Keeping up with Ho Chi Minh City is easy as riding a motorbike


Carson Bolding, left, and her roommate Ngân Trần, riding through District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City. They had just returned from grocery shopping for ingredients to make spring rolls for Vietnamese Independence Day. Photo credit: Carson Bolding

Photo provided by Carson Bolding

President Obama summed up my initial thoughts on Ho Chi Minh City on his visit to Vietnam in May of 2016: “I’ve never seen so many motorbikes in my life.”

In Ho Chi Minh City, a city with a population just shy of nine million people, there are 7.5 million motorbikes, and the traffic is every bit as insane as you’d imagine. In preparing for my semester abroad here, I found myself sucked into a black hole of YouTube videos explaining how to cross the street and frightening articles about traffic accidents. I tactfully hid this information from my mom, knowing the statistics would only make her more nervous about sending me across the world for three and a half months.

My study abroad experience had a rocky start. I knew I had made an unconventional choice to study in Vietnam, but it wasn’t until I had landed in Ho Chi Minh City and found out that there was only one other student in my program that reality began to set in. Nine thousand miles away from home and jet-lagged out of my mind, I stumbled through the first week fueled by cups of Vietnamese coffee and lots of anguished FaceTime calls home.

As I adjusted to my new home, I quickly learned that motorbikes are the best way to navigate the omnipresent traffic in the city, but it wasn’t exactly an easy start on that front either. My first (and only, god-willing) motorbike accident was about a week into the semester. I was en route to my internship on the back of a GrabBike — essentially the Uber of Vietnam — when the skies opened up, and rain came pouring down, clearing up my misconception that rainy season had not yet begun. I was drenched in seconds.

I was already beginning to regret having called a GrabBike instead of a GrabCar when my driver took a sharp turn that brought us face-to-face with an oncoming car. The car easily maneuvered past, only to reveal another motorbike heading straight for us. My driver swerved to avoid the oncoming bike, causing our vehicle to slip on the wet pavement and fall sideways to the ground, as the rest of the traffic veered around us. Shaken and soaked but unharmed, we shuffled to the side of the road, where we spent five minutes reattaching the side mirror and trying to get the engine started. I arrived at my internship 10 minutes late, looking as if I had been dumped into the Saigon River.

For a week, I told myself I could avoid getting on a motorbike for the rest of the semester. I tried walking home from my internship, only to get blisters. I tried taking GrabCars, only to get stuck in traffic that quadrupled the length of my commute. And my one experience with the public bus system? That’s a story for a whole other day.

The call of the speed and convenience finally got to me, but it took another month for me to grow fully comfortable on a motorbike. In early October, my aunt came to visit me, and I shocked even myself when I excitedly told her, “You have to ride a motorbike while you’re here.” By that point, the story of the accident had become a funny anecdote I told to new friends. I took GrabBikes everywhere, and I no longer white-knuckled the back of the bike or squeezed my eyes shut at every turn. On a few occasions, I had even brought a mango smoothie with me to sip on the ride.

Motorbikes are a key aspect of life here in Ho Chi Minh City. They transport everything from families of five to blooming bouquets of flowers to large glass window panes. I’ve even seen a few dogs on-board, tucked safely against the bike by their owner’s legs or sitting with their front paws perched on the handlebars. Sights like these that once shocked me as they whizzed past now seem commonplace, but it still brings me joy to stop and take note of them every once and while.

Despite the bumpy start, I wouldn’t trade my time abroad for anything. I’ve performed Vietnamese folktales for school children, sampled street food on red plastic stools, fought off thieving monkeys, explored a hospital built into a cave, toured mausoleums, pagodas and temples across the country and kayaked through breath-takingly beautiful bays. I’ve learned about economic and human development both in and out of the classroom, from the top of the second tallest building in Vietnam to an alleyway where independent trash collectors circumvent the government system. Every experience has pushed me further out of my comfort zone and given me a deeper appreciation for this country.

With only a few weeks left of the semester, I’ve grown used to life here. Ho Chi Minh City might be a fast-paced metropolis, but from the seat of a motorbike, I’m learning to keep up.