My knees, which jut out slightly, connect with a rider to my right. In surprise, I look round but he doesn’t seem to have noticed. Then, someone else brushes my left knee with a carrier bag full of shopping. I wince when I realise how close these motorbikes are to mine.
We’re literally elbow to elbow in a bottleneck of scooters that’s formed as we all try to leave the East-West Highway in Ho Chi Minh City. I’ve seen a scrum like this many times in this frenetic city, but now I’m right in the middle of it.
Fortunately, I don’t have to navigate my way out of this maze. That challenge falls to my driver, Lý, who picked me up earlier on a two-seater Vespa, to join the masses of a city where seven million motorbikes are shared between eight million people. If you’ve spent five minutes here you wont be surprised by those figures.
Even as a pedestrian, the afternoon rush hour is not for the faint-hearted — never assume you’re safe on the pavement; scooters routinely mount the kerb, as their riders look to avoid traffic — I’ve been pinned to a wall while bikes coming from both directions skimmed my toes.
Back on the road, we inch along slowly, finally leaving the highway, and making our way to a local bird park. However, the park doesn’t actually provide the birds — that becomes clear as we get closer and men start to arrive on their scooters, holding large cages covered in dark cloth so as not to frighten their occupants.
Inside Tao Dan Park, the din of street sounds is drowned out by birdsong. The noise is coming from a large black metal framework, upon which are hung several brown wooden birdcages. Just behind it sit men of all ages, some in groups, some on their own, all with a coffee in hand admiring the array of birds on display.
I watch as a man in a dark T-shirt with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth walks over to his birdcage, removes it from its hanging place, takes a few steps over to another section of the framework and places it there, before looking around. Having satisfied himself he’s made the right move, he returns to his seat.
“People hang the birds in groups together with the same type of bird because they believe they want to talk,” says Chin, my guide for the day.
“So magpies, nightingales and canaries, all the groups are together with their own.”
We manage to find some spare red plastic chairs, and Chin buys me an iced coffee. It’s a Saturday morning, so especially busy, but these men come every day. This is their time out, Chin explains. The men and birds arrive early with the park starting to fill up at around 7am, while the humid heat is still bearable.
It may be a social gathering, but there’s a competitive edge. “They hold a singing competition to see who sings the best,” says Chin. But there are other factors to take into consideration, he explains, including the body shape of the bird, the beauty of the feathers and how clear its voice is. “The prize is US$500,” says Chin, as I choke on my coffee.
As I look around, I see, among the crowd of men, one lone tourist, sitting under a parasol with eyes closed, and a smile on her face, as she takes in the varying pitches of sweet birdsong.
Then, with my coffee cup drained, we set off once again. Lý ensures my helmet is secure, I take my seat on the back of the Vespa and we zip rapidly off the pavement onto the main highway and merge once again with the masses.