How to Explore Unknown Cities in Asia

A random alley lined with motorbikes.

I ride my small grey-tinted Honda Super Cub over the river and into the neighboring Binh Thanh District. I pull over to the side of the road and pull out my phone double-checking the address. Adorned with their addresses in bold black letters, the storefronts tell me I am going in the right direction. Seconds later I find it, but it is missing. I ask the men lounging in front of the café nearby where is this address?

They laugh a little and point to a small alleyway next to where I am standing. Perplexed, I drive this way and wonder why a Kindle retailer would be tucked away inside the quiet alleys of an unassuming neighborhood. I come to a stop in front of somebody’s home and I am greeted with a note on the door. It reads (in English): I will be back in thirty minutes; call this number for more information. I am amazed by how this little adventure has unfolded, how I found the retailer, and now how I await his arrival. I begin dialing the number.

City exploration is best done by accident. It is something that slowly unravels, layer by layer, while in search of something else. It is best done in a new place where there is some unfamiliarity. That day in Saigon, I had one goal. That goal was to find the only authorized Amazon Kindle retailer in the entire city. This goal led me to ride my motorbike to an area I’d never been and as a byproduct explore and peruse some more.

The best way to explore cities’ nooks and crannies is on foot. The second best way is by bicycle or another two-wheeled transport. The absolute worst way is behind the window of a car.

Driving a car confines a person to the street. The driver can go only where the road takes them and there is almost no stopping. Instead the city passes by like a movie reel and the viewer is only offered glimpses of what is a complex and layered place. Some streets do offer a wonderful view, but this is just one part of a whole and there is much more to explore once the car is left behind.

On a two-wheeled vehicle, like the motorbike I was on that day, a person can take in their surroundings in a whole new way. The sights are more vivid, the sounds and the smells ready to whisk the rider away. The rider can smell the freshly cut grass and hear the chirping birds. The rider can continue this interaction with the city by venturing to areas the car cannot normally go. Whether it is narrow alleys, streets with no turnarounds, crowded neighborhood districts, or other tricky spots, a motorbike or bicycle exposes its rider to more and more of the city. More and more layers are pulled back and there is more reason to slow down and explore, taking it all in.

Nomad Cafe, in a rainy and narrow alley.
One of many hidden cafes not so easily accessed by car.

There is nothing like walking a city and exploring everything there is. Walking is the best form of city exploration because there is nothing else to account for, but your body and your feet. I recall a time in Vietnam where I met a girl and we went for a walk. As we walked, she continued to comment how she didn’t know this business was here, or about this restaurant, or this park. She drove by this part of town on her motorbike every day yet she hadn’t had a chance to take a walk.

The entrance to an old pagoda.
An old pagoda in Chinatown (Cholon) that I found while lost.

It can be intimating to walk into the unknown, but done with a bit of caution you will find the innermost secrets of your city. There were many times in Vietnam where I debated walking this way or that, but I just told myself that if I wandered too far, than somebody would tell me no and direct me to turn around. I walked onto school grounds, universities, mysterious churches, and an uncountable number of narrow alleys that teemed with life and the daily activities of the local population.

A school.
An school I came across while wandering aimlessly.

City exploration requires an open attitude, a good sense of location, some bravery, and finally a good pair of shoes. There’s nothing worse than walking down street after street, lost and confused in the hot sun, while your shoes feel as though they are melting off your feet. For a better experience go with a friend and you will have a better chance of overcoming moments of doubt and hopefully you both can keep from getting lost!

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