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An Everyday Journey II

By: John Hoff Posted: March-13-2008 in
John Hoff

I climb from my bed bleary eyed and trudge to the kitchen to gingerly sip on some hot green tea, prepared earlier by my wife (she's always up earlier than me). If it's one of those days when I was too lazy to do some morning exercise, then a few stretches have to suffice. I need to get cracking - don the work clothes, pick the least smelly pair of socks and splash my face with water. Grab the keys, money, and the godforsaken parking ticket - always losing it.

Down in the elevator and out into the parking garage. It's cramped down here, likelihood is that my bike is buried behind three Hondas, each weighing as much as a baby elephant. It's one of the worst things about living in these apartments that sit on top of a smelly canal which runs directly around the building. Fortunately, my pad is high enough to be above the whiff.

Sunglasses on. Helmet on. Out onto the street, immediately passing the countless array of coffee shops that smatter ground level around the huge apartment block. A few seconds later the full reality of the early morning traffic slaps me in the face as I join the flow. Straight into the routine: pull the throttle, glide, pull the throttle, glide, weave this way, weave that way. As soon as I'm moving, I'm stopped, firstly on the bridge just outside my residence. Some days, the water on the canal is so still I can see a perfect reflection of the small trees that line the bank. My drifting thoughts are abruptly shattered as the traffic groans forward with a monstrous communal roar. At this time in the morning, cream clad traffic cops override the signals, commanding red and green with the flick of a switch. Drivers wait on the starting line, suspiciously eyeing their imposing compatriots, waiting for the movement towards that magical gray switch box. And they're off again -- but not at any particular pace.

Queuing at just another junction, it feels like I could be part of a Hollywood disaster movie. It's like the whole of the city is trying to escape a doomsday event behind them, using the same road. Ugly green buses crammed with people line the street while noisy motorbikes supporting all manner of pillion swarm like an army of ants. Cyclists join the fray, and seem completely unaware of the lunacy around them as they wobble their way up onto the peddles. A droning crescendo signifies another gargantuan effort by the masses -- the process of inching closer to an unknown final destination is once again underway. The engines spew clouds of nasty chemicals into the air, clearly visible in drifting clouds. I hold my breath through the worst, for what good it does.

Down Hai Ba Trung, onto Nguyen Dinh Chieu. Not too bad this road, even in rush hour. I swing left onto Nam Khi Khoi Nghai. On occasion I share a nod with the boys at the motorcycle garage - sometimes, time permitting, I'll grab an oil change and a bike wash here. Crossing over Nguyen Thi Minh Khai into District 1, the street leads down past the Reunification Palace. Traffic slows as people take time to gaze in through the gates. Some early morning tourists are wondering around in shorts, cameras hanging from necks. I'm catapulted back in time. How alien this morning chaos must seem to them, how normal it is now to me. Seeing them often returns that smell, that feeling, that taste of what it is to experience Vietnam for the first time. I can't hold onto the nostalgia for long, I'm soon waiting to dash across the wide expanse that is Le Loi. On the street side, a breakfast noodle stand sits in front of a pastel yellow, rain worn wall. It's the kind of scene common on postcards, but no time to dwell, must push on.

Eventually I break free from the shackles of the city center, passing the construction site of the city's largest engineering project…maybe one day the tunnel under the river will really become true. At last, after twenty minutes, the Yamaha has a chance to stretch its legs. The bike turns onto Nguyen Tat Thanh. The sun has risen high and beams directly along the long stretch of this dangerous thoroughfare, reflecting off the asphalt. Heavy trucks sound their horns as they ruthlessly scream by. I pick up the speed, but not without caution, hunching over the handlebars keeping the kind of lookout that a circling hawk would be proud of. The world and his wife seem to participate in this frenzied up-and-down, from 40 foot juggernauts to 50cc machines carrying huge baskets of fruit; from the blue overalled, yellow helmeted construction workers on their Hondas to the slow moving labourers with their motorized wheelbarrows. The heat, dust and noise on this street doesn't sit well - luckily it's still a little cooler in the AM. To try this in the afternoon you may as well put yourself inside a tumble dryer on a hot wash, having rubbed detergent into your eyes before you climbed in.

I cross the bridge near the Tan Thuan Industrial Area, and motor along Nguyen Van Linh Parkway. Nearly there. Cruising to a halt at the junction outside FV hospital, I take the chance to lean on the handlebars. I watch the red light counter tick down from 30 as cars and bikes sail past me regardless. No matter, the final stretch of the journey - the last 25 minutes have been like wading through waist deep water, but now it's like sprinting along a deserted beach, barely leaving a footprint. I take in the remaining green patches of land in this rapidly developing area whilst gulping down lungfuls of clean air as if I've just emerged from the desert and been handed an ice cold beaker of fresh lemonade. The light glints off the river which snakes away to the south through a landscape of tropical marshes.

The morning ride to work may only take around 30 minutes, but in that time I travel through the heart of a bustling city rush hour to it's very edges where I can see the green countryside coming to meet sparkling, still vacant apartment blocks which now scatter HCM's first true suburb - it's a vision of the future yet come to pass.


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