They say you need to have had at least 3 accidents before you’ve really mastered the art of driving a motorbike in Asia. Prior to switching from an automatic transmission bike to a manual, I’d had 2 accidents. The first left me cut up, but okay. The second put me the hospital. It was afterwards that I really began to get a handle on driving through the madness that is Hanoi. If you'd like to read up on Hanoian traffic before continuing, click HERE.
In buying my first motorbike I chose the path of least resistance and bought an automatic transmission bike called a Nouvo. However, in addition to being a gas guzzler, this bike was considered to be 'unmanly'. Eventually I gave into societal pressures and graduated to a semi-automatic transmission bike called a Wave, which I rode for a short time. Semi-automatic bikes are undoubtedly the most practical bikes for city driving, but I really wanted to learn to drive a manual transmission bike. Go big or go home, right?
In late March I traded my current bike for a "fixer-upper" Honda Win. But the problem remained that I had no idea how to drive a manual transmission bike. So a friend of mine gave me a quick crash course in a back alley. “Come on man. I teach this to girls and they get it right away” my friend moaned as I stalled for the 30th time. Yes, it took me a while to figure it out. But when I did I drove my new bike all the way to my neighborhood garage in 2nd gear. Below are pictures of much less beat-up versions of my chronology of bike.
Once I got to the garage, it cost 650,000 VND (29.80 USD), which is not cheap by Vietnamese standards, to fix all the issues this bike had. Once it was all taken care of though, it ran like a charm. Wins are easy to damage but nearly impossible to kill.
A manual transmission motorbike is a full-on motorcycle, and it is not easy to drive, especially in city traffic. And Hanoi’s traffic is the stuff of nightmares. In all my travels I have yet to find a place with traffic as ludicrously insane as Hanoi. So I knew it was going to be a rough few weeks driving my new motorcycle around. As I stalled my way around the city, backing up traffic everywhere I went, I could tell that I had a few more accidents in my future.
There are 3 incidents that I will talk about today. The first 2 in this series weren’t serious accidents, but the last one was. What are we saying qualifies as an “accident”? If both parties are thrown from their vehicles, then it’s a full on crash. Fender benders don’t count. In accordance with this, I am counting this final incident as my 3rd of 3 required accidents. Now, I am the bike master.
Incident #1: The Wheelie
When I was first being taught to drive my Win in the alley, my friends showed me how to do a wheelie. It's pretty easy to do by mistake so they warned me to be careful. I nodded but I knew it was going to happen by accident eventually. And sure enough, about a month later, my bike was flying through the air. But let's back up. How did this happen?
I had been driving my new manual bike for about a month and I really thought that I had turned a corner, skill-wise. I would get through entire days without stalling once. And then, one night when we were leaving dinner, one of my housemates asked if she could try out my motorbike. She fancies herself a manual transmission kind of girl thanks to the Soviet-era Minsk she has in our garage collecting dust. From atop my bike, she revved the engine again and again, each time releasing the clutch only to stall. I felt pretty cool as the restaurant's bike guards included me in their condescending snickering. "Lolz look at the girl try to drive a man's bike" were my imaginary subtitles for their conversation.
Eventually she got herself moving though. She did a lap around the block and felt satisfied. Then it was time for me to get on and drive home. I hopped on my bike to drive home as normal, turned the key, pulled back on the gas to start the engine going again, and when I released the clutch the bike started like a shot gun. My passenger fell off the back but was unharmed. I have been blessed with long legs, so I put my feet down and watched in emasculated embarrassment as my bike flew up into the air and crashed back to the earth in slow motion like a chicken trying to fly. It really flew too. High.
Why did this happen? The transmission will get more and more sensitive as it heats up. Normally the bike doesn’t get to this point except by being driven, so the driver naturally adjusts as they go, but in this instance the transmission was preheated. My roommate had revved the engine so many times that by the time I got my bike back, it was a smoking gun. And the rest, as they say, is history. Lesson learned I guess.
It had to happen eventually I suppose. Nobody was hurt. I dusted off my poor bike and drove home with my tail between my legs.
Incident #2: The Troubled Youths
One night I was a lil' bit hungry so, despite the later hour, I decided to venture out in search of food. Foraging in the later hours of the night is a challenging undertaking in Hanoi because the city shuts down so early. I was cruising down a street nearby that is home to a variety of late-night food options when a shop on the left caught my eye.
After 11pm the street lamps go out in accordance with Hanoi’s business curfew. The lights of these tiny, late-night shops illuminate the darkened streets like beacons. From my place, rolling down the right side of the street, I began to turn left so that I could pull over on the far side of the street in the glow of the shop.
Midway through my turn towards the glow of the shop, 2 teenagers on a small motorized scooter (that is what teens drives before they are old enough to drive an actual motorbike) popped out of the blackness of the street, with no head light on, going at least 30 km/hour, and broad-sided the front end of my bike.
I must admit that I share some blame here. I didn’t use my turn signal… not that it was likely to have made a difference. But my bike seemed to be okay so I just grumbled as they collected themselves and sped off into the night, STILL with no headlights on.
When I tried to drive home, only then did I notice the damage they had done to my bike. They hit me so hard that my front wheel had been knocked out of alignment with the rest of my bike. I had to drive home with my handle bars at a 50 degree angle. One of the big trade-offs of driving a Win is that although it is very easy to fix, it's also very easy to break. So the next day I had to go to the garage and have them hammer the spine of my bike back into alignment.
Incident #3: The Ghost Rider
This was the most severe of this chain of incidents, and the only one that I think qualifies as a full on “crash”. So this completes my trifecta of crashes, bumping me ever so rudely into the realm of motorbike master.
One day I was coming home from the gym on a big street called Au Co. This is a very big street and people (including me) drive very fast on it. However, a smaller street called Yen Phu dead-ends into this street and there is a small roundabout. Thus, drivers coming from Yen Phu need to wait for a gap in traffic to safely make the jump onto Au Co.
I was on Au Co, coming up to this intersection, and as normal there were a small group of motorbikes waiting to make their entrance from Yen Phu into the faster moving traffic. One man in particular was inching forward with one hand on the handlebars while he was talking on his cell phone. I was in a group of motorbikes that were all moving towards the intersection very quickly so, of course, he had to stop. We clearly had the right of way and we were all going about 50 km/hour. I was just minding my own business like a good little foreigner.
But as he continued talking on his cell phone, his eyes wandered and he rolled in front of on coming traffic… a.k.a. me. I had been keeping an eye on him so I reacted quickly. As soon he crossed my path I did my best to stop. Pulling my clutch, front break and foot break as hard as I could, I burned a steaming trail of rubber into the road behind me, honking my horn all the while… but it was too late.
Time began to slow down as I got closer and closer to him. I was still moving really fast. I could hear the shrieking of the my tired against the road as I skidded closer and closer. 10 meters left. I wasn’t going to be able to stop in time. 5 meters left. I was going down. So I bailed. God gave me the gift of long legs so I used them to make a quick jump backwards, off of my bike. My bike, now driver-less, absolutely destroyed the man on his cell phone. It t-boned him harder than anyone has ever been t-boned before. #ghostrider
It all happened so fast that the actual moment of impact is sort of a black spot in my memory. But when it was all over, I was standing in the middle of the street without a scratch. My bike was on its side, at the end of a trail of rubber and metal, leaking gas. The man’s bike lay on its side also with its storage compartment hanging open and its contents strewn across the pavement like a yard sale. The man lay on the street next to the bike, struggling to get up.
I felt myself up quickly just to make sure I was okay... I was okay. I stuck the landing!
Everything seemed to be in order, which brought me to my next order of business.
“WHAT THE F**K WERE YOU DOING?!?” I yelled, “JESUS, DUDE!”
The man took no notice of me yelling at him. Instead he crawled on all fours over to his phone, which was laying not too far from him. He picked it up and said “Hello?”
I had had it. The man could pick his own stuff up. He got what he deserved. I quickly picked my bike back up before it lost any more gas and began to push it over to the side of the road. My front hand break was completely missing.
On the side of the road I did a quick inventory. The man was still collecting his belongings in the middle of the intersection and beginning to cause a stoppage of traffic. Just then a women pulled over to the side of the road.
“Are you okay?” She asked, in a thick Irish accent.
“I’m fine, thanks. My bike though…” I showed her my missing hand break.
“So who’s fault was it?” she asked with a leading smile.
I gestured towards the man in the intersection, who was still trying to collect all of his things, and angrily recounted my tale of woe with my arms flailing over my head for effect. She just laughed. The woman directed me to a nearby garage and I thanked her for stopping. It was very nice of her but still, I was not a happy camper.
On the bright side though...
My third motorbike accident. That meant that I had OFFICIALLY paid my dues. It's gonna be smooth sailing from here on out!
A few hundred meters down the road there was a small garage that fixed my bike quickly and cheaply. Since my Vietnamese is still terrible I had to call a Vietnamese friend to procure all the necessary information, i.e. How much? How long? The woman at the garage smiled as she told my friend that they charge the same price for white people as they do for Vietnamese people.
That was actually great to hear because that is a real issue! Even the bills that my housemates and I pay (water, electricity, etc.) are triple what Vietnamese people would pay. When my parents tried to mail me a package the Vietnamese postal service essentially held my package ransom because they knew that since I was white (or had a white sounding name) I could probably spare the $50. And motorbike garages are notoriously hit or miss when it comes to trustworthiness. A friend of mine recently had a mechanic slash her tire when he thought she wasn’t looking.
So for the record, this garage is at 92 Yen Phu, and they are good people. Hit them up.
I didn’t realize it at first, but the better traveled I become the more I become aware of just how insane the traffic in Hanoi is. I can drive on sidewalks, medians, the wrong side of the road, through markets, through buildings, literally anywhere that I see fit. And I’m never alone in doing it either. It’s normal. And I kind of love it. It can be stressful but it's just such an indulgence for me. Driving in Hanoi is the closest real life can ever come to Grand Theft Auto.
I am already cringing thinking about how many tickets I will probably get when I return to America, the land of rules.
Overall I'm happy with my new manual bike. It took a lot of getting used to, but now that I have learned, it's a joy to ride. It is super fuel-efficient, and it's "cool" by Vietnamese standards. When I drive to class at public schools my middle schoolers will crowd around my bike and say "Oooo teahca! I like your moto bike!" Usually fuel efficiency and coolness are inversely correlated, so I am living the dream right now.
Track of the day is my favorite song to drive to at night—I have pulled some stupid maneuvers to this song. I can't help it though... I just get in the zone. 😔 So this is the sound track for my thrill issues.