Thursday, August 23, 2012

The new motorbikes of Old Saigon

The Nuovo in my Hem (alley)
Many cities around the globe have a vehicle that is intertwined with its unique character and culture; Rome with its stylish and youthful Vespas and Fiat 500s, the staid and steady London taxi, or the muscle cars of Detroit. But there is no city where that association transcends the Romantic to the Actual more than Saigon and the Honda Cub. Even in the years of the Vietnam War, any picture or news footage of the Paris of Indochina had at least a half dozen of the thrifty, reliable scoots buzzing in the background, shuttling around everything from Generals to crates full of pigs. Whenever I step out of my apartment on Le Thanh Ton street in the heart of District 1, I am immediately dodging Honda scooters. Today, most of the semi-automatic bikes you see are 110cc version of the original 50cc cub, sold either as a Super Cub, Super Dream, or Alpha. I'd be hard pressed to tell you the mechanical differences between them, but the Super Cubs still retain the 60s styling, while the Dream's have square, 80s style headlight, and the Alpha attempt a more modern, sporty design (some even have - gasp! - front disk brakes).

So if the traditional Honda is so common in Saigon, why am I not writing about it? Well, for two reasons; first of all, the Alpha S I rented had no front brake. To be sure, there was a drum attached to the front wheel, and a lever, and a brake line; but, as a unit, this did nothing to actually slow my momentum. I discovered this after I had planned a trip to Monkey Island, a small nature preserve infested with notoriously larcenous monkey gangs, just south of the city. I was all geared up, with a Kriega bag full of water, a change of shoes, and a towel in case of swimming (thank you, Hitchhicker's Guide to the Galaxy). As I started out of the city, however, through the kind of lawless traffic that would make even an Italian taxi driver curl up in the fetal position, I began to notice that my right hand really had zero effect on the bike. Distracted, I took a wrong turn, and found up riding 25 km west of the city, through some very interesting suburbs. When I returned a few hours later, I took the bike back to the small convenience store/cafe/boardinghouse/motorbike rental shop to ask for a different bike.

I did want to ride a Honda cub; it fit with every preconceived notion I had about Saigon. But the longer I've been here, the more I've realized the city is changing, rapidly. Every young Vietnamese person I've met and traveled with has been eager to point out how they are NOT like their parent's, or grandparent's, generation. Dressed in Gucci and designer jeans, drinking Heineken and Carlsburg, listening to west-coast hip hop and electronica...

...and NOT riding Honda cubs.

Vietnam is a country with an extremely young population; 60% of its population is under 30, and its average age is 26. Compare this with the grey-bush United States of America, whose average age is nearly 37. I'm 26; if I came to Vietnam to experience its culture, I'd better start acting like my Vietnamese peers.

Examining the huge valet parking lots near trendier clubs like District 3's Acoustic, you'll notice a much larger percentage of larger, automatic scooters. While Vespas and Vespa-styled small-wheel automatics like the SYM Atilla are more popular with girls, bikes like Honda's Airblade and Yamaha's Nuovo tend to be more popular with guys. An Airblade sports modern features like water-cooling, fuel injection, and a CVT transmission, but retains the 16" wheels of their Cub forebearers. All the better to deal with the uneven road surfaces and required curb-jumping for parking (or just to scare the tourists). These bikes also tend to be very aggressively styled; the Nuovo apes the angular style of its big-brothers the R6 and R1, while the Airblade looks like a scooter-VFR. Not your father's nicest-people Honda, to be sure.

I wound up renting a Yamaha Nuovo; its an older model, a 115cc air-cooled, carburetted, 2-valve engine mated to a CVT, but its styling makes it appear much more advanced. Never having ridden a traditional sit-in scooter, I was a bit surprised by the seating position; I usually wind up riding around with my feet under my butt, with the balls of my feet well to the back of the runners. The CVT is convenient, if a bit slow to respond to throttle inputs at walking speed, in traffic; any machine that can handle Saigon during rush-hour is a well-engineered machine. Opening it up on the wide, empty boulevards in front of "Unification Palace" at midnight was extremely fun; racing a friend riding two-up on a newer Vespa, I was able to take turns with reckless abandon and total confidence. Luckily, the ubiquitous white police CB250s were nowhere to be found; foreigners without a license hooning on public street are ripe for an expensive shakedown. 

All the Gear, All The Continents

Cool old bike in an inside cafe painted to look like a street cafe...confusing
Dirt Tracker down by the riverside. Stylish!

The Nuovo in the underground parking at the Somerset Hotel

Ural Side Car!

Seen outside a night club in District 1. The German claimed it was the, "Only Buell in Vietnam!" I was in no position to doubt him.

Kickass little motorbike I passed during my walk to work through the Saigon Children's Hospital. 150ccs, 6-speed true manual transmission, under-seat storage. Tell me why they don't sell these in America, again?

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The wonder that one can not impart to other

After a week adrift in the barely-organized chaos of Hanoi, it felt strange to wake up to silence. The constant blare of motorbike horns and shouts from the street vendors had been replaced with the steady chug of the ship's engines, and with no plans for the morning, I allowed the gentle rocking of the top-heavy junk to lull me back to sleep. After a quick, awkward, and luke-warm shower, I walked up to the dining room, where my companions were just finishing breakfast. Last night's dinner, greasy and savory, still weighed heavily in my stomach, so I waved off the crew's offer of eggs and toast, and simply asked for a cup of strong, black coffee, and took the saucer to the top deck. Slouching into a wicker chair, drinking coffee, I watched the jutting green and grey peaks of Ha Long Bay float past, shrouded in mist, and looking for all the world like a silk tapestry come to life. It was only then that I could truly and physically comprehend the distance from home I was.

The previous week had certainly been a blur. After 14 hours on a jet to Hang Kong (next to a teenager who, given his constant, omni-directional sneezing, seemed to have some sort of Mega-SARS), two plane changes at the airport, and another 2 hours to Hanoi, I was hardly in a condition to start a full day; but yet, there I was, checking into a hotel at 11 am. I had enough time for a quick shower and a change of clothes before meeting the other students in the program in the hotel lobby, thankfully, but I was mostly running on autopilot at that point in time. We went to get some food, bun cha; char-grilled (on the sidewalk!) pork patties we placed in bowls of hot vermicelli, spiced with fish sauce, chili paste, and fresh basil. Delicious, but quite a bit of a shock to an American digestive track.  Afterwards we walked down to picturesque Hoan Kiem lake, enjoying the old red bridge, bright paper lanterns, and an early evening lightning storm. Crossing a main square and rotary was my first realization that I would not be riding a motorbike in Hanoi.

I got my first glimpse into the insanity that is Vietnamese traffic on the taxi ride from the airport. One of the first things I spotted as we merged onto the main highway to downtown Hanoi was a huge hog, alive and wrapped in chicken wire, strapped to the back of a Honda Superdream (post cards with pictures of similarly loaded farm bikes confirmed that I, in fact, did not make this up in a post-flight hallucination). I barely had time to register just how the traffic in the cramped streets of the Old Town moved, being more concerned with not being separated from the group on the way to food. But while grabbing a "bia ba ba ba" ("333" beer) poured over ice in a cafe, I had the chance to study the traffic. At any moment, I though somebody was going to be killed. The "rotary" was just an obstacle in the middle of a 5-way intersection; bikes rode clock-wise or counter-clockwise depending on which was the quickest way to their street. Honda Cubs were loaded down with entire families; Dad holding the handle bars with 4 year old son on his lap, with Mom holding on to both the bike and an infant on the back, all four swerving around pedestrians, taxis, other bikes, and monster potholes. Nobody was going too quickly, but nobody ever, EVER stopped. This slow-but-stead progress seemed to be the only way to make through the whirlpool of traffic, and I knew immediately that I didn't have the skills (or the balls) to hop on a bike and try it myself. It was like I had been playing checkers in the States, and the Vietnamese were playing speed chess.

After a week of classes and sight-seeing in Hanoi, plus an entire day spent in bed with Conrad-ian fever dreams and cramps (thanks, kid, for that), we all took our trip to Ha Long bay before the group split up between Hanoi and Saigon. After feeling like a salmon trying to swim upstream, some spelunking, squid fishing, and swimming was just what I needed to relax and prepare for Saigon, and my work at Baker & McKenzie.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Rider 49er part Deux; Scooterpocalypse Now

Its been a while since I've posted anything; mostly because this blog was originally going to be a one-off journal of my trip from Boston to San Francisco. I am, however, going to be embarking on a new summer two-wheeled adventure! I'll be working as a summer clerk at Baker & McKenzie, and international law firm, at their Ho Chi Mihn City office (Saigon). Vietnam is famous (or infamous) for its motorbike culture; more specifically, scooters! So, in addition to suits and ties and travel gear, I also packed my helmet, old gloves, boots, rain gear (monsoon season) and jacket. Since I'm packing my bulky items in a large canvas duffle bag, they more than fit. My helmet if full of the armour I pulled out of my jacket, plus my gloves, and is surrounded by soft item to protect it from the baggage handlers. Renting a scooter in HCMC is dirt cheap, but I'll be in Hanoi for about a week first; I have no idea if I'll be riding at all in the first week, but I'm certainly going to try! Sadly, I packed before I took the required pre-pack layout of my gear, but I promise more pictures when I get there. If I have time after my clerkship is over, I may also make the trek from HCMC to Phenom Phen in Cambodia to visit a friend and fellow USF law student. For now, here's the packed duffle bag.

See you on the road, Mark
PS - This is an average street in Saigon. So many Hondas!