Vietnam & It’s People: Views From a Motorbike

*Upon review, this essay could be misinterpreted as a damning screed against the good people of the Republic. While it’s true that driving a motorbike here is a challenge to nerve, life and limb, I must be clear: I have been welcomed here and I appreciate Vietnam and it’s citizens to no end. By a long stretch, the folks I’ve met and felt a fight-or-flight instinct towards since my arrival have been (surprise?) Americans. End of disclaimer.

First of all, let’s get one thing straight, because with a bit of thought, the reader will gain tremendous insight into many aspects of daily life in Vietnam, all from one simple fact: for transportation in Vietnam, the runaway #1 most popular means is by motorbike.

I’m a junior-grade expat at best, but I can go on and on about the Vietnamese culture with the tone of an authority just by having driven around Bien Hoa on a 135cc Yamaha Jupiter for a couple of months. In one 15-minute ride, anyone on a motorbike will learn the Vietnamese’s thoughts on fate, economy, efficiency, ingenuity, and regard for his fellow man.

Ingenuity comes in the form of the various and spectacular ways that one person on a motorbike can manage to haul more freight than I could manage to cram into the back of an average minivan. My research tells me that there is a specific brand of metalworker here in Vietnam, and if you can rough out a sketch of a rack on the back of a napkin, he can knock it together while you have a coffee. Screw in onto your ride, and you’ve just increased your payload exponentially. Make sure you load carefully, because balance rapidly becomes an issue. Don’t bother telling that to an experienced local driver, though, because he won’t believe you or just won’t care. I’m constantly amazed while motoring around Bien Hoa, and this is but one of many reasons.

Efficiency is partially explained above, and the rest of the story is better told if you’ve ever seen a photo of a family of five riding on a single motorbike designed to carry a driver and possibly one passenger. Incidentally, if you see 10 people on motorbikes pass by you in Bien Hoa, probably 6 or 7 of the drivers will be wearing face masks, either paper or cloth. This is due to the prevalence of exhaust fumes you’ll encounter. These same motorbikers will make an ‘illegal’ left turn against a light and oncoming traffic with the daring of Evel Knievel 3 times in a 10-minute ride, but they’re apparently quite concerned about the health of their lungs. Whimsy.

Economy is yet another factor for which to commend the Vietnamese 2-wheeled commuter. Again, one can point to the above qualities to help explain this virtue, but after some thought, I wonder about the long-term economics of overloading a motorbike to such extremes only to spend your commute gripping the throttle handle with one hand and texting with the other. Surely your gas mileage will suffer, and the bike will take extra wear and tear, along with your body and that of those unlucky enough to be near you when your last texted ‘OMG’ is followed closely by dying horribly and actually meeting your God.

Which brings us to the SE Asian people’s ideas about Fate. In short, they believe in it with whole hearts. Nobody could careen southward down a northbound lane with the go-lucky pluck I’ve witnessed without believing that our destinies are pre-ordained. I admire this belief, at least as it pertains to driving a motorbike. Otherwise, your stress can reach dangerous levels.

Personally, I’ve had my share of close shaves in my five months here. Just last night a masked driver with a masked passenger crossed my lane from the curb to the opposite lane so close I could smell his aftershave (he did a typical ‘merge’ maneuver – instead of entering traffic with the flow, he cruised along the curb, going the wrong way, and wedged into a crack of space, forcing incoming traffic to part in front of him, and angled across oncoming traffic until he made it into the lane going the way he wanted to go. Still can’t picture it? I hope you never have to). I felt like I’d just seen a squirrel dart under the wheels of my car at the last second, except I was on a motorbike, and so was the squirrel.

On Thanksgiving Day of this past year, I was driving to work. I happened to see a whisp of a girl ahead, no more than 10 years old, teetering along the street on a gigantic bicycle she had no business riding. She struggled to steer and pump the pedals as I gave her a wide berth. Not wide enough, however, to avoid a collision course when she jerked the handlebars to the left 90 degrees and crossed my path with little to no warning. I locked up my brakes and instantly became more intimate with my motorbike and the gritty gray tarmac of the Bien Hoa street than I could ever have imagined. I don’t think I hit the girl or her bicycle, thanks to the grip with which asphalt adheres to corduroy and my skin. Before I could stand, the girl had retreated to her mom’s fruit stand, where she hid, crying from shock and embarrassment, I suppose. I brushed myself off, swearing, and looked at my stinging hands, one of which was skinned up, the other which looked like so:


If I had traced it onto a sheet of paper, my hand would have made a turkey with a badly bent tailfeather. It was only dislocated, and today I can bend it again, not quite as far, but far enough, I guess. It could have been a lot worse for the girl, not to mention me. Anything to get out of teaching a couple of ESL classes…

I was instantly surrounded by helpful VN, who grabbed my motorbike and wheeled it off the street, asked after my health, looked with horror at my hand, and offered me a bottled water, which I accepted gladly. I managed to take the iPhone photo with a shaky hand before going into shock, and I called my boss, Ms. Khanh, as well. She arrived within minutes and took me to the local bone clinic, where I received a quick set of X-rays, some ibuprofen, and a local anesthetic and finger relocation. My color came back thereafter, and I even had a beer.

I’ve driven as far a Ho Chi Minh City and back, and I was following another foreign teacher who was bent on breaking a land speed record, so that was fun. If nothing else, I established a benchmark for my own bike’s top speed (85 kph, or roughly 52mph) while surrounded by similarly daring bikers and convoys of megaton giant trucks. My next mode of transport to the city will almost certainly be by train or bus, thanks.

What other news? Well, the Tet Holiday looms, that’s 2 weeks off of work with no definite plans as of yet. I have been spending much potential blogging time engaged with a couple of projects. As I was unable to afford to buy a decent acoustic guitar on arrival, I made do with a handmade and wonderful tenor ukulele, and I’m getting the hang of it, as well as a deep affection, I must say. Also, I brought to Vietnam a small keyboard (music) controller and Logic Pro 9, an awesome music recording program on my Mac, and I’ve been doing a good deal of composing and recording in the electronic genre, which has been a hoot. As a terminal late-bloomer, I hold out hope for my songs to go viral upon release (they remain to be mixed – I’m saving up for speakers) and spawn a new career for myself as a jet-set international DJ/producer/musician. The truth is that I’m grateful for having these distractions, since Bien Hoa, while a lovely town, doesn’t hold much for me in terms of a social life. I knew this going in, hence the extra luggage.

I also continue to learn more about effective ESL teaching on a daily basis. My fabulous training at the Tennessee Foreign Language Institute (TFLI) was geared more towards teaching adult learners, and but my job involves this demographic no more than 30% or so. So there’s much room for gaining wisdom on teaching kids, which it turns out that I really like.

I remember driving a 49cc scooter around Boston for just about 3 weeks when I thought “Man, I want a bigger bike”. My 135cc is at the upper end of legal displacement here in Vietnam unless you have special dispensation. The speed limits (for what they are worth) top out around 50kph anyway, so unless you are on a desolate stretch with no traffic, a heavy bike really serves no purpose here. Still, I can see myself graduating to such a beast upon my return to less restrictive lands. My fear of a clutch, etc., has fallen away, that’s what more immediate fear for injury will do to you. What will my two-wheeled future hold? I will answer with the most useful Vietnamese phrase I’ve this far memorized: Toi khong biet (I don’t know).