A Tay on Wheels
Motorbikes in Hanoi. Alright, so it’s been a while since my last (and first and only) post. I could come up with any number of excuses...
Alright, so it’s been a while since my last (and first and only) post. I could come up with any number of excuses – I was busy, I had writer’s block, I caught a rare disease that incapacitated my hands – but the truth is that I was simply lazy. I doubt that I was missed, but sorry anyway. I’d like to say it won’t happen again, but it probably will. Just hopefully not as long. So, moving on…
This may be a somewhat unpopular opinion, but… I like driving a motorbike in Hanoi.
Hear me out.
Yes, the traffic is annoying and crazy. I often count my lucky stars for not knowing a lot of dirty language in Vietnamese, because I’d be spouting it a lot. At people that absolutely need to pass me on the left 2 meters before they take a right turn. At people who feel that while driving a motorbike is the perfect time for them to check their Facebook comments. At people who seem to think their horn creates a force field, so they keep it blaring while they speed through tiny openings in traffic with no regard for anyone else or even themselves.
Yet still, I enjoy it. It feels a bit like a video game. One of those where you have to constantly dodge obstacles.
I learned how to drive a motorbike in Hanoi, under rather questionable circumstances. I’d lived in the city for just about 2 months when I decided that the constant Ubers (yes, I’ve been here that long) would start straining my budget at some point. So I decided to rent a motorbike. I’d never even sat on one before and, of course, I didn’t have a license.
“No problem,” said a friend. “I know a guy.”
Intrigued and naïve, I booked what would be my last Uber for a while to a bike shop in Cau Giay district. I entered a yard that was literally covered in motorbikes of all sizes – from little electric scooters to big old roaring monsters. In a back corner of the yard, I found a small table that seemed to be a reception and waiting area wrapped into one. I found the usual small plastic chairs and had a seat, waiting for a human to appear from the mountain of bikes.
Eventually, a young woman strolled around a corner and glimpsed me sitting there, looking rather uncomfortable.
“Hi!” she said to me. “You need a motorbike?”
Looking at my surroundings, which were almost entirely made up of motorbikes, I pondered making a stupid joke about how I was actually there to get a small business loan, but I decided against it.
“Yeah,” I answered. “But I really don’t know much about motorbikes.”
“No problem,” she replied, grinning. “Most people who come here don’t. Just wait a minute and I’ll get the paperwork ready.”
She pulled a sheet of paper from a container under the table and began filling out a form. Looking up at me, she indicated a bowl on the table and said, “Help yourself.” Finding that the contents of the bowl were candy and cigarettes, I shook my head politely. Asking for my passport, the woman copied my personal information into the form and stood.
“Please wait here a minute,” she said. “I’ll get someone to help you pick out a motorbike.”
I nodded my thanks and kept waiting on my increasingly uncomfortable chair.
Just a few minutes later, a man of around 40 came up to me with energetic steps, clutching the same paper form in his hands.
“What motorbike you want?” he asked without a word of introduction.
“Um, I’m not really sure,” I replied.
He nodded, seeming to understand. “Beginner, yes?”
“Um, yes, that’s right,” I said.
He nodded again and looked around, theatrically stretching his neck as if he was playing Romeo looking for his Juliet. Finally, he seemed to have spotted what he was looking for and pulled a red and white scooter from among the masses. He began to push it out of the yard and beckoned me to follow.
I followed him to an alley behind the shop, where he put the bike on its stand and turned to me.
“Sit,” he said to me, indicating the scooter’s seat.
I complied, balancing precariously. He leaned down, turned the key and started the engine, which came to life hacking like a heavy smoker. He turned it off again.
“Now you,” he said, pointing at the button he had pressed to start it. After a few tries, I got the general idea.
“Good,” he said, nodding approvingly. “When you turn here,” he continued, pointing at the right handle, “you go. You can try here in this street.”
Following his instructions, I began to carefully give the bike some gas until I had the confidence to go all the way down the alley and back. The man nodded again. “Ok, you do that a few times. For training,” he said. I nodded, riding the bike up and down the alley a few times.
“Ok, good,” he finally said, telling me to get off the bike and pushing it back into the yard. He pulled me back toward the table. “Sign here,” he said, indicating a dotted line at the bottom of the form. I did.
“Ok, drive safe,” he said, handing me the key and walking off with the same energy that had brought him to me. I sat back down on the bike and put the key in the ignition. I donned the helmet that had been included with the rental and started the engine. It came to life again, now sounding a bit healthier and livelier, like an orphan excited to be adopted.
With my heart beating fast and butterflies in my stomach, I carefully left the yard and turned toward the street and Hanoi traffic.
Now, luckily, I didn't die that day, even though I was woefully unprepared for what awaited me. The bike turned out to be a Yamaha Nuovo (of course) and a bit of a piece of junk (of course), but in the years since, I've graduated to some more suitable wheels. I've also learned the "rules" of Hanoi traffic and feel that I'm one of the safer drivers out there.
In hindsight, would I do it that way again? Probably not. Whenever I tell my Western friends and family members the story of how I was first introduced to driving in Hanoi, they always look at me like I had just told them about a particularly exciting game of Russian Roulette. And maybe it was.
Either way, I still like driving here. And who knows, maybe one of these days, I'll even learn some Vietnamese curse words. Thoughs hopefully not.
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