Eric MadeenReturn to homeshapeimage_1_link_0

Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

The City by Cyclo

Story by Eric Madeen

For a rolling thrill you won't soon forget, try a cyclo trip in Saigon. Better yet, hire your hard-working peddler for the day, turn him into a guide, and then really get to see the place.

A cyclo is a three-wheeled pedicab you can hire just about anywhere in Ho Chi Minh City, more commonly referred to as Saigon. They're pedaled by streetwise drivers, whose fares can best be described as sliding scale — more on that later. A cyclo's cushioned front scoop is indeed the cat bird's seat to experience the city, whose streets roar with a dissonant orchestra of traffic babel that is, oddly enough, invigorating. Close your eyes and listen. Every few seconds the scream of a jazzy truck horn cuts the rage of engine growl. The high-pitched revving of motorbikes advances along with incessant beeping, like the blare of a video arcade game that snapped its moorings and went mad in the streets of Vietnam's economic capital.

Crush Hour

Listening to this mechanical bee swarm is one thing. Watching it charge at you, at rush hour, is another. The first time that the light turned green at a busy intersection and the dam burst, a solid wall of motorbikes, cars and trucks seemed about to flatten us. Thrashing in the cyclo scoop as if in the clutches of a nightmare that had me making a cattle catcher out of my arms, I could only glance as the rushing river of vehicles broke in two and forked on either side of us. Engines wound out like chain saws in the hands of maniacal lumberjacks. In there somewhere was a comedian's horn, from a truck, tooting out a canned version of "Shave and a Haircut."

Chuckling at my reaction, then offering reassurance, my driver and guide, Coi, huffed and puffed, peddling his chariot onward from his seat behind and above me. Our shadow made it look as if he were on my shoulders, like some African tribal totem, with the handlebars as horns. "It's all right," he kept saying.

Made memorable by the intensity of the moment, and captured in a wild scrawl running large and crooked across note cards on my lap, drivers and passengers took shape. I noted women wearing scarves across their faces like stagecoach hold-up men, apparently to filter dust. One sitting elegantly sidesaddle behind her man wore a scarf top-knotted over her head and slinging her jaw as if to remedy a ferocious toothache.

A motorbike balanced a big net of empty plastic jugs that towered and swayed behind the driver. Another was stacked dangerously high with boxes of something. Still another carried a family of four, the two kids sandwiched between dad and mom. There were conical hats resonating with National Geographic images and then a fellow with green shades. I turned to watch, so close I could touch him, drive by on his motorbike as he turned to look back at me.

Saigon by cyclo is the ideal way to experience the city, an event more vivid and fascinating than anything to be found at the usual tourist sights.

A Rolling Trade

My tour continued onto a quieter street. A legless book and postcard salesman peddled up alongside us using his hands. He managed to stay with us even while pitching books. As I was thumbing through a pirated sample (they had all been banged off on photocopiers), he kept handing me yet another along with a mention of the price. His marketing department had done its research: They were all backpacker books, required fare for travel in Vietnam. There was Graham Greene's The Quiet American (at that time being filmed up north), Lonely Planet Vietnam, Lonely Planet Vietnamese Phrasebook, The Tunnels of Cu Chi, The Sorrow of War, etc. Having juggled all of his merchandise back into his hands as we cruised along, I realized I had to buy at least a postcard before we could break away. Working as hard as ever, Coi peddled us on toward the impressive Jade Emperor Pagoda.

I first met Vu Dinh Coi, age 37, while I was stepping out of the Renaissance Riverside Hotel Saigon, which can't be beat in terms of amenities, comfort, service, food, value, view of the city and Saigon River, and finally stars (five of them). Trolling for a fare, Coi was peddling while giving me the signal gesture of his trade: hands high and circling in the air like a hamster in a spinning wheel. He said, in commendable English learned partly from his father who was an English teacher in Saigon, "Can I take you somewhere on my cyclo?" I liked the image of a cyclo driver on the move rather than the ones who spring up from a slouch in the passenger scoop and charge at you with hysterical cries of "Cyclo! Cyclo!" Coi played it cool, and the match was made.

Coi's face was thin and hawk-like. One eye closed more than the other, as if he had just bitten into something sour. He wore a button-down dress shirt open to mid-chest with the sleeves rolled up, a style that revealed a dark tan and a big black sports watch. A ballpoint pen shared a shirt pocket with a pack of Bastos cigarettes. His fingernails were rimmed with grime, and his upper lip was shadowed with growth. He looked like a working man, a shrewd survivor with all the skills one needs to get by on the street: an affinity for instant rapport with tourists, a certain linguistic dexterity (good English; serviceable Japanese), and a whole lot of nervous energy coursing throughout.

All Work, Some Play

Even when we stopped for breaks, Coi was always rocking back and forth while looking around (for another fare?). Seated at a table for lunch, he would keep checking his watch and tapping his fingers. He was, however, a businessman, and since I had squared up for his cyclo services earlier, lunch and beer were compensation now for the interview. "Everyday I need to work, but today I'm too tired from watching films yesterday," Coi said. Rain had him consuming five consecutive rental videos — one American movie, the others from Hong Kong.

Many cyclo drivers in Saigon turned to their trade out of necessity. Their own and/or a family member's involvement in the American War precluded finding a good job after the war. As for Coi, his brother, now living in the US, served in the South Vietnamese military, which made it impossible for Coi to land a company job. "I applied to several companies then, but the government always checked. They sent someone around to talk to neighbors. Now the companies want 18- to 25-year-olds. But it's all right. I like my job. I like foreigners. I'm my own boss and can work when I want, take a holiday when I want."

To help alleviate Saigon's traffic problem, Coi said that the government is banning cyclos from the center of the city, in Districts One and Three, for most of the day. He produced a ticket he was issued for such a violation, explaining that he was lucky that the police didn't confiscate his cyclo. Though he confessed to entertaining thoughts of jumping ship and becoming a full-time motorbike taxi driver, he said that motorbikes are the biggest traffic problem in Saigon. "They're noisy and smelly but my government makes a lot of money importing them. I think in five more years the cyclo will come back. It's quiet and clean. Just like horse and buggies in a lot of major cities now. Same, same."

From 1982, Coi served for four years as a tank driver in Cambodia. A structuralist may argue that that was good training for a cyclo job in Saigon. In any case, his best customers are newly-arrived tourists from the US and Japan. "I can serve as guide and cyclo driver at the same time, showing them the city all day. But Vietnamese just want to go one way and be dropped off. Then I have to find another customer." He waved his hand, indicating a nuisance. "Too difficult." For that reason, Coi works that upmarket stretch in front of the Renaissance. He said he's never been involved in a serious accident, explaining that drivers of other vehicles are keen to steer clear of cyclos. "If the cyclo driver causes an accident, they know we can't pay."

Special Price for You

Most cyclo drivers charge $1 an hour, Coi said, adding, "But 90 percent of cyclo drivers cheat customers. They start out saying $1 an hour but later they say $1 for one minute. They say that to the Japanese sometimes, and some of the Japanese pay $30 to $50 per hour because of that pressure. I say to Japanese people, 'One hour $3, but later I won't ask for more. So they come back." He became animated. "They say, 'Hey Coi-san! Coi-san!'"

A lot of his customers are repeats, he repeated, then fixed me with a stare, as if prospecting. "They come back and give me money." He paused, continuing to look me hard in the eye, before pulling the rug out from under my feet, waving his hands, swaying, laughing, "But I say, 'Too much! Too much!'"

I had been pettily scammed myself by other drivers, though the figure of 90 percent seemed inflated. Some drivers painted dire pictures of thieving transvestites on motorbikes and assorted mini-hotel ripoffs awaiting any tourist who tries to brave the mean streets of Saigon without a trusted cyclo driver as guide.

"You need me," Coi had told me the previous night when I had stung him with silence after suspecting a petty scam involving my restaurant bill. "What if I'm not there to pick you up in the morning?"

Me: "No problem. There are plenty of other cyclo drivers."

Coi: "But they can't speak English."

Me: "So what? It's all in here." Thump of guidebook on my lap.

The Morning After

I woke with a hangover from drinking with Coi, that night before, around one of those tiny plastic tables at a sidewalk café in District Four. Bleary eyed, I remembered the sulk I was in as he peddled me back to the hotel. Staring out my sun-drenched window down at the cyclo parking area, I spotted Coi pacing in his signature dress shirt, waiting to take me around for another day of sightseeing. But when I finally reached the street, my day back slung on my shoulders, he was gone. A pack of cyclo drivers charged. "Cyclo! Cyclo!"

I looked around. "Where's Coi?"

One driver explained, "Coi, him having Japanese customer. Him tell me to take care of you."

Hands on hips, with more authority, I said again, "Where's Coi!?" But it didn't work.

The first half hour of the long ride to Cholon Market with Yon was passed in silence, the canopy up over my head failing to block the sun licking my legs. Showing loyalty to Coi despite what I perceived as inflationary restaurant-bill hijinks, I didn't speak. Yet I couldn't help but note the difference between the drivers. Regarding price negotiations, Yon didn't care. He kept saying, "Up to you. Coi said you're a good man." I again proposed a price for his services for the day but he merely shrugged. Later, while depositing me curiously short of the Renaissance, he tried to triple the figure. We ended up in a little Mexican standoff on the curb as an ally, perhaps signaled, pulled over to show solidarity. Just what I had hoped to avoid. I missed my favorite driver.

While Coi had always kept up a snappy patter of commentary over my shoulder, sprinkled with witticisms and Japanese, Yon was mostly silent save the bare facts such as the name of the pagoda toward which he was tipping me by tilting the front scoop down. Coi, having borrowed my guidebook, would already have it back in my hands, open to the page I was to begin reading. Where's there's a strength, however, there's also a weakness, and that is the dependence the tourist begins to feel on a masterful guide. Where was Coi?

After two days of Yon, I missed my guy even more.

Nonetheless, once we'd settled the bill, Yon wasn't that bad. In front of the Art Museum on Duc Chinh, he even let me take a turn in the saddle. Steering a cyclo was much like Ray described it. An accountant for a multinational in Saigon, Ray, like many other expats here, took part in the first annual Saigon Cyclo Challenge for the benefit of a children's charity. It was held at a go-cart track whose challenging curves had more than a few drivers wobbling or tipping over among much corporate flag waving and drum banging. "Because it has two wheels in front and one in back, it wiggles at the joint," Ray explained. "The cyclo wobbles back and forth if you don't counterbalance. It wasn't made for someone with a big butt like myself. It's actually fun, and quite amazing how they drive those things around. I'd like to buy one with chrome and take it home to ride around."

Drive-By Hooting

Steering, no, wobbling, around a busy corner of Saigon, I was glad that Yon was doing what he was doing in the cat bird's seat: motioning for the traffic to give us a wide berth. Pedestrians, noticing the role reversal, shouted in fun: "Hey cyclo!" Which encouraged me to stand on the peddles and crank it up.

Cholon Market was another must-see, along with the various war museums, Reunification Palace, and the Duck and Chicken Market. From a much dilapidated, weed-infested, old French colonial building beside Cholon Market, feeder lines of electricity stretched and drooped in all directions like fireworks. Inside, at one market stand, what I thought were bottle rockets turned out to be joss sticks wrapped in cellophane. The chaos of stimuli clubbed at my senses. Two boys looked me over, fingering lottery tickets. My confidence rose when I bartered and then executed a purchase, taking the money out from one of those around-the-shoulder, under-the-shirt wallets; I now had lucre stashed all over my body.

In the disorder, just like on the streets, there was life, a rapid, chaotic stream of it, and I was feeling very much alive and a part of it watching the glitter and jingle of sunglasses and Zippo lighters yoked to a salesmen. And a woman who jotted "Nguyen 999" on a box scrawled with ideograms. And a man who hunkered under what appeared to be a load of coconuts wrapped in gunny sack.

After a second day of fascinating sightseeing, Yon did another vice check. He may has well have been reading from a list of conventional cyclo-driver questions handed out by the Cyclo Driver Association under the heading, Things to Ask Tourists After a Long, Hot Day of Sightseeing: "You want girl?" "No" — but thinking, you want commission! "You want boy?" "No." "You want marijuana?" "No." "You want massage?" Pause. "Maybe."

In the second-floor massage room, two masseuses, later joined by a third, came at me like tigers, pawing at my clothes and easing me onto my back where I lay like bread dough, much subdued by 30 fingers kneading. "You want extension?"

One evening, strolling down a dark side street on my way to the disco Apocalypse Now, I saw a guy spring from a cyclo seat to charge me while exclaiming feverishly: "I know you! You Renaissance Hotel! I friend of Coi!" Everything swirled back to Coi. Taim was a cyclo driver who also worked the Renaissance area. We ended up on one of those sidewalk stretches where they run the little plastic tables, chairs, beer, and roasted peanuts over to you.

Yo to You Too

"Saigon by night very happy!" Taim said, then blurted the toast in Vietnamese: "Yo!" He explained his customer base, which included "many foreign customers, from Parlez Francais Paree, Japannik, Kangaroo, Holan," etc. A savvy marketer himself, he produced a book of endorsements. One Genevieve from Toulouse sang his praises, writing, "Just to let you know that Taim is a terrific cyclo driver and very agreeable. Wonderful. Wonderful..."

Wonderful all right. But, "Where's Coi!?" I hadn't seen him in a few days, and I planned to leave soon for the central highlands.

With his piercing eyes and street smarts, Coi saw things that I couldn't. On a wide, tree-lined avenue in Saigon, our cyclo had chugged on with the steadiness of a tortoise, one being passed by thousands of hares, or motorized traffic in all its wrenched, welded, and hybrid forms. Coi, with the savvy of a vice cop, indicated various ladies of the evening on the sidewalk. "That one — maybe she has had two kids. I know. My wife has had three. Hahaha." His deep laughter was constantly right there, in my ear, the soundtrack to a cyclo tour of Saigon.


This article first appeared in Wingspan, the inflight magazine of All Nippon Airways.