At first I was afraid, I was petrified. Not only was I failing to come to terms with the gear/clutch/gas equation on the vintage Vespa I was driving at various malevolently busy and dusty intersections on the way to Highway 1, the music in my own head had also gone curiously awry.
This, my long anticipated first foray out onto the open road on one of the iconic Italian scooters, was meant to be a valedictory moment — the moment I finally got to live out a dream nursed by a lifelong admiration for the sharp aesthetics of Mod culture. I would cruise into the countryside like a latter-day equivalent of Jimmy from the movie Quadrophenia, snatches of The Who, Curtis Mayfield and Motown sound-tracking this smooth progress in my imagination.
Yet here I was, juddering hopelessly across a wave of traffic on one of Saigon’s myriad plug ugly arterial roads with Gloria Gaynor ’s gay disco classic looping psychotically on my in-cranium sound system. I’d had my doubts about this mission from the off. While the prospect of piloting one of Saigon Scooter Centre’s design classics up to Tri An Lake was fine in theory, the knowledge that the lion’s share of the 160km round trip would be undertaken on Highway 1 acted as an effective check on my ardour.
Vietnam, of course, doesn’t have a monopoly on hideously dull and dangerous stretches of tarmac. Nevertheless, maniac drivers, belching trucks, mangy dogs primed to make a dart in front of the traffic at any inopportune moment, and a seemingly endless succession of grotty roadhouses and grim factories combine to make the section of road that links the big city with Dong Nai Province a particularly unappealing route.