In the Midst of Motorbike Storms: Saigon and Reflections on Finding Calm and Movement

The War Remnants Museum in Saigon is a museum that does not shy away from the purpose of its existence. Its core thesis is evident in every exhibition, every photograph, even the song that plays on repeat with the haunting vocals of a child echoing across the halls. On the second floor of the museum is a room dedicated to war atrocities, with the first plaque on the wall being an excerpt from the first few lines of the U.S. Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”

I have no judgment to pass on the museum or the country at large, as someone who is simply passing through, unable to grasp all of its complexities in a few days (or even years) time without tossing aside the lived realities of the people here and the Diaspora that long for home and connection. It was simply a reminder that life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness are always left to the imagination of those in power. “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”

First floor exhibit at the War Remnants Museum

Saigon is a city where east meets west, old meets new. Where every alley is its own microcosm, the slashed street addresses of X/Y reading like divisions and parts of the greater whole. If side streets were love songs, Saigon has some of the greatest ballads of our time. It’s hard to ever feel lost when each road has something to hold you.

Scenes down a vibrant microcosm of the city

The unrivaled ruler of the roads here is the motorbike. Motorbikes of all shapes and sizes swarm the roads like bees, moving in dense waves. My body immediately reacted to the thought of ordering a motorbike to get around the city, the burn scar on inside of my right leg is not so faded or small that I am not often reminded of the sometimes high cost of riding. But I am drawn to anything that reminds me of freedom, and the promise of protected exhaust pipes lured me back to the swarm, and I quickly found that life on the back of a motorbike was far different once in it.

Roads in Saigon, especially in the late afternoon, can feel almost impossible to cross where there are no walk lights. One must risk walking into oncoming traffic that resists stopping, outstretch the hand with a hopeful wave of ‘wait,’ and pray that this deadly game of ‘frogger’ ends on the other side. Sometimes you are able to wait for a local to confidently step into the madness, but other times you have to rely on yourself and the belief that you can make it through.

View of a bustling Saigon from the third story of a building

I remember my first solo crossing. Deep breath. Look right. Look left. Wait. Scan for small opening. Deep breath. First step. Second step. Pause. Go. Quick steps across. Confidence growing.

So it is with life that the first steps are the most tentative, when I look for the signs that it is indeed a moment to move in a direction. And when I wait too long, I get stuck in the middle, feeling unable to move, life’s hardships hitting me from all sides. But when I take deep breaths and trust that the first step was the hardest, that being in the middle when I can’t go back means the only way is forward, is when I lean in more deeply to the process. That I make it to the other side.

First bowl of pho in Viet Nam

I wanted this sabbatical to be restful and insightful. To inspire me not just for forward motion but for who I am in this season of life. Upon first look the fast-paced nature of Saigon feels antithetical to this goal. But a woman at lunch one afternoon said to me that the chaos of the roads only looked so from the outside. That when you are driving in it, there is a rhythm and order to the movement. That’s what I felt on my first ride. When I stepped outside of fear and toward freedom.

Motorbikes abound in every corner and view of the city

It is in the hands of the people that chaos becomes beauty, order, and meaning. This city has reminded me of how often I have seen that in myself, in others, and in my work. We are constantly making something from nothing, pillars from blocks of clay. While the grass does suffer as elephants fight, we are still dandelions in the grass. With each confident step forward one of us takes when we don’t know exactly how we’ll get to the other side, is a seed planted that creates a field of dandelions. We will replenish even when trampled. We need not let the chaos leave us restless and unmoved.

Somewhere on the back of a motorbike, in the middle of an endlessly bustling city that never sleeps, if I close my eyes the wind against my face is capable of transporting me to my own personal well of presence, of calm, of rest. Of confident forward movement.

Enjoying a local gin cocktail, exploring the hidden gems in Saigon

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