Instead of the familiar “Tuk-tuk! Where you go?” Vietnam has its own “Hello! Motorbike?”. Tuk-tuks never made it to Vietnam for some reason, but motorbike taxis are literally everywhere. You do not need spending energy finding them, they will find you instead and offer their services again and again despite your protests. Motorbikes are widespread all over South East Asia, but in Vietnam they are truly universal. Cars are for rich people, motorbikes are for everyone. Traffic jams are the problem, but I never saw one. The traffic has a life of its own and just flows, even if it is appears like utter chaos. Everybody does their own thing with no consideration to what is happening in the rear mirror whatsoever. Honk is the only tool you need in Vietnam. This strategy works too, just like individual cells in an organism. Every one of the bunch functions on its own producing a collective end result. Once I had a (mis-)fortune to ride a motorbike through the rush hour of Da Nang with Tigen from Australia on the back seat. This is something I wanted to avoid at all costs (Lonely Planet dubbed the traffic of Da Nang as murderous), but ended up driving right into the center of Da Nang. Right in the peak of rush hour. The intensity of the ride was unforgettable. Chaos is only an illusion. Once you become one with the traffic, everything makes perfect sense. You drive forward, you do your thing, you honk at other people. It works. At times like this the process of driving turns into a computer game like simulation. Focused attention and intensity of the moment. No fear. I was rather amused at the whole thing, but Tigen was petrified. Indeed, passenger’s role usually has more of a fear factor to it.
Three people on a motorbike is a norm. I realized only recently that mopeds like Honda Wave / Dream are actually designed for three people. On some models there is even a sticker in the backside of the bike with two girls suggesting that a guy and two girls on a bike is a way to go. Three persons is nothing special, probably even legal. Once I was a passenger on a bike with three other adults. I was tired and wanted to go to sleep, but a tout wanted to give us a lift to a bar. I was foolish enough to joke about fitting four persons on a motorbike. “No problem” was the response. We made it to the bar safe, although in a bit of an intimate fashion. Two adults, plus two-three children on one bike is nothing extraordinary in Vietnam and even more so in Cambodia. Helmet use is obligatory, but it is rather a fashion phenomenon, than a safety precaution. Most helmets are paper-thin, but on the other hand are incredibly trendy. Burberry, Nike, Puma – many styles and brands of dubious origin to choose from. Who cares about personal safety, when you can be STYLISH? Interestingly enough helmet laws concern only the driver, not their passengers. You often see the head of a family wearing a helmet, while wife and kids on the same bike proudly go bare-headed. Bikes are also used for transporting everything under the Earth. Among other things I saw are overlong pipes, bamboo poles, pigs (both alive and dead), A/C units, refrigerators, TV sets and so on. Why bother with a truck, when a bike can fulfill all your needs?
At the the age of 28, I rode a motorized vehicle for the first time in my life. I chose Pai for a maiden voyage, because of its low trafic, excellent roads and scenic views. I was tempted to ride a motorbike on Koh Phangan and Koh Tao, but poor condition of roads, extremely hilly terrain and a high number of accidents put me off. I did not have a chance to explore the islands (taxis are expensive there), but personal safety is far more important. Learning process was surprisingly easy. The first attempt: an automatic bike, a crash course into basics, extremely slow driving. On the second ride I drove more than 100km in one day and the third rida was a nighttime driving with a passenger on the backseat. On the fourth try I switched to a manual gear bike and rode in somewhat busy traffic of Chiang Rai. Much more intense than sleepy roads of Pai, but nothing extraordinary. The learning curve for a manual gear bike was a little bit steeper, but essentially it is just like a bicycle with gears, except that you do not have to do all the hard work. Then I had a chance to test substandard Laos dirt roads with a passenger on the backseat too. That followed by an 185km ride from Tha Kaek to Kong Lor cave and back the next day with a passenger on a backseat. And finally a three day tour around Bolaven Plateau. The highlight was riding 71km on a dirt-road after heavy raining the night before. It took almost four hours of very intense and cautious driving. When we hit the paved road and I thought the hardest part was over, the final 45km ride to Pakse proved even more intense than the dirt road part. Darktime driving, crappy light, millions of wasps aiming for the eyes, wandering dogs, a very agitated snake on the road and finally busy traffic of Pakse. At some point it started feeling like a computer game progressing from one level to another and ever-growing intensity. The weirdest thing was three people on a tandem bicycle appearing out of the blue. No accidents nor near-death experiences.
I remember reading an article about Saudi women and how they were not allowed to drive cars. Saudi women have been trying to obtain rights to drive in the recent years, but the Saudi patriarchy resist these motions, as the right to drive is closely linked to freedom of movement and subsequently emancipation. Having learnt to drive a motorbike, I can fully relate to that. Being independent from public transit, overpriced taxis or own physical capabilities is truly liberating. Distances which are too long for walking or cycling are easily doable with a motorbike. After a couple of days on a motorbike in Pai, I rented a mountain bicycle just to see how it was. The lesson I learned here was that going 6km uphill in the +30C heat was not an enjoyable task by any means. A similar thing happened in Vang Vieng, I had a chance to compare to a) a crappy bicycle b) a less crappy bicycle c) and a motorbike. The motorbike came out as a winner here as well.