Story and photos by Debi Goodwin
They move through the congested streets of every Vietnamese city: scooters and small motorcycles loaded with everything from potted plants to live pigs to families of four with joyful toddlers and sleeping babies who droop dangerously from the arms of mothers. Oh, how I wanted to be among them. But, standing on a street corner on my first day in the mega-city of Ho Chi Minh City, mesmerized by the graceful flow and the constant buzzing that sent waves of joy through my body, I doubted I could survive the anarchy.
In my hotel room that night, I read from a novel set in HCMC by John Shors called The Dragon House. Reading stories about the place I am visiting often gives me an understanding of what goes on behind the closed doors I pass, what goes on in the minds of the people who serve my meals or run the shops. But after one day in HCMC, I knew this author hadn’t got it right. The novel was about an American woman who sets up a home for street children. In one chapter, the woman, who has never ridden a scooter in her life, gets on one for the first time and drives through the streets of the city with total ease. I envied her excitement but didn’t believe it. Although I hadn’t seen a single fender bender — and never did in my month in Vietnam — I knew that traffic fatalities are the leading cause of injury death and the government has made devising traffic laws and means to enforce them a national priority.
I love riding my scooter on the orderly streets of Toronto, but after one day in HCMC I already knew that the madness of the dark but still buzzing streets below me were something altogether different, something too dangerous for the uninitiated. I decided the pleasure I might experience wasn’t worth the risk. I had made it past fifty, traveled to some harrowing countries, without so much as a broken bone. I didn’t want to change that.
Eye Contact Not Optional
In the following days, despite myself, I found myself studying the patterns of scooter traffic wherever I went. I would focus in on one rider and watch how she negotiated the intersections and the turns. When there are no traffic lights, which is often the case, riders flow around each other and around pedestrians, and, when they want to make a left turn at a busy corner, they simply turn close to the curb on the wrong side of the street and cross the oncoming traffic when they can. Like I said: madness.
The key to all this is eye contact. It’s easy to learn this lesson first as a pedestrian. You simply stare at the rider coming at you and keep walking at a steady pace. Riders do much the same. At any given second they are gauging the intention of the riders to their left and to their right and the speed of pedestrians and vehicles in front of them. It is only through this individual awareness and collective consideration that riders arrive at their destination unscathed. An apt mindfulness exercise in a city of Buddhist temples. But maybe my Buddhist lesson would be one about attachment, letting go of an unreal idea.
So, as we set out for a month-long trip through the rest of the country, I decided I would concentrate on learning more about the culture of scooters and motorcycles in Vietnam and leave the riding to the locals.
From Pedals to Motors in a Heartbeat
In Hanoi, I picked up a postcard from the “old days,” way back in the 1980s. On the front, rusted bicycles flowed through dusty streets. Behind me, in 2012, the bicycles were few and far between. Scooters blocked the sidewalk on each side of the shop I was in; scooters and small motorcycles bounced around the tourists in the old city. Later that night, online, I found the facts: there are about 30-million two-wheeled motorized vehicles in Vietnam and they make up more than 90 per cent of all the country’s vehicles.
That dramatic growth is perhaps the most visible sign, at least to the Western eye, of the changes in Vietnam since the government opened the doors to economic reform with a policy introduced in 1986 called doi moi, or renovation. In Vietnam Rising, journalist Bill Hayton describes the bumpy road of economic growth in a country still clinging to central Communist rule while encouraging private enterprise and foreign investment. He says the motorcycle (including the scooter or “automatic motorcycle”) became not only a symbol of freedom for young people after growing up in a dreary, confining Communist environment but also a way to leave their villages behind to make money in the new businesses of the cities.