Viet Nam runs on two wheels.
The old Honda Cub started it all decades ago. These little 50cc machines are built like rocks – they don’t break or even seem to wear out. The idea of the motorbike is to provide cheap, dependable transportation that is very easy to maintain and the Honda Cub exudes those qualities. You don’t need much more than a screwdriver and a crescent wrench to fix a Cub. Honda still sells them, but it’s rare to see new ones. Poorer people, particularly famers, usually own them and use them to haul all kinds of goods to and from market. The mufflers are loud, the gears whine, and they ain’t pretty – but they work as hard as their owners.
(Click on each photo to see a larger version.)
Sophisticated urbanites want to make good use of time by multi-tasking, and that includes the Vietnamese couple on the go. Cell phone usage while driving is very common, as is texting. (Scary, eh?) Wondering about the face mask? Many ladies wear a mask while on a motorbike to ward off the air pollution produced by all the vehicles. The pollution in Saigon and Hanoi is bad, but it’s merely an annoyance in Hue – at least for now. The couple is riding a Honda Wave, a much more recent model with an engine twice the size of the Cub and much sleeker styling. You can tell this one is not a new model because it does not have front disk brakes.
The motorbike is the daily commute. If you live on one side of the river but work on the other, you have your choice of three bridges to use – this one a railroad bridge with two very narrow add-on lanes for bicycles and motor bikes. There isn’t much room for error, but the riders negotiate the narrow passage with ease. All that will change in the near future as construction has begun on a new bridge for automobile, truck, and motorbike traffic – and it will be next to the railroad bridge.
By definition, a motorbike is not a motorcycle. Few Americans own a motorcycle as daily transportation – motorcycles are usually a recreational luxury. A motorbike has a single cylinder, small engine size (under 150cc), and is meant to lug two people short distances at city speeds. On a good day, a motorbike maxes out its speed at 60 kilometers an hour (about 37 miles per hour). The motorbike is the family hauler. First gear is suitable for pulling tree stumps and the torquey engine does quite nicely starting off in second gear, even with two people aboard.
As the economy improves and people’s income levels have risen, the motorbike has evolved. It is no longer unusual to see a modern step-through model, making it easier on the ladies to get on – especially moms to be. They all have an automatic transmission and ample sealed storage space – even a way to lock your helmet when the scooter is parked. They are more expensive and drink more fuel, but they are popular.
Like most things, a motorbike is more than just transportation – it can also be a statement. For a bright young college graduate, her motorbike says something about her. It is stylish, red to say she wants to be known in the world, and that she will someday ride a nicer motorbike – or own a car. Like other members of her generation, she is eager to get on with life. A motorbike gives her freedom to move about and that newly found freedom of movement for young people opens them up to new ideas and ambitions.
Motorbikes await their owners outside a trendy new club – and yes, there is valet parking. As each rider arrives, he or she is given a card with a number and the number is written in chalk on the seat or fender. There’s no charge for the parking either.
Riding a motorbike in Viet Nam is not for rookies – traffic patterns are very very different from the American system. Take a look at Two-Wheeling in Viet Nam and the Mystery Guest Blogger’s excellent story about traffic patterns. She wrote it in 2005 – and you will notice the photos shows riders without helmets, back when helmets were not required as they are now
And sometimes, a motorbike is just a good place to sit while you kiss your boyfriend.