Our Vietnam Vespa Adventure
One of the most highly recommended tour groups in Saigon is Vietnam Vespa Adventures. They offer a variety of day tours and even overnight excursions within and around greater Ho Chi Minh City.
I’ve had a lifelong fear of motorbikes, because of my notoriously poor sense of balance and the horrible yet well-deserved reputation that Philippine bikers have as road hazards (both to themselves and to others). I decided to go ahead and face my fears head-on (but while wearing a helmet) by booking a tour with this group by making the following rationalizations:
1) it was Vietnam, and when in Rome…
2) scooters are arguably safer than motorcycles;
3) scooters don’t get any classier than vintage Vespas; and
4) all those good reviews can’t possibly be wrong, and they even survived to leave a good word.
Thus, after a day of settling into Ho Chi Minh City, we embarked on the Wartime Memories Tour. Our hotel was a block away from the tour’s home base, Zoom Cafe in the backpackers district, so our guide picked us up and led us on foot to the Cafe, where we paid the balance of our tour fee, received some instructions, then proceeded on the tour, riding pillion on the back of a refurbished vintage Vespa.
I won’t go into detail about each stop so as not to spoil the experience for other people. Rest assured, the entire tour was enlightening, as we caught a glimpse of history from a different point of view. I enjoyed seeing all the buildings with hidden historical value that the regular tourist would never have the faintest clue about, such as the secret CIA building and the church where the South Vietnamese president sought sanctuary before his assassination. All the requisite sites were also covered, such as the War Remnants Museum. Even common tourist attractions like the Post Office and Notre Dame Cathedral were included, which I appreciated, as it saved us valuable tourist-y time. Our guide was fluent and knowledgeable, supplementing his discussions with vintage photos on his iPad. His stories were colorful, even impassioned, and to say the least, educational. The ride was exhilarating, in a good way, even, once I really got used to it.
It was not all fun, as the War Remnants Museum had some heavy, deep and moving exhibits that showcased the suffering of the Vietnamese people during the war. Hollywood movies tend to humanize American soldiers, and show them as a sympathetic lot, and I don’t disagree with that. Seeing the suffering of the Vietnamese made me feel even more terrible, as often these were innocent victims of collateral damage. In the end, I realized that this was another war wherein the Arendt-ian conscience examination arose: how could the government big shots live with themselves after issuing all those inhumane orders against innocent people and threatening the youths that would carry out those orders? The war crimes of Eichmann in World War II were echoed only a couple of decades later, in chemical attacks, indiscriminate bombings and slash-and-burn campaigns. I could only dwell so long on these exhibits without feeling sick. It’s eye-opening, really.
After the weight of the War Museum was the more uplifting and inspiring (albeit still verging on morbid) visit to the memorial of Boddhisatva Thich Quang Duc, the monk made famous in that photograph who self-immolated himself in 1963 to protest the persecution of Buddhism by the pro-Catholic government of South Vietnam.
The tour ended up back at Zoom Cafe where we ordered whatever we wanted from the menu for lunch. I highly recommend the pineapple fried rice. We even got our second round of drinks for free!
This was an amazing experience all in all, and if I ever find myself back in Saigon, I’ll surely seek out Vietnam Vespa Adventures again. Maybe the Saigon by Night tour, next time.