Back to basics

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A vendor wheels her bicycle on one of Ho Chi Minh City's many crowded streets

The streets are empty. It is the early arrival of the rainy season that initiated the late afternoon downpour, washing away the day's chaos and oppressive heat. The city now stands darkened and silent. An occasional lone vendor wheeling a cart home passes. I look up to catch the breeze on my face and watch it moving through the trees above. Only the sound of the wind whipping gently past my ears can interrupt the soft rhythmic whirring of my bicycles wheels as I make my way through the sleeping city.

This is the best time of day (or should I say, night). Anyone can argue that the early mornings, when you can watch a city wake up are the best, the most enlightening. But whilst I agree that dawn is enjoyable, it is in the middle of the night that you truly capture the feeling of the city. With only the slight motion of the wind, you feel you are nestled deep in the belly of a huge slumbering beast.

When you think HCMC, you think motorbikes. In a city of over 8 million exist about 5 million motorbikes. Amongst this, cram in the smog-producing local buses, the taxis (licensed and unlicensed), the private cars, the freight trucks, the adorned funeral trucks and the unclassified (and almost inspiring), mismatched automotive wonders, and you have the overexhausted conversation of traffic issues in HCMC.

Before motorbikes were popularized by becoming relatively inexpensive and available, bicycles and cyclos were the predominate means of transport and trading.

Remnants of this still remain with vendors often cycling by neighborhoods selling fruits, tea towels, varied sweet treats, CDs, and catching a glimpse of locals cycling on their way back from the market.

This last little reminder of a time gone by, a time devoid of all abrasive engines and lung-clogging smog spurred me to ditch the engines and opt for a more analog form of transport.

Back in my city - and also many others in Europe and America - bicycling as a viable form of transport has undergone a significant renaissance, gathering momentum and popularity as a way to improving traffic conditions and avoid mind-numbing sessions of staring at gym walls.

Indeed a major influence in its popularity and successful comeback are the related environmental issues coming off the back of global warming awareness and general acknowledgement of humans generally plaguing the planet.

This environmental moral awareness has stripped away any reserve among all social classes, and, on the flip side, car drivers and automotive enthusiasts are scoffed at for being environmentally ignorant.

This change has seen significant improvements in city and traffic infrastructure and whilst there are still issues in managing the roads for all commuters, there has been an overwhelming positive impact by the increase of people cycling.

With the lack of efficient and affordable public transport in my city, I decided to go back to basics and brave the winters on two wheels. I bought a bicycle for the equivalent of a cinema ticket and this trusty, if slightly rickety, friend took me everywhere.

On returning to HCMC, I reluctantly left my bicycle behind and spent a year trying out different means of travel. But something was missing. I finally realized what: It wasn't efficiency and convenience that I pined for, it was a feeling.

I recently moved into a new apartment and after checking out the disused old bicycle in the hall of the house, I finally asked my landlord if I could take it for a spin. It turned out to be owned by the landlord's daughter, and although I'm not sure if I have left this girl immobile, her possible disdain for me was outweighed by finally being able to jump on a bicycle after a year's absence. I feel in love all over again.

This wonderful feeling of riding a bicycle seems to be a combination of beautiful nostalgia from idyllic childhood memories and a kind of romantic throwback to times gone by.

You go at a slower pace, you take in more, you are more aware and alive. There is no aggressive rev of an engine, no clunking gears, no obnoxious horns or attention-seeking indicators, and in all of its simplicity you feel more in touch with not only yourself but also your environment.

The benefits and advantages of bicycling riding haven't really reached the streets of HCMC since the introduction of motorbikes, and it appears that the only socially acceptable reason to be riding a bike is if you are wearing a school uniform or have grandchildren.

With social status and materialism remaining a high priority for the newly wealthy, the bicycle doesn't really garner much respect.

Whilst my riding around town has brought reactions ranging from intrigue, confusion, catcalls, and downright open laughter from locals, I hail my fellow bike riders who also take in the city at a more relaxed pace. I tip my hat to the grandmas and grandpas, the vendors, the recycling workers, the middle-aged men riding for badminton in the park, and the school children piled high on the tiny axels.

Whether out of choice or necessity, these are the people contributing in some small way to creating a more environmentally friendly and peaceful city.

Exploring the city by bicycle is an incredible way to delve deeper into the things missed when flying by on a motorbike. You are more mobile, less invasive and are able to be fully consumed by the surrounding atmosphere.

On a recent night bike ride with a friend, we took a vague route in District 4 with a basic idea of just looking around and finding something to eat. We rode into alleys, cycling slowly and taking in the bustling activity of dinnertime.

We found ourselves in a street restaurant, making small talk with other patrons and enjoying the satisfying feeling of eating a hearty meal after exhausting ourselves.

Then the skies opened up, and we were treated to a raging downpour, sitting happily under tarpaulins watching the city lights dance in the rain. We sat in silence. Nothing needed to be said.

With an ever-increasing population and burgeoning economy, something has got to give on the streets of HCMC. There are no easy answers when trying to delicately balance sustainability and practicality in a fast-growing, forward-thinking city. Careful consideration for both the needs of the environment and inhabitants is needed when developing the transport infrastructure and overcoming related issues.

But sometimes less is more. Perhaps the bicycle is the simple solution to some the city's traffic problems.

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