I never appreciated what I had in Chi-town.
God bless you, grid system.

“Where in the twisted hell am I??”

is something I find myself saying pretty much every week, whether it’s because I’m lost in some maze of alleys or because I’ve just realized that I’m living and working in Vietnam (both can be equally disorienting). Let me try to give my definitive answer on locating myself in space and time* here…

I never really knew Chicago until I biked it. The same holds true for Saigon. This time, however, I’ve got a few extra cc’s under me!

Sure, I took public transportation all over Chicago prior to biking, but it was always a passive, stare-out-the-window kind of knowing. It wasn’t until I had to navigate and triangulate my position on two wheels in motion that I truly felt I knew where I was, and how I’d get to where I wanted to go. It was a good feeling.

A similar process of knowing is happening here in HCMC, but the difference here is that the City is so massive and the map is so unpredictable, it would take years and years of non-stop exploration and practice to effectively know it all. Hell, even my taxi drivers don’t know it all! When I took taxis, they often had to stop and ask another driver for directions. I stick to the places I need to get to, and add to my repertoire as I need to.

So that’s something I’ve been doing in my spare time – figuring out just where in the sam hell I am

Where in the world is Herman San Diego?

I’m located in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly (and still popularly) known as Saigon (Sai Gon), in the very southernmost part of the SE Asian Peninsula.

HCMC’s immediate metropolitan area boasts ~6.5 million residents, which swells to an impressive 9 million when you count surrounding suburbs (Siagonland?). The entire region is a hub of development and activity on literally every level, and a central transit hub for all of SE Asia, including the rest of Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Laos. It’s a great city if you want to be in the thick of it… and I do.

I like to walk. This will probably change as it gets hotter and hotter (uf da), but for now….  When I walk, I get to SEE the city. I’m in the thick of traffic (sometimes literally, as it swarms around me on the sidewalk) and I’m up close with businesses. I don’t always understand what I see, but I have more time to observe and process, and know where to find the things I might need in the future. On my motorbike it’s too dangerous to take your eyes off the road to soak in the experience – literally anything could happen in a split second, leaving you just another fatal statistic in this city’s traffic slaughter spree, or someone else wounded or dead. So, on days when I don’t have much else to do (more and more rare, unfortunately), I will often walk.

The absurdly large official area (divided into
districts) of HCMC.

Like New York City, Saigon’s main streets are situated largely on a diagonal (when they adhere to any kind of pattern) – unlike Chicago, for instance, which almost strictly adheres to a N/S/E/W grid. When I walk I’m able to process this directional information much better, being able to take the time to observe clues about the environment. The central layout of the city has many one- or two-way gridded blocks, courtesy of a colonial influence that persists to the present day, but it’s also hugely dependent on the environment. Alternatively, sometimes streets or entire areas just take crazy turns because of reasons historical or unknown to me – check out Phu Nhuan District in the map below. Driving through HCMC is always a pleasure – the roads are unusually well paved throughout most of the city (an ongoing process due to sewer upgrades occurring continuously – the street outside my District 6 school just got a major upgrade finally). Although upon first glance much of the city may look the same (as I’ve noted before), I’ve discovered that it’s the minor changes that are most charming.

More interesting is the fundamental pattern of the city. You can see the major streets from the bus lines in the map below. It’s a bonafide mess. However, this is basically only the thoroughfares that people use to get from point A to B. As I’ve mentioned before, the insides of these enormous blocks are PACKED with residential housing and businesses run out of homes, with unpredictable alleys down at every turn. Inside the blocks, anything is possible – streets will turn on a dime, end unexpectedly, go straight into someones garage, or simply go in circles. I’ve seen it all. Sometimes it’s amazing that people navigate the spaces on bikes at all – occasionally you can see an alley that is no wider than 3 feet, if that! It’s basically a crack between houses, leading to still more houses.

View of the bus system in the most central part of the city. These are major roads – where buses don’t travel, expect
one-way side streets and lots of alleys full of residences. Look carefully for the districts (“Quan” xx) in different colors.
I’m still confused about the numbering of districts. It seems to make no discernible sense. District 1 is the center of town, but it’s bordered by Districts 3, 10, 5, and 4. District 2 is almost a suburb, and District 7 is so far away it might as well be it’s own province. And then there are the Districts with regular names: Tan Binh, Binh Thanh, Binh Tan (what madman gave these three their names?!), Go Vap, Phu Nuanh, and others.

The least terrible map of districts I could find… this is the city center, but far from the entire city. See the bus schedule above for a bigger picture of the metropolitan center, and the entire district map above that.

Each district is subdivided into wards, each of which follows their own internal address numbering. That means that address numbers on opposite side of the street, in two different wards, can vary widely from each other. This is in contrast with the American style of numbers, where odds in a series are on one side of the street, and the evens are on the opposite, for as long as the street lasts, or until it meets a midway point. Finding an address or alley here can be a particular chore while you’re going with the flow of traffic (such as it is). An address almost always comes with a ward and district attached, so you can locate the correct place more accurately. Still, google maps is not a ton of help – especially for addresses outside the city center (lookin’ at you, District 2).

Merely the entrance to my alley. Google maps cannot comprehend my real 
address – apparently it’s like gazing upon Cthulhu. Madness and broken maps 
ensue.  View Larger Map

Speaking of addresses, let’s discuss how insane this blocks-inside-blocks system is. Finding an address in Ho Chi Minh City can be an artform.

You’ll often see addresses like, for instance, 57/49/17 or 676/53, followed by a major street name, ward, and district. The trick is to find the right ward and district of your address on the major street, and then turn in at the alley nearest the first number (57 or 676 in my examples). Then you continue down the alley until you find the second number. If it’s a house, and there are no more numbers, congratulations! You’re at your destination. If there’s a third number, you take the NEXT alley beside that address (49 in my example), and continue until you find your address (17). God forbid there’s another alley… you might never find your way out again! This caused me no end of confusion when I first arrived – I didn’t know about it at all – and both businesses and residences are located inside these blocks. Google maps is hopeless when it comes to mapping the addresses with slashes.

Insanity. This isn’t even very busy. Imagine a hundred more bikes, at least.

I haven’t yet mentioned the horrorshow that is roundabouts, but given the layout of the city, they’re probably the best options – when 4-8 major streets converge, a Saigonese drivers’ propensity for random and dangerous U-turns might as well be channelled in a single direction.

They took some getting used to. You’ve got to be looking left and right while avoiding cross traffic and circling around until you come to the street you want to get on, then cut across all the traffic entering the roundabout after you did – it’s a total, crazed mess. You’ve need to be alert to watch for buses and trucks that come barreling into the arena at top speed, from many angles – the big vehicles stop for no one, and no one gets in their way. The two things you do not do in roundabouts is zip in front of buses or cars and drive clockwise. Only insane people do that. But I don’t want this to become just another random complaint about HCMC’s traffic – how pedestrian (whomp, whomp). The truth is that, unlike American cities, this community has an incredibly long history, and the current city design is a product of that. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The center of a roundabout near my
home. Same terrible sculpture style.

Which is not to say that I’m anything but basically proficient at finding my way around. As I become more situated and comfortable in the environment of Ho Chi Minh City, street names and locations come more readily to mind. I now know almost all the major roads around my house, for instance! I count this as a victory. I’m slowly becoming acclimated. Maps have always fascinated me, and getting to know this city that is so differently constructed than many American cities, with their predictable grids, is often a treat (and occasionally a headache).

After only 6 months (woah! 6 months already?!) I feel pretty comfortable, but I’m still stymied by particularly dense neighborhoods and addresses. My traffic response skills are pretty good, probably aided by my experience on a bicycle in Chicago, and I’ve become used to traffic habits here. In the next couple of years I hope to be as familiar with this region as I was with my former metropolis!

Regardless of how much sense it does or doesn’t make to me, it remains a very fun city to navigate!