Sooner or later, you’ll do the motorbike thing in Vietnam. Whether it’s being rushed around town by a hardy, weather-beaten old fella on a xe om (motorbike taxi) or hiring a bike to whizz to the beach and check out the sights – you’ll enter the traffic maelstrom keen as mustard and emerge enlightened and quite pale.
If you’ve lived here for a while then you’ve hired the locals to cart something to your place via those big wooden carts with the old-fashioned motorcar wheels from the twenties. I’m sure you prayed to the gods and made an offering to the Buddha for the safe handling of your wares; however they do gamble in heaven...
Now, if you’ve lived here a real long time, like more than one year on a working visa (now becoming rarer than dinosaur eggs wrapped in edible gold and chocolate) you will have attempted the great challenge – carting stuff yourself.
In the well-behaved west this would be a piece of cake, except the cops would think you are up to no good since you can’t afford a taxi or truck, yet in Vietnam the locals do this with aplomb and the lazy casualness of a man surfing the Internet from his sofa. For a foreigner to attempt this is akin to NASA training for docking with the space station.
I never rode a motorbike until I was fifty years old in Vietnam. My first experience of carting something was terrifying. At the time I was in a partnership to set up an English school outside Hoi An and we were looking for an extra teacher. A young German girl contacted me via Facebook.
She was a giant, blonde, blue-eyed and with a voice you could hear over a Vietnamese truck horn. Insisting on seeing the school she bullied me into taking her on my bike. Have you ever wobbled on a motorbike with twice your body weight shouting in your left ear from behind? Since that day I’ve usually refused to cart people anywhere. And I never talked to her again.
As the years rolled past the house filled up with my books and I needed bookcases. The locals did a lot of the carting until local prices became more expensive. So I learnt how to order sheets of wood and sit on the thing while riding very slowly home. I was extremely proud that I managed to out-maneuver trucks and buses by riding the edge of the road and wiggling the bike through the small sand dunes that seem to decorate modern Vietnam.
While a fridge or a large pane of glass is beyond my Cirque du Soleil riding skills, I have blithely battered my way through the face-masked hordes honking their way to hell while carting rolls of fencing wire, a deadly hooked tree scythe, boxes of photocopied textbooks for my hotel classes piled up to my chin, bamboo poles, crates of beer and kilos of laundry! (My housekeeper was sick at the time...)
I’ve learnt to calculate the S curve needed to go around prams and wheelbarrows, how to squeeze between the taxi trying to get ahead of me and the oncoming tour bus without screaming and become quite adroit at spotting the atypical head-down, wobbling guy in front squinting at his text message instead of the road, not to mention the ladies crossing the road to deliver food to the lazy bloke in the baby chair on the other side.
Strangely, I seem to be the only person in my street with fully functioning lights, indicators, brakes and the starter motor. Yet I can tell you for a fact that the most commonly carted item by wheelbarrow or motorbike is a water pump. Yep, a water pump. I’m surrounded by farmers and their mates turning the corner in front of my house with a bamboo ladder threatening to slice my ‘papermoon’ trees while counter-balancing a whopping great water pump on the other knee. Vietnam lives or dies on its ability to keep the water flowing.
For my next trick, I’m going to try learning how to turn the corner one-handed while calling a friend to ask them what they’re doing...wish me luck!