Reflections and stories on six months of life, culture, food and friendship in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Bike from Hung Yen

I am now 100% moto enabled. I have joined the great sea of churning engines and much to my surprise, I love it! I've only had it about a month. It sat in my front room practically unmoved for the first week because all my time was spent in cabs with my parents during their visit. Also I was scared. Finally I broke through the inertia while they were away in Angkor. I got up my nerve, rolled it out in the alleyway, turned the key - but went nowhere. The engine wouldn't start. So I called up the rental agency and a guy with a toolbox appeared in my alleyway in about 15 minutes. I expected him to roll up his sleeves and get all dirty. Instead he listened to my problem, pulled out this lever thing called "the choke", hit ignition and the engine roared. Thankfully on his way over I had discovered that the front tire was also nearly flat, and this succeeded in redeeming my call and saving face. (This was my second humiliation that morning. Earlier I had my landlord send a plumber to check my water pressure which had not been the same since they installed a new water tank on my roof. I showed him the pathetic sprinkle of my shower and he just adjusted the shower head. It sort of half did the trick, and succeeded make me look like a totally helpless tay.)

I think my parents had mixed feelings seeing me roll up on my moto to greet them when they returned. As it was they were generally traumatized by the traffic in Hanoi. The surprising thing is that the traffic isn't nearly as scary when you are an active part in it. Maybe it's just an illusion of control. In any case, I got used to it very quickly, and now I can't imagine why it took me so long to dive in. I wish I had taken the leap earlier because it has changed my whole relationship to the city. Suddenly Hanoi has expanded. I am rapidly constructing a new mental map of the city including the directions of the one-way streets (never noticed them before). Also I now have a more effective way of exploring the mind-boggling network of alleyways surrounding my neighbourhood. It feels like there are dozens of hidden villages tucked away down long quirky tunnel-like alleys filled with little teashops, barbershops, internet cafes and produce spread out on mats. These hidden worlds are harder to explore on foot.

It's also made me feel much less dependent on people and has given me a new sense of freedom. I don't have to wait for some kind soul to volunteer to help me with mundane errands. In fact on a few occasions I have been the one ferrying around my Viet friends; this always seems to result in bemused sideways glances at traffic lights. The most fun is driving in a late night convoy on the long haul from Apo to Sheraton on Saturday. After Apo closes we often make the 30-40 ride up the side of West Lake to the Sheraton for the (only) after-hours scene. Hanoi's sidewalks fold up well before midnight, even on the weekends, so the streets are generally vacant by the time we start our procession. Although we could make it there in much less time, we drive very slowly in a group. I used to wonder why we drove so slowly on empty streets - until I realized that maybe it is the highlight of the evening, not because of the route, but because it is a social time. With virtually no traffic we can ride as a group alongside each other. The conversation drifts back and forth between bikes. I understand little of it unless they accommodate me with a little English, but the humour is infectious. Our pod of bikes reconfigures and regroups as the conversations float back and forth. There is a such freedom and beauty in the empty tree-lined boulevards at night, the rushing air, and the fellowship of good friends. I'm always sorry when we reach our destination.

That first week riding I knew I had to face my xe om driver. Actually I think he must have heard the news before he saw me roll up the alley, such is the neighbourhood gossip. The first day I took it for a practice run around the block, some man pulled up alongside me on my street, said something to me with a quizzical look on his face and pulled away again. I'm sure he was one of the local xe om drivers and this strange sighting would be reported up and down the street by the end of the day. When I finally screwed up enough courage to attempt my commute to work, I had to drive it out the alley past poor Binh waiting for me and my daily 20,000 VND. All I had to say was "Binh oi" and point to the bike beneath me. I'm sure his heart sank. What else to say? I waved goodbye and intended to zip off gracefully into the traffic. Instead I hit the gas, and the bike sputtered and died. Binh had to help me get it started again. In addition, it seems every morning I always forget to put my kickstand up and manage to scrape it on the speed bump next to where he sits. He may have seen his daily 20 nghin dry up but at least he's got some entertainment. One morning he tried to hop on the back of my moto.

My commute to work was the ultimate test for me. It is long, dusty, and chaotic. Now I feel confident and even enjoy it in a sick kind of way. It is exhilarating to be motoring along the boulevards, the only tay for miles it seems, having mastered the art of the Vietnamese rush hour.

On the other hand, sometimes my confidence crumbles when I am confronted by the violence of the road. I have seen death a number of times: twisted motobikes and bicycles, immobile riders lying on the street surrounded by crowds. Late one night I found myself driving through a pool of blood. Apparently, Vietnam is second in the world in incidence of traffic fatalities (China being the first). There are many reasons why this is so and I'll leave it to this blog to explain. Before you all click on the comments button below and plead with me to wear a helmet, I should mention I'm already wearing one. It is a cool black helmet cut above the ears with two white stripes running down the middle, and a subtle little visor. Very CHiPs. I am hoping to start a fashion craze.

There are also other little annoyances I'm discovering. For instance, this city is not made for contact lenses. My eyes burn after a ride of any length. Then there is the recurring Hanoi cold. In fact, it's not a cold at all but an exhaust induced nasal allergy that flares up after one too many rush hours on Chua Boc (must be seen - or inhaled - to be believed). Finally there is my battle with drowsiness. It takes me a couple ca phe den das to truly awaken to the world each morning. In the summer I used to blame this on the stifling heat and humidity. Now I've decided that I'm just half asphyxiated and it takes me a couple hours each morning to awaken from my carbon monoxide stupour.

Most license plates in Hanoi start with 29 or 31. This is the mark of a native Hanoian, and there is a kind of snobbery about other numbers, especially those from the country. My plate reads 89. I had no idea where this was until recently when I was parking my bike at a cafe, and the attendant got all excited pointing at the number and then himself. Hung Yen province it turns out. I guess he figures I'm another village boy just downstream. It seems my license plate has thoroughly cemented my image as Tay Nha Que.

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Anonymous Fat_Nonsense said...

I like your blog since I've just been there myself and have similiar experiences... at least concerning the bike :D.
The last line really knocked me off the chair: "Tay nha que" ... hahaha, too funny.
If you go on my page and like the background-picture, tell me, I have a few good shots... but maybe a bit blurry ones. The background picture was taken on Giang Vo road around midnight

7:27 AM

Blogger Robert said...

I was recently in Vietnam, in Ho Chi Minh City, and in trying to get out of the city, I had caught a taxi through the demented rush hour streets, to the International Airport. The traffic was hellish, though intoxicating. At one point in the journey, the crowds both on and off the street seemed to intensify, and a general sense of alarm began to develop in the air. There were old women beating their breasts, concerned. I had the feeling that something significant was going on. Suddenly I realized there had been an accident -- and all of a sudden, a guy walked past my cab, carrying a young woman whose head was drenched in blood. On the other side of me, a young guy was loading up his motorbike with a couple of sheets of plate glass windows. It was just another day, in the mad maelstrom of Ho Chi Minh City traffic flow.

Saigon Food.

12:49 PM


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