Motorcycle Diaries

If you want to view paradise; Simply look around and view it; Anything you want to, do it; Want to change the world? There’s nothing; To it

Wonka, W.

I’ll begin by going backwards. If you can remember back, way back, before a drunken Friday night cost me my sight and three years of my life, I had a job, a real job. It was here I learnt a lesson that’s served me well, it was that expectation can be the enemy of experience.

My company was sending me on a four week trip. I was to spend two weeks in Los Angeles and a further two weeks in Toronto. Needless to say, it was an exciting prospect. I spent endless evenings surrounded by skylines of imaginary palm trees and days walking the phantom sun soaked streets of the beautiful people. To be fair, Los Angeles could never have lived up to such levels of expectation and, looking back, it’s no surprise that its endless rows of low rise smog stained housing schemes and permanent traffic jams failed to so singularly do so. Toronto however, a city I had given practically no thought to, blew me away. Its vertiginous skyscrapers and wide city streets created an impression upon me that few places have matched since.

Don’t worry, I’m going somewhere with this.

A few days ago I was on my motorbike, way out beyond the city limits, as paddy fields, mangrove swamps and fishing ponds sped past and the sun started to set over the perfectly flat horizon as the world transformed itself into a costume of orange, red and ocher. Below me the bike hummed and I was alone with Vietnam, the only sound my own engine as I rode through a strange and silent landscape. It then occurred to me, quite suddenly, that unknown to myself, I had betrayed my own rule and imagined exactly this scene; exactly that landscape and exactly that motorbike and here it was, rendered tangible in perfect, high definition reality. I grinned so wide my face nearly cracked in two.

That’s a nice ending to a nice anecdote, so I’ll leave it there for now.

Motorbikes are an every day fact of every life here. The city buzzes to the soundtrack of Honda and Yamaha. Government policy is firmly against the car, so families, young Mothers, pensioners and immaculate office workers in immaculate suits all take to the streets on two wheels and still, the traffic can hit gridlock. Whole families of four – and sometimes upwards – sit in rows upon the same scooter, with babies nestled between them for protection. The unhelmeted heads of toddlers peer sleepily over the handlebars of countless mopeds, safe in the knowledge that an adult is in charge. Anything that needs to be carried, from propane tanks to trees, is carried by scooter. It’s stunning. No one ever looks behind them, they just go. Here, the responsibility for not colliding with another bike has shifted from those maneuvering, to those riding. This is not a system where liability counts for much. Rather, this is a system where not hitting anyone counts for everything.

Crossing the road is in itself a leap of faith. Nothing stops the traffic. Pedestrians have no option but to step blindly into the thick five deep lanes of honking and competing motorbikes and make their slow way across the road in the fervent hope that the motorbikes will avoid them, which – universally – they do. Through this jungle of scooters and motorbikes, xe oms, (pronounced, ‘zayoms’) the motorbike taxis that seem to switch business models between transportation, drug dealing and low level pimping hustle and push as they force their way through the over heated and sweltering mass. I’m making it sound dreadful, I know, but it isn’t. It’s amazing and breath taking in equal measure.

I’m going to go off on a tangent for a little bit, so bear with me. I’ll start by creating entirely the wrong impression and tell you that I owned my first car when I was twelve years old. However, while this was certainly an amazing privilege it didn’t stem from a life of one. Rather, my best friend and I scrimped and saved, doing every odd job imaginable until we had the £25 needed to buy a broken down 1.6L cream Hilman Avenger, (we painted a Starsky and Hutch stripe on the side in red oxide paint – it looked brilliant) which we would then sit in, taking it in turns to tear around the fields of my friend’s Father’s farm.  What I’m trying to say is that, if it was fairly normal to have a car at twelve, having access to a motorbike was, for me and my brothers, (back when that was still plural. I might write more about that at some point, but not now) was pretty much par for the course. The point is that, even with that level of experience, I would still look out into the Saigon traffic and wonder how it was even possible to take part in the shambolic carnival that crashed and bounced its way around the streets.

Of course, there was another reason too, one whose mere mention is always enough to bring out the worst in me.  It was true I’d ridden quite a few motorbikes. However, that was with two eyes, rather than just the one that bad luck and bad tempers had left me with; and that peering out at the world through a thick layer of moulded plastic. I’ll be honest, I was hovering somewhere over the grim borderland between nervous and scared. However, some facts are never to be admitted, not even to ourselves. To acknowledge them is to give them shape. Soon shape becomes form and form becomes tangible. Forget what the cod psychologists tell you. Sometimes it really is best to just push the fear down and take a step forward. The alternative is no kind of option.

Either way, I got on the bike.

I think, if it had been left to me, I’d have sat staring at the traffic for an age, taking my time on strategy and denying the nerves that were keeping me pedestrianized. However, after a loose agreement with a friend to rent a pair of bikes turned suddenly to hard reality I had little choice.  The scale of freedom having a bike has lent life here is hard to convey.

Spotted from the bike; transporting live bees

Suddenly nothing was out of reach and southern Vietnam was suddenly lain at my doorstep. However, following my girlfriend’s arrival from Moscow, the limits of the rented scooter became pretty apparent and a more solid solution was required, which was when I saw the Bonus. The first thing I noticed was that it was big. More to the point, it was big, black and dirty. It sounded more like a tractor than a motorbike and I fell absolutely in love with it.

… and it was on the Bonus, grinning from ear to ear as the sun went down, miles out of Saigon, when the float in the carburetor seized and I was left at the side of the road with what was now little more than a scrap metal anchor, which – if you remember – is just after where we came in.

However, in a world peopled by motorbikes there is a solution to most problems and a xe om driver turned out to be mine. As I was crouched by my bike, furiously hitting the carburetor with a stick, I became aware of a figure sitting on a moped at the side of the road, watching me and laughing.  He had a proposition. After some fairly frantic hand signals and a few desperate phone calls to a Vietnamese friend, I came to understand what it was; he planned on pushing me back to the city. That is, he would ride his moped with his left leg pointed out at a right angle to his body and use this to push the rear of my bike back into the city. Whatever concerns I may have harboured over this plan didn’t really count for much. The sun was now down and I was no closer to getting either me or my motorbike back to Saigon. I had little choice but to agree.

I think the memory of that ride will linger for a while. Traffic makes no concessions to the broken or the impaired and in a continued Darwinian frenzy of noise and speed, the xe om driver and I pushed our way through. Similarly, pushing my much heavier bike did little to restrain the xe om driver’s bullish approach to road etiquette. Within what must have been ten minutes of entering the city, it soon became apparent that he was using my bike more as battering ram than paying cargo. Roundabouts, chaotic at the best of times, were approached with a speed and confidence I’ve never experienced as a xe om passenger. The Bonus and I would be pushed mercilessly into the midst of the whirling traffic, while his grinning face would take refuge against the deafening roar of the approaching motorbikes in my lee.

If this sounds ungrateful or churlish, I don’t mean it to be. He got me and the Bonus home without incident and for that, I’m grateful. More to the point, I had the whole carburetor replaced the following day. Of course, since that incident absolutely nothing has gone wrong with the bike and it has been a daily pleasure to ride. That would also be a nice ending to an anecdote. Sadly, however, it’s not a true one. The bike’s been back in the garage twice and started making a strange noise earlier today, but it’s not going anywhere just yet. Because, every now and then , it works perfectly and I head out to the fish ponds, the mangrove swamps and the paddy fields and think back to a cold Moscow afternoon when I sat in my room and tried to imagine what life would be like here. Then, I grin like an idiot.

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This entry was posted in Ho Chi Minh, Saigon, Travel, Uncategorized, Vietnam and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Motorcycle Diaries

  1. zosiav says:

    It is the coolest feeling when you are doing something abroad, and suddenly realize it’s exactly what you imagined you would be doing. I remember having that feeling when I was traveling around East Africa reporting for the organization, running around with a bandana on my head and a notebook in my head. Life can be so incredible.

  2. Andy says:

    Hey Simon,
    It sounds like youre living life the way life should be lived. Looking forward to the next instalment.

  3. rob downes says:

    nice one si. have you been to hue yet?

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