I know I must be at least a little bit Vietnamese by now.
During the last few days I realised it was exactly 11 months since I arrived here for six months… and I am still here.
But far more telling of how I seem to be fitting into this city is that I have a motorcycle in my living room. It doesn’t get much more Vietnamese than that. I guess I could put one of those large round saucer-shaped hats on my head and comb the streets for recyclables, but I reckon that would be overdoing it.
So why is there a motorcycle in my living room?
Well, put simply, unless you live in a modern apartment complex, just inside your front door is where you park. In traditional, cramped suburban Ho Chi Minh City neighbourhoods, the alleys which lead to houses are usually only wide enough for motorbikes to access. In many cases, if you meet another motorcycle coming the other way, one of you will have to reverse up because there won’t be enough room to pass.
Some more modern houses have a porch where the motorcycle(s) stand under shelter and there is perhaps a second door into the living room. But for most people here, you drive on home and right up a purpose built ramp into the lounge.
Your motorcycle gets to watch the flat screen TV alongside you.
In our case, you have to step around it to open the refrigerator too (because living room, kitchen, dining room are pretty much the same place in houses like these).
If it’s been on a long run, it will likely be hot and there’s a residual smell of warm oil and chaffed rubber which lingers into the evening. If it’s been raining outside, it will leave a trail of dark, wet tread prints over the shiny tiled floor.
I can almost hear my late grandmother’s loud expression of alarm as I wipe the floor clean with absorbent tissues: Assuming her heart survived the initial shock of discovering a real motorcycle in the lounge, I’m not actually sure which issue would cause her most alarm: that I can actually now ride a motorcycle, that I am leaving dirty tyre prints on the clean floor or that an engine is running inside the house…
Our abode is wide by Vietnamese standards, but at only two stories, significantly lower than most of our neighbours’, whose homes can stretch as many as six or eight floors into the sky. We have double glass doors which have to be opened wide before parking.
I have yet to master the art, but my better half is an expert in driving inside. It’s more complicated than it sounds: the alley is too narrow to allow a proper run at 90 degrees and the steel ramp is barely 30cm wide. So it takes considerable skill to align it at an angle and get both wheels on the ramp in succession. Then you have to judge the power. Too much power and you plough right on into the back of the sofa. Too little and you’re stranded half in the door, half out. You can probably tell why I’m taking my time before assuming parking duties at home…
The bike is a Yamaha Nuovo. It’s primarily black, with bright strips of garish yellow down each side; not our choice of colour scheme, it was all the young guy who rents them had available. (Give me red and black thanks – I’m sure they go faster).
It’s about four years old and travels about 30 kilometres on a litre of petrol which costs about US$1 here. A tank holds about five litres, so for five bucks here you can get youself about 150km which makes these automatic scooters a pretty affordable way of getting about town. And which explains why there are literally millions of them on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City at any time.
It costs us 1.3 million Vietnamese dong a month to rent. That sounds a lot to a westerner, but it equates to a mere A$60 a month. There’s no insurance – if someone “Ali Baba’s it” (a local term) I have to cough up $800 to the renter. But it has a remote locking system with an ear splitting alarm. And if anyone overcame that and tried to steal it, they’d almost certainly give up after a few minutes, such is its frequent reluctance to start!
I’d like to say my licence to drive it fell out of a Weetbix packet, but that would be an exaggeration.
That’s because I don’t have a licence. When I mentioned that in passing to the rental entrepreneur he simply grinned and replied “This is Ho Chi Minh: you don’t need a licence”. Instead I can drive about the city merrily, knowing that if I am stopped an instant “fine” of $100,000 or $200,000 will be issued – between $4.60 and $9.20. Instant as in handed over instantly and on my way instantly. No need for paperwork, you understand…
The Vietnamese believe almost anything can be carried on the back of a motorbike – it all comes down to the individual’s ingenuity in how it is balanced or held while driving. Thus you frequently see large plates of glass being balanced upright between rider and pillion passenger, ladders often coming perilously close to the frequent city curse of low hanging power cables, mattresses (flat – I kid you not!), commercial quantities of crates of beer and giant water bottles, flat screen TVs, dogs, dining tables, cupboards, bicycles, watercoolers and – my favourite – a front loading washing machine!
So I felt right at home when we took the bike on its first domestic excursion – to buy a laundry basket from a shophouse facing Pasteur. It perched between us sideways and we saved a taxi fare for one of us back home.
The only worrying moment was when a policeman took more than a passing interest before deciding it was way too hard to pull us over given we were eight bike-widths into the main throughfare, deliberately avoiding them! I guess that, too, makes me a little but Vietnamese… there’s a definite art in avoiding the thin brown arm of the law on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City…
* My apologies to regular readers for the embarssingly long time since the last post. I now have a backlog of tales to share so will try to get back into a routine. Feedback is welcome, as always.