This afternoon I rented out a semi-automatic Honda Dream motorbike after living in Saigon for over a year. So far my relationship with two wheels has consisted of a month-long fling with an electric bike called Rob that went about 20mph and now sits in the basement garage covered in a pink plastic raincoat, with the front basket filled with an old helmet and empty 2-stroke oil bottles for Gareth’s crosser bike, and a flat tyre. Poor Rob. He served me well on my 10-15 minute commutes to the local primary school. Alas, the battery died after 4 weeks (I had to charge it after every hour of usage) and when I had to ‘slam on’ (at 10mph) because of some ignorant woman not looking, it completely ballsed-up my back tyre.
I also used a great automatic scooter on my trip during Tet that took me from Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat to Nha Trang, to Mui Ne back to Ho Chi Minh (1400 km). The bike only had one instance of a flat tyre during the whole journey. It was totally reliable and I will forever have fond memories of that scooter.
Renting the Honda Dream today had me thinking ‘Why haven’t I done this sooner?’. All of the friends I have made, men and women, ALL of them, have had their own bike. Most of them from day one. Some have rented while others have bought. I, on the other hand, have played it safe and taken buses, taxis and xe oms (moto taxis) to help me get around Saigon when I haven’t been able to hitch a ride from Gareth.
When I say ‘played it safe’ that doesn’t necessarily mean these options were the safest for me. I have been driven around by a few seemingly psychotic bus drivers, had my fair share of partially drunk and/or aggressive xe om drivers (but I must say, the majority of xe om drivers are so lovely and have driven very carefully) and been slightly ripped off by a taxi driver every now and then. All of these experiences are to be expected in a country inhabited by over 90 million people. One is going to meet every kind of individual, good and bad.
In Saigon, it is generally assumed that if you take the bus you are poor. I am certainly not poor but I’ve loved sitting on the bus and talking to people who want to practice their English and proud to show myself as a westerner using the public services. The handful of psychotic bus drivers are not the reason I have rented a bike.
I love seeing the gentle smile of my favourite xe om driver, who sits patiently outside my apartment building waiting for his next job. He’s so friendly and he has never ripped me off. The aggressive xe om drivers are not the reason I have rented a bike.
I have only had one memorable taxi ride. It was when my mum and her boyfriend came over to visit me in March. They sat at the back together while I sat up front and spent the 25 minute journey talking pidgin English with the sweetest man I have ever met. He told me about his children (‘my babies’, he said) and his wife (he was so proud of her) and his accomplishments (he had, in the last three years, become a taxi driver). The rip-off taxi drivers are not the reason I have rented a bike.
I have rented a bike because it really is the most practical solution for my social and commuting needs. I mean, if the 12 million riders of Saigon seem to think it’s a good idea then maybe I should have listened to them sooner.
The lady I rented the bike from dropped it off at my apartment at 6pm and, with her husband, gave me a few tips. The semi-automatic works by knocking a pedal up and down for each gear using the ball and heal of your left foot and the back-break is a pedal pressed down by the right foot. To get used to this I practiced going around my building a few times. Easy when there’s no traffic or obstacles in your way. As I was playing with the buttons on my dashboard I noticed I was on empty. There’s no time like the present so on my next whirl around I decided to take the exit onto the main road and head to the nearest petrol station. What I hadn’t considered was the fact it was just after 6pm, and the midst of peak hour.
I couldn’t turn back once I’d hit the flow of the multitude of bikes, so I carried on. I needed to immediately get into the left-hand lane to do a U-turn at the next set of traffic lights. With all the barefaced cheek I could muster, I slowly crawled over, elbowing my way across the two lanes. The U-turn was smooth, and in gear, so I zoomed down the emptier road towards the petrol station, which was on my right next to a crossroads.
The petrol station was full of people waiting to get their bikes filled. About 30 or so bikes lined up; a chaotic symphony at 6 pumps. My heart was pounding and I felt like a thousand watt spot light had just shone on me. I was being stared at by one and all. Half of me used to it; it happens every day in all public situations, half of me wanting to shout ‘Please, I’ve only just rented this bike, give me a break’. I turned off the ignition and tried to move forward using my legs. Shit, it was still in gear and wouldn’t move so I needed to drop down into neutral. Tap, tap, push – still not moving. Tap, tap, push – nope. I gave it another try this time going up and down thinking that was going to make everything better. ‘What a fool’, I heard one man think. ‘She doesn’t know anything’, thought a girl sitting on her mum’s bike beside me. In the end I turned the ignition on and tapped until I couldn’t tap anymore, or at least until the green neutral light popped on.
Phew. I was now able to move my bike closer so I threw my leg over and walked the bike a few steps. I then leaned the bike against me so as to pop open the seat to get to the petrol cap. I twisted the key and heard a click then tried to pull up the seat. It wasn’t happening. Again? Didn’t work. I used the other key but that didn’t fit.
Key in. Turn, Click, Open? No!
Three minutes of this until a young man came over to help me. I was filled with gratitude and shame. ‘Call yourself a modern woman?!’, he thought. I sheepishly pushed my bike closer towards the pump and without further embarrassment, within 60 seconds I was filled up and reversing out.
At the crossroads I waited for the traffic on my right to stop so I could ride across it and get onto my building’s side of the road. Into gear, I whizzed past and noticed a taxi turning across my path from the road ahead, so I slowed down accordingly. I turned onto my road, too wide and not slow enough it seems, and found myself the receiver of a torrent of beeps from someone on a bike who had been behind the taxi. Oops, my bad.
Mirror, signal, maneuver, breathe, and I was now on the calm, motorbike-free tarmac of my building’s entrance. I rolled down the steep decline into the basement and I parked up, deciding that would be enough adventure for today.
Don’t let this put you off if you intend on spending a significant amount of time in the city and decide to get a bike. Everyone has to start somewhere, and hey, I’m still alive.