A bleary eyed man climbs out of his bed, walks through to his kitchen, and gingerly sips on some hot green tea prepared earlier by his wife (she’s always up earlier than him, no matter how hard he tries). If it’s one of those days when he was too lazy to do some morning exercise, then a few stretches have to suffice. He needs to get cracking – don the work clothes, pick the least smelly pair of socks and splash his face with water. Grab the keys, money, and the godforsaken parking ticket – forgetting things when you live on the 16th floor and have two padlocks and a door to get through isn’t funny, he thinks.
Down in the elevator and out into the parking garage. It’s cramped down there, likelihood is that the bike is buried behind three Honda SH machines, each weighing as much as a baby elephant. It’s one of the worst things about living in these apartments, he thinks, on top of the smelly canal that separates District One and Binh Thanh and runs directly around the building. However, his 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 his face as he joins the flow on Dinh Tien Hoang. Straight into the routine: pull the throttle, glide, pull the throttle, glide, weave this way, weave that way. As soon as he’s moving, he’s stopped, usually on the bridge just outside his residence. Some days, the water on the canal is so still he can see a perfect reflection of the small trees that line the bank. 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 grey switch box. And they’re off again -- but not at any particular pace.
In the queue at the junction of Vo Thi Sau and Hai Ba Trung, he feels like he could easily 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. He holds his breath through the worst ones, for what good it does.
Down Hai Ba Trung, onto Nguyen Dinh Chieu. Not too bad this road, even in rush hour. He swings left onto Nam Khi Khoi Nghai which will take him out of Q3, through the heart of Q1 and into Q4. On occasion he shares a nod with the boys at the motorcycle garage – sometimes, time permitting, he’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 Independence 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. He’s catapulted back in time. How alien this morning chaos must seem to them, how normal it is to him now. Seeing them often returns that smell, that feeling, that taste of what it is to experience Vietnam for the first time. He can’t hold onto the nostalgia for long, he’s 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 he feels, but no time to dwell, must push on.
Eventually he breaks free from the shackles of the city centre, passing the construction site of the city’s largest engineering project on the way into D4…maybe one day the tunnel will make Ton Duc Thang a more enjoyable ride. He hopes so. 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. He picks 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 with him – 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.
He crosses the new bridge near the Tan Thuan Industrial Area, and motors along Nguyen Van Linh Parkway. Nearly there. Crusing to a halt at the junction outside FV hospital, he takes the chance to lean on the handlebars. He watches the red light counter tick down from 30 as cars and bikes sail past him regardless. No matter, the final stretch of the journey – the last 25 minutes have been like wading through waist deep water, but now its like sprinting along a deserted beach, barely leaving a footprint. The rider takes in the remaining green patches of land in this rapidly developing area whilst gulping down lungfuls of clean air as if he’s 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 he travels through the heart of a bustling city rush hour to it’s very edges where he 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.