Try to imagine the most chaotic, crazy maelstrom of metal, flesh, noise and smells imaginable.
You’re now about a quarter of the way to appreciating the experience of sitting on the back of a motorcycle traversing the crazily crowded streets of Ho Chi Minh City.
I’ve driven a car since I was 15; a tractor since before turning 12. But never a motorcycle.
This week I start my lessons – because if you want to get around Ho Chi Minh City in your own time, you get a bike, not a car.
But last weekend I ventured beyond the occasional five minute motorcycle taxi trip from home to downtown for what turned into more than two hours of knee to knee, wheel to wheel suburban driving in my new home city.
My special friend Thao was taking me to dinner at her grandmother’s, as it turns out a long, long way from downtown…
Thao driving with Saigon Rob on the back.
One thing about this maelstrom in which we all drive here is that you lose the sense of speed. Every other motorcycle – wait, add to that taxi, car, bus or articulated truck! – is so close there’s a heightened sense of speed. So I am embarrassed to look over Thao’s shoulder at one point when we seem to be fair honking along to discover we’ve just surpassed 40. That’s kilometres per hour, by the way, not miles. In the old days I could almost cycle as fast as that. Uphill.
Yet the speedo is marked up to 180.
“Is it really possible for this to go 160 or 180?” I ask.
“How fast have you driven it?”
80? In this traffic.
Thao tilts her head back as she laughs and I see the gleam in her eyes between the brim of her helmet and large white face mask.
Later we exceed 50kph. We’re really honking along now. Then a tiny young woman in a bright orange top zooms past.
“There goes Mrs Ghost Rider!”
We both laugh, but neither of us has any desire to catch her up.
Thao is nothing like your typical Ho Chi Minh motorcyclist. I know this because we are 45 minutes into our journey before she uses the horn. I was beginning to wonder if perhaps it didn’t work… or maybe it was stolen like the right side rear view mirror she’s never got around to replacing. (I told her I’ll buy her one if she teaches me to ride well enough to gain my licence).
Everyone on the roads of Ho Chi Minh – OK, everyone except Thao – has an insatiable addiction to their horn. My apartment is 15 floors above street level with relatively tightly sealed aluminium window frames. Where the background noise in Sydney might be birds cheeping and the occasional ambulance siren, in Ho Chi Minh it is a relentless chorus of horns. From the warbling of buses and the high-pitch klaxons of trucks to the electronic chirping of motorcycles, they create a disconcerted symphony of endless wailing.
Just like the pensioner who lives beside the railway line never really notices the trains thundering past in the wee hours, I was all but oblivious to the street noise after the first week. But it’s always there, almost reassuringly at times, whenever you care to listen.
On the road Thao seems so polite. Make no mistake, she’s no soft touch, yielding only when absolutely necessary to avoid actually hitting someone: she’ll aim full speed ahead at the empty space just like the next rider, and like everyone else here, she always seems to know precisely who should yield and at exactly the moment the race has been won or lost. It’s uncanny to watch from the pavement; more than mildly disturbing from the pillion seat. But you get used to it, like turbulence on a jet plane or that moment when your bungy cord tightens just in time to avoid hitting the water.
Thao just doesn’t feel the need to add her chords to the Infinite Symphony. Nor does she seem to need to yell abuse at someone who cuts us off, causes a handlebar kiss or brushes our knees. It just doesn’t seem necessary to her.
There was a moment in the journey when I pointlessly questioned the parentage (in a language he did not understand) of a yobbo who narrowly misses us heading full speed towards us on the wrong side of the road. “Ah, he was probably just drunk,” Thao explains in a way it seems perfectly rational, dismissing the event as an inconvenience rather than the potential bone and bike breaker it sure threatened to be from where I was sitting!
I fear that adopting a similarly unflappable attitude when I get behind the handle bars is going to be a hard act to follow…
When we stop for beer I am scratching my head. I foolishly assume there is a natural law of physics that prevents two people sharing a motorbike balancing a 24-can box of Heineken (price circa $17). At that point I still believe we have a two minute drive to our destination.
But Thao has the shopkeeper place the box on its end before her, between her knees but without any need to brace it. I’m dubious about how long it will stay on board – especially when Iearn we’re only a quarter of the way into our journey!
“Babe, don’t worry about me back here,” I assure her. “I’ll be fine. Just watch out for that beer.”
She just grins sympathetically at the naive hapless foreigner. I sense she’s done this before…
Actually, the gravity-defying, incredible load-bearing capacity of your typical Vietnamese motorcycle is quite astonishing. I soon discover our cargo of Heineken – which I all but forgot about two minutes after it was stowed and which never moved a centimetre in the time it took to reach our destination – was totally unremarkable.
In Ho Chi Minh, Vietnamese ingenuity allows one to ferry practically anything on a motorbike. In downtown I’ve seen giant panes of window glass being carried by a pillion passenger. I thought I’d seen it all one afternoon when my taxi overtook a motorcycle with a double bed mattress balanced on the back. Flat.
But I hadn’t (seen it all). Five minutes later as I exit the cab at my apartment entrance a motorcycle pulls up at the electrical store across the road with an automatic washing machine on the back. I kid you not! Somehow he managed to come to a stop and keep the bike upright until two colleagues came out of the store to help lift it off.
On the evening journey with Thao I watch a young couple zip home with an expensive new Samsung flat screen TV on board. Why wait for someone to deliver it? Even if delivery services are almost instant on demand here (that’s another story…)
One of the aspects of being on a motorcycle in Ho Chi Minh that I never expected was how much of a sense of the city you get which you’re never aware of in the backseat of an air conditioned taxi. It’s never hot (even at 30kph the wind flow keeps you cool). But you become immersed in the sights, the sounds – and yes, the smells – of a big city with 10 million inhabitants and 7 million motorcycles (No, I don’t know who counted, I just believe the tour guide – actually it seems like there are far more than that. More people and more motorcycles!).
At one point as we zip along a main road in an informal convoy I discover we’re near the airport. I know this because there’s a thundering roar and a Malaysian Airlines Airbus appears from nowhere, so low above our heads you almost feel you can reach up and snatch it from the sky. It’s a wonderful moment for a novice (although I suspect a constant irritation for those who travel this road every day, but hey I’m new to all this).
Elsewhere I learn those canals that weave about the city really do smell when you’re not sealed inside a Toyota Avanza taxi. It’s something in retrospect I realised I had no desire to prove.
But there are good smells too… the small pavement fires before hawkers’ stalls where lucky paper brings good fortune, spit roast pork rotating over flame, fried chicken and at one point a flower stand we’re travelling slow enough to notice.
Families chat as they share a motorcycle, there’s an occasional pair of cycles with a couples on each, gossiping as they wind their way through the masses. More worryingly, another couple appears to be having a domestic dispute which is on the brink of turning violent (a rear elbow jab thankfully misses its target). When you have a domestic in a car no-one notices, but on the back of a motorcycle on a crowded street the whole world can hear… but, of course, no-one seems to notice.
Thao assures me motorcycles have only one set of foot rests for pillion passengers because technically you are only supposed to have two passengers on board – including the driver. But anywhere I look I can spot bikes carrying three or four. (I’m sure I’ve even seen five although that was one evening when I was walking home from the sports bar, so I could have been mistaken…)
What happens then, I ask?
“Oh they just share…”
A typical Vietnamese family seems to comprise mum, dad and two kids. It’s tempting to think this could be by design – so the whole family can fit on the back of a motorcycle – but it is more likely a reflection of the economic reality – it’s hard to afford to raise any more than that in this city.
Social issues, aside, it can be surprisingly moving seeing some families enjoy a night out… Dad usually drives, the eldest child sits in front of him, the youngest behind and mum brings up the rear. Sometimes, the youngest is standing so as to enjoy a better view (and give mum a greater share of the seat no doubt). I’ve seen a woman with an infant in a carry pouch, ‘safe and secure’, lying on her back facing mum as she zips along… one hand on the wheel the other holding her mobile phone.
If there is a law here about using your mobile phone when driving, no-one takes any notice.
But then that’s not uncommon in a city where traffic lights are generally considered a suggestion and those white stripes on the road a form of road decoration inspired by the cover of a Beatles album to help break the boring monotony of grey tar seal.
People frequently drive one-handed while holding a phone – or balancing cargo. And somehow they seem to make it to their destination in one piece. Well, more often than not anyway…
Well, tomorrow it’s my turn to start the conversion from awe-struck pillion passenger to suicidal driver.
I’m sorry, but I probably won’t answer the phone if you call me…