Courtney. September 11, 2010 @ 21:40
Living in Hanoi, part #2 - Motorbikes
*Disclaimer to the parents (especially the moms): don't read this blog.It's not a big deal, but you'll make it into one so please read the newspaper (or The Enquirer) instead.
Now that we're official ex-packers with jobs, a house, Vietnamese mobiles, pet geckos, a social network of both Vietnamese, expatriate, and ex-packer origin, we needed to take the final step that everyone who lives in Hanoi takes at some point.We needed to rent motorbikes.
There are 6.5 million people in this city and they ALL driver motorbikes.Except for the few tourists, who take little pedi-cabs with men peddling them around, looking really stupid.Cabs are expensive (in comparison with motorbikes), and they're doggy.Of all the cab companies in Hanoi, we only get into ABC Cab, Mahlin Taxi, and Hanoi Taxi.Danielle and I were in a hurry one morning and decided to take our chances in a doggy cab.We learned that being in a hurry doesn't mean you should jump into any cab here, in Hanoi.I've seen the meters run in the government-licensed cabs and I know that they don't look like the slot machine when you win $1,000,000 in Vegas, so I knew something was wrong right away.Our destination was about 2 minutes by cab, so the cost would be about 10,000 Dong ($0.51 USD).But the meter jumped to 500,000 ($25 USD Dong in that baby of a cab ride.When he pulled up to HBH, Danielle and I both said right away, "f***. That."We'd heard and read about how you should never get in non-metered taxis in Vietnam but we were unaware of the rigged-metered ones.The cabbie looked kind of hard and was adamant that 500,000 VND was the price that we were going to pay.Fortunately, we were right outside of HBH, where we're always safe so we told him there was no way we were paying.
Mr. Scary Cabbie turned around, looking like a Mel Gibson antagonist character fom Apocalypto, with the most malicious look in his eye and growled, "I work for mafia, you pay what I tell you you pay."I won't lie.This would usually cause my to piss in my pants and the cab.But I drank a lot the night before and was woken before the alcohol had a chance to leave my blood. And it wasn't like my BAC was still high and I was I was hung over.It was like - I was still very drunk.So I told this Vietnamese Pablo Escobar that I don't give a s*** who he worked for, he can take 100,000 Dong or nothing - we're getting out of the cab.For some reason he was immediately gratified and began grabbing my hand and kissing it.I didn't fancy this romantic gesture and pulled my hand from his to grab 10x the amount money that we really owed him.When I handed him the money that I should have kept, he began his animalistic chivalry again, but this time his mouth opened a little and I sensed a nibble coming on.So I hit him in the head with my full water bottle and Walker and I GTFO'd.(we got the f*** out).* term coined by Matthew Welch.
Motorbike time.Back to HBH again to ask where we needed to go.If you haven't figured it out yet, we became good friends with the staff and owners at HBH and, although we emancipated ourselves from their hostel (on Vietnam's Independence Day), they remain our mentors and we still rely on them for pretty much everything.When we need to go to the Old Quarter (daily), we show cabbies our HBH business cards, which have a good map on the back, and is popular enough that most cabbies know where it is.We have them drop us there, say hi, ask our friends where to go for this and that, and then use HBH as our starting point because we know how to get to everything form there.When we asked about the bikes they gave us a card for Mr. Muoi at Shop 29 Ta Hein.
It's an obscure little shop on Beer Corner in the Old Quarter.I had actually heard of this company from 3 expats a few days earlier and they said it was a very good company.They charge you between 800,000 ($40.80 USD) and 1,200,000 VND ($61.20 USD) per month and if your bike breaks down they come right over and either fix it on the spot or take it back to the shop and fix it there - for free. If the bike gets totaled or is stolen you only have to pay 1,200,00 VND ($61.20 USD). And when you're ready to get your bike for the first time Ms. Muoi will deliver it to your house.
Walker was still really sick, so Kaberly took the trek with me.We walked up to the shop and were greeted by two Vietnamese women sitting on their little plastic 'chairs.'Ms. Muoi, the owner's wife is very high strung and quit intimidating at first.She spastically grabbed two more chairs and motioned in a demanding, more than inviting, way for us to sit.We took a moment to unsnap our backpacks, situate our chairs, etc. - all while Ms. Muoi is convulsively insisting that we sit sit sit.We sat and talked prices and logistics with her.She speaks very little English, but this was before Vanny hated us, so she translated.We chose the most badass bikes she had (black Hondas), put our deposits down, and made appointments for her to bring them to us at HBH later on a later day.We were not about to take our first joy ride in rush hour traffic.Rush hour (from 15:00 to 19:00) in the old quarter looks like those little ant farms you have in your 1st grade classroom.
We didn't pick our bikes up for a few days for various reasons.Mostly because we were so busy.When I decided it was time one night we had her bring the Badass to HBH so I could give it a spin.I was nervous.Partly because Hanoi traffic is NYC traffic gone bad, and I was about to drive a motorcycle in it.Party because the HBH alley way gives you about 2 meter or leeway when you factor in the bikes, pedestrians, baskets, and construction work that you have t avoid as you pass though (I can barely walk through it without hitting something).But for the most part, Ms. Muoi scares me.She is one of those hardcore Vietnamese women who can lift a bike twice her weight and carry it up a flight of stairs.But now that I know her better she is just plain awesome.She's the Vietnamese female version of Rambo.She explained (all in Vietnamese and quite rapidly) how to start the bike, how to put it into gear, headlights, horn (very important), unlocking the wheel, all of that.
This bike was too big for me - I know this now. But Ms. Muoi was at HBH with my bike and it was too late to back out.So I asked Walker if she would ride on the back with me.She agreed.I tried to start the Badass by turning the key. Ms. Muoi slapped my hand, yelled something at me in Vietnamese, shook her head no 10x and pointed over and over (even though I saw the first time) to the start button.Apparently she had already turned the key.Go time.So I took off slowly and made it past the first few booby traps/ pedestrians (same same).About 20 meters down the HBH alleyway we saw some friends.I yelled, "Hey! Look!I got a bike!"And then I slowed down, slightly, to avoid a doughnut lady.As I slowed, the weight of the 250 cc combined with the angle at which I needed to lean in order to reach the ground (Newton's Laws, basically), caused me to tip over, onto the sidewalk and a puddle of mud and toxic waste.Walker jumped of with ease before I was 40 degrees from the ground but I managed to pin myself between the bike and the sidewalk.I was fine and laughing, but I was crying inside because I thought Ms. Muoi was going to run over and b**** slap me.She ran over but all she did was yank the bike up and tell me, "You go THIS today (motioning for a slower engine rev), THIS tomorrow…."I had one of the HBH guys park the bike for me and I went straight up to the rooftop bar for a coldie.
Two days later, Walker was feeling better and we went back to the shop.I told Ms. Muoi that the Badass was too big and that I needed a smaller, less-badass yellow vespa thing - at least for the first month.She only had the sample one there but she wanted me to try it and see if she should go to the shop and get one for me that night to bring to the Love Manch.Terrorized once again by her spastic mannerisms and constant slapping of my hand and feet when they were placed incorrectly on the bike, even if I wasn't done situating them, I took off down Beer Corner with Ms. Muoi on the back of the bike.30 meters later I went to brake (this one's a foot brake) and the flip flop that I had bought for $2 USD in Laos broke, and got caught on the brake.I almost crashed into the moto in front of me, but Ms. Rambo came to the rescue and grabbed the hand brake so, once again, I only tipped over - no crash.And once again, my passenger was off the bike before the tip.Walker went and bought me new shoes so I didn't have to walk down the Hanoian street barefoot and catch 20 different diseases.I told Ms. Muoi I would call her when I was ready for the bike.
Walker, however, was ready and we went straight to HBH to pick up the Badass, which was now hers.She hopped on, I hopped on the back, and we ended up driving around like Harry and Lloyd from Dumb and Dumber for two days before we finally found the helmet shop.Sounds really stupid, and is in no way smart; but during rush hour, the fastest you can go is about 3 MPH, so head trauma isn't the worry, its exhaust pipe burns, and a helmet isn't going to prevent that.
We found the helmet store eventually and bought some dome chrome.Apparently the Vietnamese are much more concerned with fashion than the possibility that their heads are flying around everyday on freeways where there are no rules - because 90% of the 'helmets' that are available to buy are hats with a candy coating on the outside.They're like M&M's for you head.They offer no more protection that old baseball cap you got muddy and left to harden in your garage.So we overzealous foreigners bought their safest helmets (these ones are actual helmets) for 300,00 VND ($15.30).I think they're like $300 in the states…
Eventually I decided to go back to Ms. Muoi and pick my bike up from her shop.Walker led the way and we took and we took a little joy ride around the lake before rush hour.I got used to the Bumble Bee (my bike's yellow and black) pretty quickly.But there was another incident.On a right turn I got scared of the disorganized moto-mess of the Old Quarter and tried to get too close to the sidewalk.Another tip-over.Once again I just tipped, but this is the one where I hung myself by my helmet on some Vietnamese guy's motorbike.He un-hung me, we laughed together for a moment and life went on.But just for one more block.Walker slowed down to avoid a moto, but I assumed that she was slowing because she saw that she had missed the turn to Al Fresco's.An hour later, after I contemplated having one of my Vietnamese friends call all the hospitals in the Old Quarter, Walker showed up. 10 fingers, 10 toes, but annoyed as s*** because she had been lost in the Old Quarter the entire time, and rush hour was now in full force.
That wasn't the only time we were going to get lost that week.The next day (for some reason I cant recall), Danielle and I were back on her bike, going from somewhere to somewhere else.We took one wrong turn and ended up in an area of Hanoi I had never seen before and will probably never see again.After 2 hours we decided to pull over and ask for directions.If you haven't been to Vietnam before you need to understand that Vietnamese people do not use maps.Kiwi Tom warned me of this weeks before but I never fully understood it until this moment.A tour company operator tried to map us to HBH and used 3 different pieces of paper, with street names written on them that we weren't supposed to drive down, continuing one street onto a new piece of paper when the first piece has only a tiny corner used….You get the point. Anyway, an hour after that (3 total), 2 wrong-way turns down one-way streets, and the experience of seeing a 5 year old Vietnamese kid on baby blue silk pajamas carrying a machete on the back of a motorbike later - we hired a cab to show us the way.Danielle followed while I made sure the cabbie went slow for her, and then her bike overheated.We called Ms. Muoi, she came and picked it up, and were back where we wanted to be - Al Fresco's.And our third leg was there with us.
I think we're learning the rules of the road here in Hanoi. If I could put it into a geometric/mathematic equation I would take the driving laws in the US, flip them 180 degrees, and then divide them by themselves.And then I would throw that into a blender on high mode.I'm not sure who painted white broken lines on the freeway but they definitely serve no purpose here.In America and a lot of the developed world, you drive visually.In Hanoi, you drive by sound, much the same as a bat - except the sonar output is the horn, which is a sound I detested when I first arrived but can appreciate now.One of Walker's bosses said it perfectly: "When you drive a motorbike you are like spider.Keep your head straight but always keep your eyes moving."I know that seems to contradict what I just said, but of course we're not out there driving around with our eyes closed, steering according to the vibrations of the horns.You have to look around but the majority of on-road communication and the decisions you make when you are driving around Hanoi are based on the honk you are hearing.It's also similar to Morse code.The quickest beep is just a warning that you're nearing another vehicle, pedestrian, bicycle, or basket lady and that if they make a sudden move you might collide.A longer hold on the horn is a warning that you're near someone who you think is going to make a move that isn't going to work out.A consistent horn (when you 'lay on the horn' as we say in the US) means you're going to keep going, gun it through an intersection, run a red light, etc. and if someone chooses to ignore you, you're playing chicken with them.
The right-of-way is different here, too.There are strict rights-of-way in the US, but here, "the person pulling out has the right of way because they're going to pull out no matter what." - Kiwi Tom again, giving us moto-lessons.My favorite is when you're on the freeway and all of the sudden you're blinded by the light some a****** (or a pack of 5 a******s) decides he's going to avoid traffic by going the same direction he was going, but on the opposite/wrong side of the freeway.It's not really a freeway, it's more like a free-for-all. American freeways have cars, trucks, and the occasional motorcycle or semi.Hanoian freeways have all of the above, old ladies carrying two 2x2 foot baskets on each end of a 6 ft bamboo pole, bicyclists, and people who look like they're taking a stroll though central park.There's always one guy with a girl on the back of his bike, weaving in ½ figure 8s, tipping his bike to about 50 degrees from the ground - looks exactly like those moto-race video games.And all of this traffic is coming from 6 different directions.
The transportation 'system' in Hanoi like no other traffic I've ever seen in my life (and everyone says Ho Chi Minh is 10x worse).Someone at home asked me if it was like New York City traffic. Not at all.It's like New York City in all those apocalyptic movies where they're running from aliens and climbing over each other (maybe a bit slower).But the weird thing is, it always works out.Everyone watches out for each other, and the only accidents I've seen in the month I've been here were my own and they were just tip-overs.It works and its quick and I don't think I'll ever have the patience to sit on an American freeway when there's a perfectly good, empty lane right next to me.(I think it's called the emergency lane?)
I was just about to post this blog, and Kaberly and Walker just got back.Apparently they were sitting on their bikes in front of our parking garage (the neighbors' house who we pay 150,000 VND ($7.65)/ month to park our bikes) and Kaberly just tipped over and fell.Looks like she's going to have another set of bike bruises!