We, the Motorbike Riders of Ho Chi Minh City
We keep to the outside of the lane and leave the inside to the cars and taxis unless we need to turn left. When we turn left, we may linger until we see an opening, then we drive straight into the oncoming motorbikes - they will go around us like we do for them - but we yield to the cars and taxis. We yield to them for survival, because they are bigger.
The cars and taxis are kind, mostly; they drive deliberately for us, they make slow turns knowing that we will swarm around them when they do.
We know that honking is not a rude gesture, but rather that it is a statement: "I am here, behind or beside you."
When we merge onto the road, we don't look behind, only forward. Never behind, always forward. If we look behind, we could run into someone who is only looking forward. We don't check our blind spot, but we - also - move deliberately. Slowly, predictably, just like the pedestrians who cross the street. If they stop, we have to swerve. If they keep moving, the flow continues.
If a powerline falls, someone will tie a blue plastic bag to the end of it, so that we can see it hanging more clearly. If it whips us in the face, the bag will feel much better than the line would.
If a lane is filled with cars and the sidewalk is available, we will climb onto the sidewalk. If our co-workers find a way around the muddy construction site and can avoid the six inches of water on the road even though that back route spits us out about three blocks north of our school, we can ride our motorbike on the sidewalk in the opposite flow of traffic. We just assert our position and drive upstream.
If it begins to rain, we pull over and take out our raincoats and slip them on. We put our helmets on over the coat and we keep fairly dry.
When we park, we are given a little slip of paper with our license number on it; if we lose this piece of paper, we will not be able to collect our bikes. The men who watch the bikes remember which bike belongs to which rider, even if there are two hundred bikes in their care. When we emerge, our bike has usually been found for us, seat wiped down and ready to go. We pay 3,000 VND for this service (about 18 cents), and we can park them for as long as we like.
I, the new Motorbike Rider of Ho Chi Minh City
Saturday morning: I'm wanting to park in my gym parking lot, but the lot is one block up from the opening in the barrier. I have the time to try something new, and think that there must be another break in that barrier that leads to that lot. There isn't. The road forces me onto a bridge, which leads to another bridge, and suddenly, I am in District Two. Suddenly, nothing looks familiar. If I drive around long enough, I think, something is bound to look familiar. But nothing looks familiar, even after half an hour. So I stop and ask taxi drivers along the road, "How do I get back to District One?" All of them have suggestions. Three of them lead me back to the road with the two bridges, a road that is impossible to get off of for about five miles of barriers. I drive in circles on this highway three times.
It's hot; my face is caked in dirt. I keep asking. The drivers can't really help me. Nothing looks familiar. I begin to panic. Ho Chi Minh is flat - no mountains, not even a hill. The only water to direct you here is the Saigon River, but it is windy and confusing. Add to this me and my sense of direction...a sense of direction that struggles to get from point A to point B in Seattle, where there is a big mountain and lots of water in helpful places.
Finally, I find a driver who speaks good English. "Do you have a map?" he asks me. Yes, I do; however, District Two is not on my map. He begins to draw a picture that looks very much like the route to the two bridges. I feel like crying. But instead, I ask him, "Can I pay you to lead me back to District One? Please? I would be so grateful." He agrees.
I follow him over the two bridges once again, but here's the thing: there is a lane for cars and taxis and a lane for motorbikes - on the bridges, the lanes are separated by a railing, which makes it impossible to cross. So I am following this taxi through construction sites and over bridges where I have no business being. Suddenly I hear a siren behind me... the police. I've heard stories of how they like to pull foreigners over and take bribes to get out of citations. My heart is racing as the noise gets closer and louder. I am the only motorbike on the bridge. The police officer looks at me, points at me with his club and motions me over to the side, past the bridge. Here we go, I'm thinking, he's going to follow me over and do this thing I've heard about, and it's only my first week on my motorbike...but he drives on. Soon another siren is behind me. They are all heading to something else, and they all just point to me as if saying, "You're in the wrong lane. See, over there is where you are supposed to be."
The taxi leads me off an off ramp and around a corner and suddenly, we are heading back toward District One. I have told him to drop me at my gym, so he does. But guess what...he passes the parking lot I was trying to get to in the first place, so here I am, back at ground zero, where I started over 90 minutes ago. I don't even care. I park in the crappy lot next to the gym and hand the taxi driver 100,000 VND for a trip that probably would have cost about 30,000 if I had been riding with him.
Sometimes you really can't name a price on getting home. You know? Especially when getting home means removing the dirt from your face by diving into a beautiful lap pool at the most expensive gym in Saigon.