Arduous bus rides and train journeys are part and parcel of travelling in any country like Vietnam of course, so it’s not long before you come to regard an everyday cyclo ride as a well-earned slice of luxury; therapeutic relaxation rather than merely a means of getting from A to B.

Rather like being pedaled around in an elegant high-backed leather armchair, it’s a strange sensation. With the driver perched behind you, high in the saddle like a unicyclist, when the roads are quiet a cyclo ride can be so leisurely, you can almost forget he’s there at all.

Sitting down in the traffic can feel quite vulnerable at first.
You have to entrust yourself wholly in the hands (and eyes) of the wily cyclo driver, which is not always easy as half of them are crafty old bastards, and have no way of way of telling which way you’re steering, or where the traffic around you is going to appear from next. It feels as if you’ve been cast out into the traffic, adrift.

Stepping out of Ho Chi Minh airport without any idea what to expect, we ignored the few standard taxis, and waded into the melee of cyclo drivers until one virtually abducted us.

Sat back in our seat, we seemed to glide along towards the city centre, swishing a path through the swarms of bicycles at a surprisingly steady pace. School was out and we waited at the lights besides row upon row of schoolgirls sat elegantly upright on their bicycles with the poise of ballerinas, all in identical, long, flowing white robes, like angels.

At night, if you want to go anywhere other than the streets around the travellers’ hostels and cafes, you have to go by cyclo – not that there are that many places to go.

The streets are deserted by nightfall, and with no street-lights and no headlights on the cyclos, the streets of Saigon are silent and the cyclos’ steady swish can seem almost eery.

Shadow-people appear out of the night out of nowhere, suddenly at your side or crossing the road in front of you, like ghosts.

It’s a good idea to befriend one of the drivers in particular, especially if you find one who speaks good English.

Cyclo-drivers are the city’s hustlers – which can be inconvenient or invaluable.

In Hanoi in particular, the cyclo-drivers were hawkish and hostile and rarely took us where we wanted to go, even though we tried to show them it on a map before setting off. They’ll take you to their brother-in-law’s hotel or restaurant instead, and then try and charge you for the added time and ‘inconvenience’ of the longer trip. It’s a strange experience getting into a screaming match with a bunch of people (all from the cyclo-drivers union) when none of you speak the same language.

At night in particular, the cyclo-drivers will almost always ask male travellers if they want to go somewhere for a drink or for “boom-boom.”

After a while, you appreciate being asked at all – rather than just abducted. Some cyclo drivers find it hard to believe you actually don’t want ‘boom-boom’ and take you there (God knows where) anyway.

One menacing cyclo-driver drove us into the back of beyond, promising us he knew a great bar, telling us as we went that the police were raiding all the bordellos that night in a clamp-down.

When we (finally) got there, we realised too late that, of course, there are no unknown bars in Saigon. Still, for those of us who find going to bed at too difficult (even if there isn’t anything worth doing), bordellos are invariably the only place to get a drink late at night.

In any case, if you trust your driver, a warm beer in some of these places is probably more enjoyable than most of the other experiences on offer there. While you’re there, you’ll see some sights you won’t get in any guide book.

Alot of the girls cruise around on the back of their pimps’ motorbikes and some have their own cyclos and as you drive around at night, will invariably swish up alongside you out of nowhere (like fallen angels). Word quickly gets round that there is a tourist up for grabs and you can end up with dozens of them, circling round you like fireflies.

The best way of getting around the outskirts of the city, without being confined to a tourist excursion, is to hire an old motorbike (around $ 5- $ 8 a day) especially as there are suburbs, like District 3 area or the Chinese quarter Cholon where few tourists ever reach.

A quick test-drive is always a good idea, particularly the brakes and the safety lock: there’s no contract and no insurance. You can ask for a crash helmet, but will probably get an old green helmet from the war, which doesn’t really feel right.

The flexibility of a motorbike means you can come across all sorts of sights on the way to somewhere that you’d never see otherwise; strange pieces of local life not mentioned in any copy of ‘Lonely Planet’.

On the way to Cholon, we stopped off for tea in a Japanese-style cafe where the booths all faced forwards – like a bus – and pairs of Vietnamese teenagers sat in the candlelight, smooching or holding hands, and listening to country and western music.

About half an hour from the city centre, sitting outside Cafe Lida in District 3, the unbelievable stream of bicycles is quite mesmerizing – particularly as they play the only contemporary local/native music we came across (Chinese techno).

In Cholon, in particular, driving amongst the awesome volume of bicycles is a truly terrifying, exhilarating experience, like steering through an ants-nest that has just gone into Red Alert – though I don’t know which is more nerve-wracking: driving, or being the poor, helpless, passenger.

Crossing the road in Cholon is surreal. After every hesitant footstep, four or five bicycles will brush past you. You could wade into the traffic blindfold and feel no less secure about not being hit. The locals’ motorbikes plough through the traffic at speed, even at night without headlights, but you never see any collisions or any bikes touching one other. If anyone did brake suddenly, you feel the whole lot would pile up like dominoes.

The stress from the fear of causing accidents, or hitting someone can prove too much though, so hiring a motorbike with a driver provided is much easier, especially for longer, more complicated rides.

One of our moto-boys told us how his father had survived the war by working for the Americans. He was over there now. The boy had been arrested twice for trying to flee, and twice paid $ 700 for a seat on a boat that never made it off the beach.

We stopped off at several villages where you felt some of the people living there had never seen a tourist.

In places like these, everyone comes out to see you and the kids scream with excitement if you take their photo. They follow you round, chirping “hellowossyourname” at you like chicklets, and then running off laughing.

It’s in these moments that you get an idea of what it feels like to be Sting.

But it’s still good.