I spent the better part of a year commuting everywhere on a used, US$200 road bike that cut through traffic faster than almost anything on the road. In a city exploding with diabetes caused, at least in part, by inertia, riding a bicycle struck me as a no-brainer.
Velo De Piste [10 Pasteur Street, District 1] has been open 24/7 for about a month. If you arrive by bicycle, you get a 10 percent discount. I'm convinced that its special brand of bike enthusiasm and commodity fetishism is the only solution for a jam packed city dreaming of cars. Photo by Calvin Godfrey
But I got tired of explaining to sneering co-workers why I was a little sweaty. I could hear people laughing at me when I arrived at and left work. So I returned to the curb-crushing, air poisoning hordes that fill Saigon's narrow corridors with bodies, bikes and fumes every morning and every night.
Readers of this newspaper know that Ho Chi Minh City is sinking while water levels are rising.
The extent to which the air we all breathe is poison remains the subject of speculation. But no figure would surprise me"”you can literally taste it on your tongue and wipe it from behind your ears. And it's only going to get worse: Vietnam's future plans include adopting the factories that China sends packing.
None of this is even the worst part.
In my three years here the city has added a tunnel leading to an empty portion of the city and several bridges and flyovers that have provided no discernible relief save the fun feeling of going up and coming down.
So what's the plan?
Every once in a while some government drone gets inspired by a visiting European "expert" and floats an idea that ranges in absurdity from creating an unenforceable system of emission inspections to outlawing the city's primary mode of transportation outright.
Nobody really believes these things will happen; instead, we're all crossing our collective fingers and waiting for the first of six subway lines.
No one's sure when it will be finished or if anyone will actually use it"”in part because they're afraid of looking poor.
Casual observers of this mayhem pin it all on a failure of governance or proper policing, but this seems highly dumb.
No government or police force in the world could do anything but declare war on 9 million people marching mopeds home through a cloud of poison daydreaming about driving cars.
The transportation pecking order echoes so loudly in the collective consciousness here that one Vietnamese-American entrepreneur recently told me, apropos of nothing: "I'm not like everyone else around here; I drive a car."
That's the worst part: that we'd rather choke on exhaust while wading through floodwaters mostly out of vanity and sloth.
The future of everything had grown pretty grim to me until I stumbled into Velo De Piste.
For a little over a month the self-styled "Bicycle Cafe" has operated 24 hours a day just two doors down from the dreary State Bank building on Pasteur.
Last Monday, it seemed to light up the otherwise dark downtown near the river.
A string of bare lightbulbs illuminated a string of showroom quality bicycles parked out and revealed a room packed with Vietnamese hipsters within"”outsized piercings, mismatched clothes and high-end electronics abound. Two pure-bred bulldogs (one of whom was wearing a diaper) padded around the floor.
Presiding over it all was a tattooed, bullet-headed 24-year-old who called himself Ken Huynh.
"I don't want my kids to have to wear a mask when they go outside," Huynh announced before explaining that he offers a 10 percent discount to people who show up on bicycles and a 10 percent bonus to employees who pedal to work.
"If anyone brings a plastic bag to work he's fired," Huynh said with an exuberance that made me not believe him at all.
In the end, though, it's the exuberance that counts.
Huynh offers free air, bike parking and the use of his expanding rear workshop to anyone who wants it. He's applying for permits to hold an alley cat race"”a kind of bicycle scavenger hunt for check-points"”and in October he helped organize the first Positive Mass.
"We had 300 bicycles riding together," Huynh recalled, coming to life. "We had road bikes, fixies, mountain bikes... everything."
Parts of the café feel somewhat like a museum dedicated to the world's most expensive bike parts. One patch of wall, for instance, features a display extolling the virtues of heritage English saddles that cost more than my entire bicycle.
Huynh said that he and his stunning wife (he calls her "boss") were able to bankroll this operation breeding bulldogs and running some sort of paper business"”though they also appear to be mobbed with hyper-fashionable young coffee drinkers.
The reason part of me believes his crazy all-night hangout could actually bring about a new sense of cool is Huynh's love of expensive foreign things.
If anyone can succeed in tickling the commodity fetish of this city in an environmentally beneficial way, it's a guy who rides around on a leather-bound, $15,000 custom Italian fixed-gear bicycle.
For all its elitist trappings, however, there's something decidedly noble about Velo De Piste.
Huynh dresses in T-shirts and shorts and sells a variety of flash brightly-colored fixies for less than a used motorbike.
When I mentioned my filthy beater needed work, he told me to bring it in as soon as possible.
The next night, he and his journeyman mechanic spent two hours pouring over every piece of the machine like two kids dissecting their first frog.
And there was a certain degree of experimentation. Two tubes exploded in my rear wheel until they discovered a hole and replaced the tire.
"It's good experience for us," he said before taking the bike out front and hooking it up to a snazzy device that spun the grime and grit off a chain I'd neglected for two years.
When he was done, the bike rode like new. And he only wanted fifty cents for his mechanic"”plus the cost of the new tire.
Was he hopeful that all of this would explode and turn Saigon into a massive tropical hippodrome?
"Nah," he answered with a grin. "Vietnamese always want to show off with a big motorcycle or car is."
When I pointed out that his shop could help them do the same thing with a $15,000 bicycle, Huynh smiled.
"I just want everyone to know about bicycles," he said and then headed back inside.