The Motorbike Diaries

Motorbike parking in front of the Cathedral in the Old Quarter.

This is how I know I am American: my first response to being cut off while driving, gently tapped by a taxi or nearly crushed under a bus is to shout or mutter “Motherfucker!” Not “Putain connard,” in French, not “Oi gioi oi” in Vietnamese. Motherfucking Jesus fucking mother of Christ motherfucker!

We tend to express anger in most fluently in our native languages. I’ll never be Vietnamese, despite honing my mad motorbike skillz on a daily basis. Unfortunately, I’ll never be French either. The best thing would be a combination of the three languages, encapsulated in a smooth, “Putain d’oi gioi motherfucker” as my bike starts to wobble as a result of a flat tire.

Some of my more sensitive readers won’t appreciate this language. Likely, they’ve never driven in Hanoi. This is my commute, in pictures.

Morning commute down Thai Ha

Hanoi is home to about 8 million people and is expanding rapidly, incorporating smaller towns each year. (The population is growing so rapidly that the government encourages couples to have only two children. That’s a subject for another post, though). Hanoi sometimes feels like a small town: the expats know or know of one another (it’s best to avoid a reputation); it doesn’t take too long to get from one place to another. But the immensity of the city becomes evident during rush hour.

Morning rush hour at the intersection of Chua Boc and Tay Son.

Rush hour lasts from about 7:00 to 9:00 and 16:30 to 19:00 but there is a (slightly) smaller rush hour during the middle of the day because people may go home or run errands during lunch and siesta, which is usually from 11:00 to 13:00. The roads fill with motorbikes, bicycles, cars, taxis, buses, trucks and pedestrians, all vying to be the first to roar off three seconds before the red light changes to green.

When I first arrived, the traffic seemed illogical, unpredictable and terrifying. I no longer fear the traffic, largely because I can predict when another driver is going to cut me off or where a bus will be ten metres from now. Logic, I am learning, has little to do with staying in your lane or staying on your side of the street. It’s more about driving in a way that makes sense and keeps you safe. Emphasize you. If you get into an accident and can still drive off afterward, I’ve been warned, do so quickly. There’s no insurance and no one’s going to help you, although they might steal your purse.

The traffic is a dance less choreographed than improvised. You follow the beat, avoiding the oncoming onslaught of vehicles, honking as much as possible.

Unfortunately, sometimes the streets look like this...

And, unfortunately, sometimes your motorbike is stolen from in front of your house.  Putain d’oi gioi motherfucker!



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