Anna Velas-Suarin

At 6am in Saigon, someone shouts, “My friend!”

I have always had beautiful, touching, and amusing encounters in all of my overseas travels. This one can probably be considered as among the best and the most endearing among all those little and memorable encounters. Let me begin from the start.

On my third trip to Vietnam in May 2008 (I was with JR on that 3rd trip there), we met a cyclo driver near the small hotel where we were staying in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). For those who have not been to Vietnam yet, cyclos are the equivalent or the “evolved” version of rickshaws in many Asian countries. The cyclos in Vietnam are still human-powered. A driver pushes/moves the 3-wheeled cart through the use of pedals.

JR with our favorite cyclo driver in Saigon.

The photo on the right partially shows how the cyclos look like. Well, we saw this man perched on his cyclo and…our eyes met. He then tried to convince us to try out this mode of transportation. I looked at him and his frail body and I hesitated…I said something like, “But we are too heavy for you! You will get tired! And where will I sit?” In basic English and hand gestures, he tried to convince us that actually, he is strong, and that he can easily transport the two of us. He also said that I can sit on JR’s lap! (haha)

I looked at my then boyfriend (now hubby), JR, who smiled at me, and this exchange of glances and smiles somehow gave me confidence. Our cyclo driver must have said something like, “Hey, you two are peanuts to me so ride on!” but it did not matter anymore what he said because we just found ourselves climbing up his cyclo, still deciding whether it was the right decision. 🙂

It was challenging at first. I did not know how to sit properly! I told myself, we would definitely be a laughing stock in the streets of Saigon. And I was right! People (mostly tourists) were pointing at us as we rode happily along. Some even smiled at us. After a few minutes, all my hesitations vanished. I was triumphantly riding in a cyclo with an old man who seemed happy (and strong!) enough giving us this joy ride. Our driver brought us to the “must-see” places in Saigon and although it was already my third trip there, it was as if I am seeing the city for the first time again. The view from a cyclo is definitely different!

One of the best “joy rides” in my life! 🙂

We decided on full stops every 10 minutes or so that we will not tire our driver out. I was a bit worried because he seemed so frail. However, we also thought later that he was strong for his age. He was relaxed and contended as he pedaled on and on, pointing to us the historical places of Saigon. I saw and felt the beauty and intensity of his hard labor.

Before we asked him to bring us back to our hotel, we then asked him to bring us to Jollibee (yes, we were gladly surprised to found out that there is a Jollibee branch in Saigon!) and after eating, we ordered some take-out for him. We would have wanted to ask him to join us but we were concerned that he cannot leave his cyclo unattended (after all, HCMC may have stricter street parking policies). When we gave him the bag of goodies, his eyes glistened with gratitude, surprise, and joy. And our hearts melted. It was as if a strong bond had already been forged.

When we parted near our hotel, we just couldn’t thank him enough. For him, he simply gave us a ride. But for us, he gave us more. He gave us a deeper appreciation of Saigon. He taught us about love of labor. He touched us with his kindness and integrity (he did not tell us how much to pay him nor negotiated for a “touristy” price; instead, he simply told us to pay him any amount!). Most of all, he reminded us once again that friendships blossom in the most unexpected places. However, there was sadness in my heart when we parted. I was not sure if we will see him again. In the usual mad rush of travels, shopping, and planning for next destinations, we forgot to ask for his name or contact number. Darn it, “We don’t even know his name!”, we exclaimed later. (Until now, we still do not know his name.)

On our friend’s (Ate Cel) next trip to Saigon that year, we asked her to bring our photos with “Mr. Cyclo” and try to find him on that same spot where we met him, so she can give him the copies (the ones posted here). However, when Ate Cel returned to Phnom Penh (we were still based in Phnom Penh around that time), she informed us that she didn’t see our guy. She tried her best to find ‘that face on the photos’ but she was unsuccessful. So we kept the photos, hoping that some day, we can give those to him.

When JR and I were in Saigon again in December 2008, enroute to Manila, we were glad to see our “Mr. Cyclo” on that same spot! We were genuinely happy to see him in that old familiar spot. However, we forgot to bring the photos with us! Around that time, too, we were on a very brief stay and didn’t have much interaction with him. We also walked more around the vicinity of the hotel so we didn’t have the chance to ride in his cyclo again.

Past forward to April 2011, more than two years since the last time we saw him. We were on the way to the Manila international airport for another trip to Saigon. This time, we were accompanying our friend, Jinky, and her daughter, Kira. I suddenly remembered the photos with “our” guy! I hastily asked JR to look for them but he couldn’t find them. I was so adamant in bringing them with us because I was hoping we can still see our Mr. Cyclo in that same spot. I then decided to help JR in searching for those photos and voila, I found them along with other old photos inside a box. I was ecstatic!

Friendships blossom in the most unlikely places.

We then placed them carefully inside an envelope and off we went to the airport.

We arrived around 2 am in Saigon but we stayed a bit more in the terminal so we didn’t have to kill so much time while waiting for the bus that will bring us to Phnom Penh. We met two Pinay travelers who were on their first trip to Vietnam so I shared with them my impressions on and experiences in Vietnam. We left the airport together and shared a cab.

Around 6am, we were already walking in Pham Ngu Lao Street, looking for the station of Mekong Express Bus. We asked early-risers and fellow travelers but we were given wrong and sometimes opposing directions.

And then, suddenly, I saw him…our Mr. Cyclo!  He was still in that same spot…but this time…lo and behold, with a motorbike! And he looked younger! I started staring at him, suddenly disoriented (remember, we didn’t have a night’s sleep because we were up talking in the terminal) and unsure of what to say. I just blurted out something like, “It’s you! It’s you! Do you remember…?” And…I was given a blank stare. He was probably trying to decide whether I was (a) a lunatic; (b) someone who is out to play a prank on him; or (c) an unknown daughter from a former girlfriend who left him after figuring out she was pregnant…(ok, maybe this is an exaggeration, but how I wish I can clearly describe the confusion and surprise on his face!) Our Mr. Cyclo can’t remember me! My heart is crushed!

And when I was about to do something more clever so he will remember me, he suddenly turned his confused (and clueless) face to my left (where JR was standing by) and without any warning and much of a thought, he blurted out excitedly, with obvious joy, “MY FRIEND!!!” He then stood up from his motorbike and then in a combination of hugs-and-manly-shoving-of arms-and-exchanging of-hand-shakes, he welcomed and greeted his long-lost friend, JR. And then he looked at me and now he was 100% sure that he remembered me, too! Yeheyyy!!! Our Mr. Cyclo remembers me! And all of us ended up laughing so heartily. At 6 am in a Saigon street, we were like one big happy family laughing together as if we found a gold mine. We then hastily found the photos in our bag and gave them to him. He looked at them and looked at us and in his eyes I saw a silent form of happiness. Like the quiet breezes.

And you know what’s also amazing? Our Mr. Cyclo was the one who pointed us to the correct office/station of Mekong Express Bus. We have been walking around in Pham Ngu Lao but we couldn’t find the station…until the angels brought us to him, our favorite cyclo driver in Saigon. Isn’t it a nice story? Another reminder that in our search for something, sometimes we are given another thing, which will eventually lead us to that one thing we were looking for. So don’t mind the stopovers or the sudden detours. Each step brings you closer to your destination.

I am not sure if we will see our Mr. Cyclo again. We forgot to ask for his name and contact number (again). We had time for very quick goodbyes when he helped us cross the street and find a cab on the way to the Saigon airport (for our return flight to Manila, 5 days after we saw him that morning) but it was again another chance meeting. He was again perched on his motorbike that evening and when he saw us trying to cross the street, he was again ready with his warm smiles and kindness.

I pray to God that we will still see him again, perhaps a year from now, still seated on his favorite spot under the trees, in a busy part of Pham Ngu Lao. And I promise the universe, I will no longer forget to ask for his name and number.


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