"What are the rules, Kathy?" I yell nervously from the back of my bright orange vintage Vespa. We're waiting at the lights with hundreds of other motorcyclists in Ho Chi Minh City's peak hour traffic. Impatient to get going, some riders mount the curb using the footpath as an impromptu road; others ignore the red light altogether. "Just go!" our guide Kathy, from Vespa Adventures, yells back.
Thankfully I'm not the one twisting the throttle. My 11-year-old daughter Ella and I are pillion passengers joining the almost eight million motorbikes that call Ho Chi Minh City's streets home. Our drivers Tu and Danh manoeuvre us through the heavy traffic with skill and precision. Even still, my heart is in my mouth on more than one occasion. I wince as my tiny limbed daughter appears to be swallowed up by a swarm of bikes at a chaotic roundabout, and my heart races when a honking bus stops centimetres from my thigh. Our expert drivers, however, don't break a sweat.
Vespa Adventures' Saigon After Dark tour starts at the InterContinental Saigon, our base for a few days. The Italian scooters make a show-stopping entrance and after a brief introduction, helmets are strapped on and we dive into the 5.30pm traffic. Initially I'm tense, but as my confidence in our drivers grows, I start taking in the sights and sounds of this fast-paced city. We pass families of up to six travelling on the one bike (sometimes a baby wedged between passengers) and see a lady riding side saddle carrying a chicken. Fellow riders smile and wave at us.
First stop on our food-centric excursion is the rooftop Air 360 Sky Lounge where we're served a citrusy whisky cocktail and a mocktail for Ella. The post-work crowd gathers as the sun sets and the twinkling lights come out to play. Ella urges me to drink up, keen to get back on the Vespa.
Ducking and weaving through traffic, we end up at the Ho Thi Ky flower market in HCMC's District 10. The market operates around the clock and is a riot of colour. Kathy tells us it's men rather than women who do the creative floral arrangements. Inside the flower market and now on foot, we explore Cambodia Market where food stalls operate from the front of people's homes or from the back of motorbikes. Young and old sit on small chairs slurping noodle soup with snails, or buying dried fish or eating sizzling lemongrass beef cooked on a burner from local vendors. Kathy points out a three-storey apartment building which once housed American soldiers. Now it is home to Vietnamese families and she indicates a steep concrete ramp that runs up the middle of the stairs so motorbikes can be ridden up and kept inside.
Our final stop is Banh Xeo 46A for what is arguably the city's best Vietnamese pancake. Queues wait for a seat at long communal tables. However, Kathy has gone ahead and waves us over. We hear the turmeric infused batter crackle from the open-air wok stations, and within minutes a golden, crispy pancake filled with shrimp, pork and mung beans is set before us. We roll the pancake in mustard leaves with Vietnamese basil and mint, dunking it into the sweet dipping sauce.
Before we've even arrived back at our hotel, Ella yells across the traffic to me. "Can we do this again?" Once you've ridden on two wheels through this fabulous, crazy city you'll be itching to do it again.
Sheriden Rhodes was a guest of Vietnam Airlines and InterContinental Hotels and Resorts.
Vietnam Airlines flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Ho Chi Minh. See vietnamairlines.com/au
Rooms at InterContinental Saigon Residences start from $US170 a night; a club room with club benefits is $US250. See icsaigon.com
Vespa Adventures' Saigon After Dark 4-4.5-hour tour runs nightly from 6.30pm and costs $US97 a person (kids under 12 get 30 per cent off). It includes food and drinks, drivers, tour guide, helmets, raincoats and insurance. See vespaadventures.com