HO CHI MINH CITY — There are roughly six million motorbikes and scooters in this city formerly known as Saigon. And I'm sitting on the back of one. In rush hour traffic.
I'm not ashamed to admit I'm scared as hell and wondering why I ever agreed to take this four-hour city tour on a vintage Vespa (circa 1950).
My jovial guide, Lam, tries to reassure me there’s nothing to worry about.
"Our company (Vespa Rouge) organizes about 300 tours a month," says Lam as we wait for the light to change at the intersection of Nam Ky Khoi Nghia and Nyuyen Thi Minh Khai, where Ho Chi Minh City’s famed Reunification Palace is located.
"I've been doing this for 29 years," says the man with the George Hamilton tan.
Above: Writer Marc Atchison hops on a vintage Vespa and joins locals on the back streets on Ho Chi Minh City.
These Vespa tours have become very popular with foreign daredevils because they take you deep inside the working-class districts of this remarkable city, which has risen from swamps and mangroves to become one of Asia's economic hubs. The tours also give you a chance to experience a thrill ride that no amusement park could ever match.
The diminutive riders and passengers waiting at the intersection nod politely at the oversized tourist hanging on the back of the little Vespa for dear life. Some appear to be smiling — or laughing — at me through the surgical masks most wear to protect them from the horrible fumes emitted by the tiny motorbikes.
Lam's Italian-made Vespa is painted pink and white and stands out from the mass-produced Japanese bikes most people here prefer.
As the light readies to change, the drivers, who are lined up across the wide boulevard like they're about to start a motocross event, lean on their throttles, creating an ear-splitting crescendo as their engines rev at top speed.
"Hang on," says Lam as the light changes and he launches the Vespa into the organized chaos that is
this city’s traffic.
"We'll visit several districts today," the guide shouts over his shoulder as we leave District 1, where the city's most famous tourist landmarks, like the Opera House and Note-Dame Cathedral, are located.
"That's our new subway," points out Lam as we buzz past a construction site where workers are busy installing the city's first mass transit system. It will be ready by 2021 and will service the 12.9 million who live here.
As we approach one of the city's 200 bridges, Lam tells me we'll soon be in a district where the morning market is located.
Above: There are millions of tiny scooters patrolling the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and they write their own rules of the road..
The small bikes jockey with large trucks and cars for space on the narrow bridge and Lam's Vespa is quickly squeezed up against a flimsy barrier separating me and the murky Saigon River below. Yikes!
The cacophony of sounds — buzzing bike motors, honking horns — makes it hard for me to hear Lam as we enter District 7, where merchants are cleaning up from the morning market.
Old women wearing conical hats scold me for taking their picture as we motor past them. Rotting garbage scents the area with a most unpleasant odour.
"This is real life in Saigon," says Lam, as he turns down a laneway so narrow I think I'll scrap my knees against the walls.
Our kidney-rattling ride continues down some back alleys into District 8, where the floating market is located on the Saigon River.
As we enter each new district, I'm astonished at how the merging motorbike riders are able to navigate around each other without causing a major pileup.
Left: Vespa tours stops at the coffee boat. Centre: Some riders spice up their helmets. Right: Navigating narrow streets can be a bit tricky.
It appears stop signs and red lights are taken only as suggestions by most of the bikers.
Huge trucks appear to be coming right at us but at the last second Lam prevents us from becoming a hood ornament by expertly swerving the Vespa out of the line of fire.
"The key is to close one eye and look at the approaching traffic," says Lam. "As long as we go slow at intersections, we are fine. Accidents happen when a driver goes too fast."
The motor bike's horn, according to my driver, is its most important piece of equipment.
"When we buy a new bike, it's always the horn that we check out first," laughs Lam as we reach the floating market, where a fleet of wooden boats are lined up along the dock. Lam invites me to dismount and have some refreshment at the Coffee Boat. Part of the Vespa tour includes stops at local restaurants so you can taste regional delicacies, like grilled bananas wrapped in sticky rice, and enjoy local music over a cold beer at some of the city's landmark bars.
It also gives me a chance to stretch my legs and mingle with the people who live full-time on the tiny boats that carry food here from villages along the Mekong River, about 80km away.
Whole families, and their barking dogs, live on the boats made of hopper wood, which, according to Lam, stands up very well to the oppressive heat and humidity that hangs over this area of Vietnam most of the year.
"The boats last about 10 years," says my delightful guide as I admire the wide variety of fruits — bananas, jack fruit and coconuts — piled high in front of each.
School-aged children help their parents attract buyers to their boats.
Above: Vespa tour takes riders past the city's lovely flower market and introduces you to some shy fruit sellers.
"These kids only go to school half a day so they can help their parents sell the produce," says Lam.
The Coffee Boat, where we enjoy a strong Vietnamese brew while watching hopper boats and large barges slowly make their way back to the Mekong, is also the perfect spot to see Ho Chi Minh City’s expansion.
"This way of life (the wooden boats) will soon be gone," laments Lam, who points across the river to a series a modern office and residential towers being built to satisfy the needs of the city’s burgeoning middle class.
"The new condos and apartments will soon come to this side of the river and the floating market will have to go. That's sad because this has been a way of life for these families for generations," he says.
After our coffee, we mount the Vespa again and head out to see more of the Ho Chi Minh City's 24 districts, which include Chinatown — home to 500,000 — the old French Quarter, where lovely colonial mansions still dominate tree-lined streets, and the flower market district, where tropical blossoms perfume the air.
Above: Local school girls are only too happy to pose for the tourists riding the vintage Vespas.
The fast-paced tour provides me with a lot of blurry Instagram photo moments but introduces me to places and memories that can only be realized once you leave the comfort of the main tourist district.
When we arrive back at the fabulous Park Hyatt Hotel next to Ho Chi Minh City’s famed Opera House, I'm sad to say goodbye to Lam, who has provided me with the most authentic travel experience of my life.
Now, I really want to buy a vintage Vespa.
JUST THE FACTS
• Vespa Rouge has 20 Italian-made scooters in their inventory, which are piloted by student guides. The guides pick you up at your hotel and tours can range from 2 to 6 hours. The company can handle a maximum group of 40 in any one tour. For more information, go to
• Tour East Holidays (http://www.toureast.com) offers many Taylor Made tours to Vietnam and can help arrange a Vespa tour as well.
• Vietnam Airlines offers direct flights from Vancouver to Ho Chi Minh City. Or, you can fly to Ho Chi Minh City via Hong Kong with Air Canada or Cathay Pacific.