‘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


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.

Eco Friendly Buses in Ho Chi Minh City

By: Aleksandr Smechov

It’s very likely that in your travels around Ho Chi Minh City, you have - at least a few times - been stuck trailing behind a bus spewing thick black smoke in your face. You probably weaved through traffic at this point, attempting to overtake the ecological disaster in front of you.

Buses operating in Dien Bien Phu-Hanoi Highway – Photo: SGGP

Ho Chi Minh City is not an emissions pollution disaster like some other countries, although it is in the top 10. Recently, transport authorities have released a series of 23 eco-friendly buses that use compressed natural gas (CNG) as fuel, according to Thanh Nien News. A ceremony was held on March 1 to celebrate the occasion by the Saigon Transportation Mechanical Corporation (SAMCO).

Ho Chi Minh City's first public buses that run on compressed natural gas – Photo: Pham Thanh/TBKTSG

CNG is methane stored at high pressure. It is used in place of petrol, diesel fuel and propane, and emits less environmentally unhealthy gases than the other three according to Wikipedia. The CNG-fueled buses will run along route 33, which connects university campuses in Thu Duc District and An Suong Terminal in the Hoc Mon District. They will join an existing fleet of environmentally friendly buses, upping the total number to 52 buses. US$2.8 million was spent to acquire these buses.

A CNG-fueled bus operates on the Ben Thanh-Cho Lon route in HCMC. Many localities are calling for transport companies to use buses running on this environmentally friendly fuel to reduce harmful emissions – Photo: Anh Quan

Government authorities have approved a plan to introduce hundreds of eco-friendly buses to Ho Chi Minh City, which will make travel in the city less environmentally damaging. According to ngvjournal.com, general director at SAMCO said that “the buses are SAMCO’s first shipment of a 300-bus purchase by the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City.” According to vietnamnet.vn, this project will extend to 2017.

A CNG-fueled commuter bus manufactured by Samco. The corporation has two more years to complete the city’s project to manufacture 300 CNG buses – Photo: Van Nam

In addition, according to deputy director of the city’s transport department Le Hoang Minh, an invest plan has initiated to replace 1,318 old buses with 1,680 new ones, as reported by Tuoi Tre News. The deputy director also said that the department looks to improve the behavior of bus drivers and bus attendants.

Currently, Ho Chi Minh City has 3,000 operating buses. Given the fact that buses are the city’s only form of public until the metro arrives in town, and that bus passenger percentages have dropped as of late, this will be a welcome addition to Saigon’s transport scene.


The Future of Transit in Ho Chi Minh City

By: Aleksandr Smechov

Vietnam’s economic growth in the past two decades has led to more and more motorbikes, and as of late, many more cars. Driveways are now lined with cars as the Vietnamese find comfort in what up until recently was considered a luxury. Congestion has grown with population, and the streets are jam-packed with vehicles of all sorts. Pollution is rampant and road safety is an increasing concern.

To combat the increasing issue of mobility, the government has put forth a plan to dramatically streamline transit for the masses. Fanny Quertamp of PADDI, a decentralised cooperation project between the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region in France, the Greater Lyon metropolis, and Ho Chi Minh City, informed us of the city’s future plans (translated from French):

“To fight against these negative externalities, the government has planned the construction of an ambitious transport network, including eight lines of MRT, two monorails, a tram line and six lines of BRT. By 2020, the economic capital of Vietnam is poised to acquire several subway lines and a bus line along the high traffic area of Vo Van Kiet. The development of such infrastructure will profoundly change the urban morphology, landscape [and more….]”

It is an ambitious and difficult undertaking that becomes exponentially complex due to the city’s geography and the unique habits of commuters. But various departments and investors have committed to getting everything done in time, despite negative criticism in the press.

Who is Involved?

To get a clearer perspective we have to take a look at the key players in the transit game:

People’s Committee: The figureheads of all transit projects, the People’s Committee makes the final call for any decision after listening to the opinions of relevant technical departments, foreign donors, consultants, think tanks, academics and decentralised cooperation projects like PADDI.

Transit Departments: These are the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Management Authority for Urban Railways (MAUR) and the Urban-Civil works Construction Investment management authority (UCCI). They are under the direct supervision of the People’s Committee.

International Donors: These are donors from international organizations such as ADB, BEI, World Bank, or bilateral aid agencies like JICA and GIZ. This is how the metro project gets part of its funding. There are not that many international donors, and the city wishes to involve more stakeholders.

Institutes: These institutes can be dedicated to the fields of urban planning and transport planning, engineering, architecture, transport or social sciences. They act as advisors to the transit departments under the People’s Committee.

Decentralised Cooperation Projects: Projects like PADDI who provides training courses, technical assistance and studies on urban issues, especially on public transport.

Commissioned Companies: These are the companies actively involved in the construction and engineering of the project. They may be local or foreign.

What Challenges are Faced?

It’s a day-by-day learning experience for everyone involved. Fanny remarks on the two major challenges faced by authorities involved with the various transit projects (translated from French):

“From a technical standpoint, the authorities face two major challenges: the design and construction of subway lines - part underground - require a high level of technicality in an environment with many uncertainties.... The second challenge is to optimize the management of existing bus networks (140 routes operated by 18 operators).”

In addition, there are many other problems faced on a daily basis:

• New institutions (such as a Public Transport Authority or PTA) must be created on-the-go while the projects are still taking shape.

• Because the city has no end of winding side alleys, floods and non-existent sidewalks, people’s routes need to be constantly assessed and re-assessed. Factor in the increasing number of traffic jams, the connections to be developed between the new bus routes and the metro lines, the conflicts with real estate and a number of other issues, and this becomes an incredibly complex puzzle.

• External factors have to be considered every step of the way, including: road safety issues; motorbike parking at stations; balanced ticket pricing; the public, private and corporate aspects of the bus system; and much, much more.

A Lack of Perspective and Communication

Between 1990 and 1997, it took Shanghai nearly seven years to build 16km of Line 1 of its metro. Between 2009 and 2010, it took one year to build 1,140km of rail in Shanghai. What’s happening now in HCMC is a test project - whatever is learned by all participants should expedite the process the next time around.

On a final note, Fanny remarks that it is important that all those involved remain flexible to adapt to the constantly changing circumstances as the future of transit in the city inches towards completion.


Vietnamese Road Signs

By: City Pass Guide

Getting Lost in Saigon

Finding your way around HCMC is challenging for anyone who drives. Unfortunately, I have not yet installed a GPS in my car. Coming from France, which probably has the best signage system in the world, I never needed it there, or elsewhere for that matter.

Photo by: Anthony Tong Lee

Too often in HCMC, I found myself looking around for any signs to point me to a direction. Often left without solutions, I end up asking a local. Now, would he be able to understand my broken Vietnamese? Most likely not. Can I trust his directions? Probably not. Finding your way while driving in an unknown territory is and remains a dilemma

I often found myself dreaming about the business potentials that exist for directional signage in HCMC. They must be huge, as so much has to be done. In the mix of crazy traffic and insane number of intersections, streets and hems, it is not possible for unfamiliar individuals to know where to go. And if you do not believe me, try going from Conic 5B in Binh Chanh to Duong so 9, Phuong 9 in Go Vap and see for yourself!

Vietnamese Road Signs

In most countries I know, road signage is there to indicate where we can and cannot go. In Vietnam, it may serve this purpose, from time to time, but it also serves to confuse us or to justify the fines we pay.

Photo by: garycycles8

Too often I get pulled over while driving in HCMC. Not because I did not wear my seatbelt, or because I did not turn my lights on, but simply for the reason that I could not read the “signs”. And this has come at a hefty price. In France, in most cases I would hire a lawyer and challenge the police because the road signage is non-existent, inefficient, misleading or misplaced. Here in Vietnam, I pay the fine.

I spotted signage that said you could not go left, right or straight. Where then? I saw green traffic lights that tell you to turn left, when you cannot turn left. I discovered speed signage hidden behind trees and leaves. To be objective, let's recognise my own responsibility too, as I did not pass the Vietnamese driving license test, which may have given me a clearer view of how such signage systems work!


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.


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