Vietnam

By: City Pass Guide

If you do not hold a driver’s license of any kind, you have to pass both theory and driving tests. The theory test is in Vietnamese and you are not allowed to have an interpreter or translator.

To register for this case, you must:

  • Be a Vietnamese residents or a foreigner who is allowed to reside, work or study in Vietnam.
  • Be at least 18 years of age.

Documents required:

  • A completed application form to register at the driving examination.
  • A photocopy of your permanent residence card or valid passport.
  • Health certificate provided by jurisdictional health department.

After taking the examination you will be granted your driver’s license within 10v workings days.

If you hold an international or national driver’s license, you can obtain a similar Vietnamese driver’s license by satisfying the following requirements:

  • You have to reside in Vietnam and have at least a three month Vietnam visa.

Documents required:

  • A complete application form to change the driver’s license
  • A notarized translation of your driver’s license
  • A photocopy of your driver’s license
  • A photocopy of your passport (the page with your picture, personal details and other valid information)
  • A photocopy of a valid visa or permanent residence card.

Deadline for changing driver’s license is five working days after receiving the following documents:

  • A notarized translation of your driver’s license
  • A photocopy of your driver’s license
  • A photocopy of your passport (the page with your picture, personal details and other valid information)
  • A photocopy of a valid visa or permanent residence card.

Meet The Expert: Lawson Dixon of Harley-Davidson Saigon

By: City Pass Guide

Lawson Dixon is an amiable Australian who started with the News Ltd media company in the 1980s but has spent more time out of Australia than in since. He has a background in automotive advertising and has worked with Ford and Chrysler in the past. He started Ducati in Vietnam before finally getting the Harley-Davidson franchise off the ground in 2013. He beat 70 competitors to win the right to be the first Harley-Davidson dealer in the country. He has matched the hard graft with a golden touch; the very week that they opened for business the ban on big bike licenses was lifted in the country. Prior to this, the only way to get a license to ride a large machine was via a government sponsored motorcycle club.

We met up with Lawson in their District 7 showroom, surrounded by some of the most beautiful motorbikes in Vietnam.

How long has Harley-Davidson been active in Vietnam and how many outlets are in the country?

We opened in November 2013 with very few pre-orders. It was worrying at first as we felt sure there would be much more. It seems that people had got their fingers burned in the grey market and were sceptical, until they saw our operation. We have two showrooms, one here and one in Hanoi.

How are sales, in general and in comparison to targets?

We initially targeted 10 to 12 units per month but are pleased to report that we are selling 20 to 25 here and about 15 in Hanoi.

Who is your direct competition and where does Harley-Davidson stand in the market?

We really have no direct competitors, but I suppose the closest would be Ducati, Benelli, KTM, Suzuki, Kawasaki and BMW. As for our position, I’m not sure overall but for the over 1200cc market we are certainly number one.

Is there a Harley-Davidson owners group?

Yes, as an official dealer we have the rights to sponsor Saigon H.O.G. and they are very well respected. When the Cau Giai freeway opened we rode through to officially open it. Eighty members, it was really special. Harley Owners Group is worldwide; the biggest motorbike club in the world with a million members. When someone buys a bike we register them automatically for the first year. They then have the option of joining the local chapter. There are about three or four hundred members in the country.

How do your customers report their treatment by police?

I have to say all of my personal dealings have been fantastic. I’ve never heard of anyone being poorly treated because of riding a Harley-Davidson. We make sure we drive appropriately. Road safety is taken very seriously by the H.O.G. We actually trained some of the police riders. We were the first people to bring in international riders as trainers. We have taught more than 300 riders to ride safely. We teach low speed handling, how to lift a bike if you drop it. We ride round cones in car parks, learning safe riding skills. We also train on how to ride in a pack. If you have 45 bikes doing 80 kph there are important rules that you have to follow to enjoy the ride and stay safe.

It seems unlikely that a Harley motorcycle would get stolen. Am I right in thinking that Harley-Davidson bikes suffer less thefts or damage than other bikes?

Yes. All machines have immobilisers and alarms. We have not heard of any thefts. We have heard of stolen bikes being smuggled into the country, but not be taken whilst here. These are big machines, not many people can just jump on a Harley and ride of.

What do you see as the opportunity or challenge for expansion of the big bike market?

I think the opportunities are huge. Proportionately Vietnam is the biggest market in the world. The key challenge is to reach out to the younger guys. Traditionally we have sold to older, financially secure, mainly men. We have to take the challenge to a younger market and appeal to that market.

With that in mind Harley-Davidson have introduced “Dark Custom”. This is a concept where customers can personalise their bikes to their own likings. It’s a lifestyle statement in which we are marketing to people a blank canvas on which they can imprint their own personality. This appeals very much to Vietnamese people, who make up 98% of our customers.

So are bikes getting customised here in Vietnam?

Absolutely, when you go to a function and see the bikes parked up, every bike looks different, handle bars, exhausts, colours, etc. Harley motorcycle are highly customisable. Vietnamese people love originality and Harley-Davidson does this better than anyone.

How do you train your mechanics?

I can proudly say that we have the best trained mechanics in Vietnam. They all use Snap-on brand tools and we have the best equipped workshops. We had a guy who came out from the States and spent three months working on intensive training. Before that, we spent time in Singapore. Harley-Davidson University is now in Bangkok, we send technicians there to train extensively. We have eight fully trained mechanics.

Saigon traffic is notorious. What happens if an accident happens? What facilities do you have for repairing damage?

It doesn’t happen as often as you think, in fact very rarely. In most cases a bike falls off a stand, not put up properly. Occasionally a rider drops a bike, but most of our customers are very experienced riders. If damage occurs we have the facilities to repair it.

Up to what age have people bought bikes from you?

The oldest guy we have sold to was 77. Before unification he saw a bike and always wanted one... he bought a Dyna Street Bob, 1690cc.


HCMC Metro: Is the End in Sight?

By: City Pass Guide

What is happening with the Metro? Is it as far behind schedule as people are saying? How long will it be before trains are running? Citypassguide.com tracked down one of the men in the know. Project Manager Stephane Faure.

There are three companies working together on the project:

Freyssinet One of the Vinci group which is one of the biggest construction company in France.

VSL Originally from Switzerland but belongs to the French company Bouygues

Rizzani De Eccher A major Italian general contractor in the international construction market

Stephane Faure has 20 years experience on these kind of projects, having worked in South and Central America, North Africa, the Middle East and now Ho Chi Minh City.

This friendly Frenchman is married and has two children. We sat down to find out what’s what with Ho Chi Minh City’s new Light Rail Transit system.

So how do the rumours compare with truth, is the project really so far behind schedule? Just when will trains be running to District 9?

No, our part of the work is completely on time. We are responsible for all the precast bridgework. Which to be honest is a large part of the whole project. There are so many other factors in play though. The companies building the big bridges over the rivers, the station builders, then the track laying and signalling before the project finally gets round to testing. Our part of the work will be finished on schedule in the second half of 2017. The stations and concourses should be done by the end of 2017 then the track, signalling and testing by 2019. So it’s on course.

People have asked me why it was decided to go for an elevated section all the way out, surely a ground level system would have been cheaper and faster to build?

It is true that a ground level system is quicker and cheaper but in the long term, it creates many more problems. Every time a road crosses the track you need a bridge. Level crossings are not practical with a metro where trains are running every few minutes. Effectively a track at ground level cuts a community in two. Additionally the ground conditions here are problematic and that would create more issues. Then of course there is the problem of Ho Chi Minh City’s perennial floods, that would be very disruptive.

Anyone who lives in District 2 has seen the impressive machine that you use to put the sections in place. Tell us a little bit about this.

Well it is impressive, the technology is far advanced from other systems around the world. We manufacture the concrete sections at our factory in Thu Duc. Each section measures eight metres by three metres. For the 12km of line that we are constructing, we will have to manufacture 4,000 sections. The machine that you mention can lay a 30 metre section between two uprights in three days. So that’s 10 metres per day, and we have three machines. The machines can lay the segments faster than we can manufacture them. So we had to start manufacturing ahead of time.

Is this the only difference between the Ho Chi Minh City metro and others around the world

No. Other systems have a flat bed of concrete upon which the train runs. Here we build each segment in a “U” shape. The train will run inside the “U”. This means when finished the track will look more slim and streamlined.

Are there plans to build footbridges over the roads? I’m thinking in particular about the Hanoi Highway, and people getting from the An Phu side to Thao Dien.

Yes, you may have noticed the track is running at different heights in different areas. This is partly to do with that. In some places in order to put footbridges in the stations need to be higher. This is not my area of expertise but I am sure the footbridges will be built wherever they are needed.

--

The whole project is under SCC a Vietnamese-Japanese consortium. All other companies are working as subcontractors to them. The bridges over the rivers are being built by a Vietnamese construction company. The country has, after all, huge experience in this field. The three companies working on the segmented support sections worked together in Dubai and again have enormous experience and expertise. however, the ground conditions here have thrown up unique problem that have had to be surmounted.


‘Biker Gang’ Saving Stranded Saigon Motorcyclists at Night

By: Naomi Sutorius-Lavoie

Discover the “Night Warriors” of SOS Saigon - rescuing stranded motorcyclists in need of help and repair in Ho Chi Minh City

These volunteers are connecting Saigon’s residents whose motorcycles break down at night

Contact the group if you require assistance with your motorbike after dark in Saigon

Picture the scene. It’s 2am in Vietnam’s largest city of Saigon. You are a young woman who is a 40-minute drive away from home and your motorcycle won’t start. There are no taxis around. Leaving the bike overnight seems like a risky option. Would it even be there the next day? What would you do and who would you call if your motorbike broke down in Ho Chi Minh City late at night? It would be a rather scary prospect.

In fact, this is precisely the situation that Australian Georgia Samuels found herself in recently. Fortunately for Georgia, a well-informed Vietnamese friend knew exactly who to call to get help at that hour. And so, within ten minutes of the late-night heroes’ arrival, Georgia’s bike was repaired and she was off safely back to her home. The most unbelievable part of the story? No cash ever exchanged hands.

SOS SaigonImage source: saigontv.news

Catch-Free Motorbike Rescuers - Who Are the SOS Saigon “Night Warriors”?

Affectionately known as the “Night Warriors” by some, SOS Saigon is a self-funded, volunteer brigade of nighttime motorcycle repair people. They are the biker equivalent of good Samaritans, and you can call them when you’re in a pinch like Georgia or even if you are more seriously affected by a motor vehicle accident.

SOS SaigonImage source: saigontv.news

The catch? None. This Saigon ‘gang’ of 10-20 volunteer Night Warriors (though that nickname makes them a little shy, preferring to be “those folks who patch tires for free”) just want to help you out. But it seems almost too good to be true. Who are these people? In a big bustling city like Saigon where everyone is out to make a buck, why the free kindness towards strangers?

SOS Saigon was launched in March 2017 by Saigonese buddies Ho Tang Sang (31) and Phan Van Sac (23). Previously, Sang had been badly hurt in a motorcycle accident. He was helped by strangers and the interaction sparked in him a sincere desire to “pay it forward”. Sang worries that with the rapid growth of a city like Saigon, people quickly adopt an “every man for himself” attitude and become more insensitive to the needs of others. As a result, he feels we are less connected to one another as fellow city-dwellers and as human beings in general.

Connecting Saigon’s Residents One Motorcycle Rescue at a Time

He’s not wrong. Studies by the University of Miami have proven that big city living does, in fact, switch off the basic human instinct to ‘be nice’ when interacting with strangers. Historically, humans have more often lived in much smaller groups in which there were virtually no strangers. This meant that you couldn’t easily get away with being unkind to another person because everyone would find out about it.

However, the feeling of anonymity plays a role in a city like Saigon of around nine million inhabitants. It’s easy to justify not caring about the misfortune of another when there is a high chance that you will never see that person again.

According to Sang, the entire ethos behind SOS Saigon, apart from the action of carrying out nighttime emergency motorcycle repairs around Ho Chi Minh City, is to enhance connections between people. They have certainly reached out to connect with a good number of Saigonese - to date, their members have performed an impressive number of emergency rescues - upwards of 1,500, in fact.

SOS SaigonImage source: facebook.com/sossaigon

Contact SOS Saigon If Your Motorbike Breaks Down At Night

SOS Saigon’s crew patrols the streets in various areas of Ho Chi Minh City from roughly 10pm to 1am every Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday night. They have an emergency hotline number (0931 883 119) and also a Facebook page with an administrator who responds to messages.

The brigade is mostly made up of young men but has members up to the age of 50 and also includes several women. Adopting Sang’s forward-thinking and optimistic life view, some Saigonese who were initially helped by SOS Saigon have gone on to join the volunteer patrols as well. They are actively looking to recruit more members so that they can expand their patrols to include daytime hours in the future.

SOS SaigonImage source: facebook.com/sossaigon

The group is self-funded by its volunteer members in Saigon. They all donate approximately VND1,000,000 per month to purchase tire patching supplies, basic medical kits and other necessary emergency repair equipment. They also pay for their own gas when out on patrol. All group members have full-time jobs and lead their own busy lives but still somehow find the time and motivation to continue providing volunteer roadside assistance to people in need across Ho Chi Minh City.

Sang recalls one of his most rewarding experiences when the group’s persistence really paid off. They were contacted on their emergency hotline by a motorcyclist who had driven off a bridge and fallen into the water below. The call quickly broke off before they could get the driver’s exact location. Sang and his team kept patrolling all possible locations until they located the man in the water. In this case, their Saigon volunteer emergency service made all the difference. A man’s life was saved.

Suspicions Provide a Challenge When Saving Saigon’s Motorcyclists

Being a good Samaritan, however, can have its downsides. Since the crew patrols at night, they are automatically subjected to the general danger of those hours in a big city. In addition, victims can also be suspicious of their motivations. Some fear that they have stopped to rob them or somehow take advantage of their motorcycle breaking down. Team members have even faced physical assaults themselves when attempting to help victims.

In order to mitigate any possible confusion about their intentions and help to identify themselves quickly, SOS Saigon team members have designed their own vests with logos, along with their emergency hotline phone number clearly indicated on the back.

SOS SaigonImage source: facebook.com/sossaigon

For some, it might just be too much to ask to trust someone you have never met to help you out of a bind at night. But if you think about it, it’s comparable to manoeuvering your way through Saigon’s wild streets in general, where the traffic rules can be ‘negotiable’ at best. There is a sense of simply having to trust one another and go with the flow.

While it may be easy to be suspicious of a stranger who gives without question or expectation of anything in return, an SOS Saigon stranger is one who becomes a friend, at least during your hour of need.

If you break down on your motorbike at night in Ho Chi Minh City - who you gonna call? Clue: it’s not Ghostbusters!

To join SOS Saigon’s motorcycle rescue crew, donate towards their efforts or learn more about them, please visit their Facebook page.

Banner Image source: kenh14.com


Getting the right taxis in Saigon by avoiding scams

By: City Pass Guide

Video source: Back of the Bike Tours


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