Maybe you are a dedicated motorcyclist in North America, Europe, Australia, or other industrialized country – or maybe you are newly arrived in Việt Nam and you’d like to make things a little easier on yourself and ride one of the ubiquitous motorbikes seen all over the country. They are easy to rent, and cheap to buy.
The Vietnamese call them a môto, and they are quite different from a motorcycle. Yes – they look pretty much the same. They have two wheels, a small engine, and a seat designed to carry two people (albeit small Asian people.) There is a throttle on the handlebars operated by the right hand, and a lever for the front brake. There is a foot pedal for the rear brake, and a foot lever for shifting the gears. It has a headlight, brake light, and turn signals. Sounds like a motorcycle – but it ain’t.
A môto is intended to be an inexpensive people mover around an urban area. Motorcycles are intended to be ridden at American highways speeds. (I’m not talking about dirt bikes here – that’s another story.) The engine in a môto cannot be bigger than 125 cc, and can only be one cylinder. Bigger than that, and they are taxed at a much higher rate. I cannot think of a street bike in America with an engine smaller than 250 cc, and they are usually twin cylinders. The môto is geared for lugging heavy loads around at slow speeds. I seldom use first gear – even with the Mystery Guest Blogger on the back – simply because I don’t need it. First gear is suitable for pulling tree stumps. In normal driving around Huê, I seldom go faster than 30 kilometers per hour. (About 18 miles per hour.) Pretty slow, eh?
Môtos are also easy to ride. They have no hand clutch, but rather an automatic centrifugal clutch that engages the gears as you add power. Need to shift gears? Just back off on the throttle, then snick the front of the gear lever down. (Motorcycle riders can be confused by this at first – you want to use your toe to lift the gear lever, but a môto is designed to just rotate through the gears by pressing down all the time. You can downshift if you want, but you do it by stepping on the back part of the gear shifter. If you are not a motorcyclist, and have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry about it.) Pay a few thousand dông more, and you can buy a môto that looks like a scooter and has an automatic transmission.
A motorcycle is designed to carry a person at highway speeds with neck-snapping acceleration. Maybe – just maybe – a môto will go 60 kilometers per hour (about 38 miles per hour.) In America, you will get run over at that speed.
A môto is intended to be primary transportation. Few people in the west own motorcycles as their only transportation – a motorcycle is a luxury for having fun.
Probably the biggest deterrent for most foreigners to riding a môto in Việt Nam is the daunting traffic patterns – or, in reality, the lack of traffic patterns. When you arrive in the country, and are riding through the streets of Sài Gòn or Hà Nội in your air conditioned bus, the traffic looks positively chaotic.
And, it is.
How to learn the traffic patterns?
Ride a bicycle for a few months. You can’t learn the traffic patterns from a car window nor while walking – you need to be in the traffic on two wheels. A bike is the safest way to learn. The Mystery Guest Blogger wrote an excellent story about bicycling on May 30th. Also take a look at the posting on Antidote to Burnout, a blog by a man making his first sojourn back to Việt Nam since 1972. It’s true – there is no road rage in Việt Nam, and its also true about people cutting you off, turning into traffic ahead of you, turning right from the left-hand lane, kids riding four abreast on their bikes, and riders doing other things that would irritate a saint in America. But there is no road rage.
Read both postings – then come back for more on Two-Wheeling in Việt Nam.