Hell on Two Wheels

Since landing in Vietnam, I haven’t been able to get Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s recent ode to mopeds – Downtown – out of my head.

My seat is leather, alright, I’m lying, it’s pleather
But girl, we could still ride together
You don’t need an Uber, you don’t need a cab
F*** a bus pass, you got a moped man…

No matter where I’ve been in this country – from the chaotic streets of Ho Chi Minh City to the mountain town of Dalat to the chilled out beachside of Nha Trang, motorcycles, scooters and mopeds are everywhere.  Sure, there’s the occasional private car and a fair number of taxi cabs, but to bastardize an Animal Farm quote (fittingly), “two wheels good, four wheels bad.”

Have you ever felt the warm embrace of the leather seat between your legs?

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I’ve avoided being on a motorcycle since being in Vietnam, mostly out of my own fear for not having any balance.  I wanted to try my hand at a scooter when I was in Langkawi, but having never been on a motorized bike of any kind before, it was a deal breaker for the guy who was renting it out to me (and that scooter looked more like a Gixxer than it did a Vespa).

There are “easy riders” here in Vietnam who offer motorcycle tours or even to just get you from point a to point b in lieu of a taxi.  But there’s still something about that which trips the fear switch in my brain (especially with a 15kg backpack in tow).

Don’t get me wrong, I like motorcycles.  There’s something kinda edgy to them.  It’s even a little lusty on my part.  But my reluctance to learn to ride while in the country with the one city that has more motorcycles in it than anywhere else in the world (that’d be Hanoi) was confirmed on my first night at the Mojzo Dorm hostel in Nha Trang.

A big strapping guy – 6’2″, looks like he plays hockey or rugby – walked in from a day out with buddies wearing the war wound of road rash all the way up his left arm.  He crashed his bike en route from Dalat (an especially treacherous, yet popular, stretch of highway for motorcycle enthusiasts).  He was okay, but – damn… those scars looked bad.  Like really bad.  But he shook it off.  It didn’t phase him.

Throwing up the “West Side” as we tear in the air…

For visitors – like my friend Mike (in the video above) who was much more adventurous during his visit here than I am in many ways – there is a real gift that comes as a result of cruising along Vietnam’s highways by motorcycle.  You can see so much more.  You are more agile – and better able to stop and check out the places the tour buses pass by.  And when you come across a beautiful vista, you can press the pause button to enjoy it just a little longer.

For locals – the utility of motorbikes is undeniable.  Just like for their guests, zipping along through traffic on two wheels lets people easily get to where they need to be. I’ve seen people weaving through the streets, alleys, and on sidewalks, carry everything on their bikes as well – from diapers to tanks containing various compressed gasses and liquids for restaurants, to large bags of god only know what.

And, it’s not just people riding solo.  I’ve watched as families of four – mom, dad, and two kids – have piled on to the elongated pleather seat of a motorcycle and jet off down the road.

I got one girl, I got two wheels
She a big girl but ain’t a big deal
I like a big girl, I like ’em sassy
Going down the backstreet listening to Blackstreet

Know I run the streets, boy…

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As for me, as a pedestrian, I come fourth in the food chain in Vietnam – after motorcycles, taxis, and buses.  The challenge sounds simple – cross the street without getting hit.  But it’s easier said than done.

My friend Corey said on episode 25 of the podcast that I should move like the “most predictable road pylon in the world.”  And he’s not kidding.  After almost two weeks in Vietnam, I’ve learned to understand what that movement is like.

I’ve had to throw everything Sesame Street taught me about crossing the road out the window.

I’ve stood in the middle four lanes of traffic having conquered one side of the road, only to keep watch for a gap on the other side, somewhere between motorcycles and either well before or just after a larger vehicle like a taxi or a bus.  I’ve stood in the middle of a lane waiting for motorcycles in the one closest to the curb to pass.  I’ve scurried, scampered, and sprinted just to make it across the road.

If I only had one helmet I would give it to you…

Surprisingly in my entire time in Vietnam, I’ve only ever witness the aftermath of one motorcycle accident (besides the guy with bro’d rash) and that was in Ho Chi Minh City.  A guy got tossed from his bike somehow, and he was sitting on the side of the road with some friends a little dazed and confused.  He was alive, but his bike was in pretty rough shape.

According to a (somewhat dated) study by the Vietnamese-German University’s Transport Research Centre, motorcycle accidents hit a peak in 2001 with more than 25,000 accidents, over 30,000 injuries, and nearly 15,000 deaths.  By 2009, the number of accidents and injuries had fallen, but the number of deaths had remained pretty constant.  It’s stats like that which make my analytical brain unwilling to take the risk – even though the side of me which craves a little adventure wants to hop on.

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It’s taken some getting used to seeing motorcycles everywhere in Vietnam.  And, be damned if I can’t get the Macklemore song out of my head every time I’m pounding the pavement to the whizz of the two wheels going past me on the road.

I regret being a little too chicken to give it a try, but for now I’ll gladly watch from the sidewalk (also known as the bike parking lot) and crank up the music.  It’s interesting to watch the combinations and permutations of people cruising through the streets.

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