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Vietnam eats, sleeps, and dreams on motorbikes

Evidence of “moto” madness: A family of four on a speeding cycle sharing a bucket of fried chicken as they go.

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Near the end of those first weeks in Vietnam, my interpreter, Mr. Thien, convinced me it would be OK to catch a ride with him on his moto.

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“It’s raining. And it’s only two streets,” he said. “Don’t worry, I drive slowly.”

I climbed on and gripped his shoulders. Before Thien had driven half a yard, we were front-ended by a moto making a turn into oncoming traffic. It was nothing more than a kiss of wheels, and both drivers nodded respectfully at each other before the second driver sped off, soldiering into the surge of oncoming vehicles.

“It’s OK, it’s OK,” said Thien, trying to reassure me. My grip tightened considerably.
Although the cities rack up a considerable number of collisions, the country’s highways are even worse. (Eighty percent of the world’s traffic accidents take place in Southeast Asia, according to the World Health Organization.)

Yet, the Vietnamese seem unfazed. Their madness for motos remains, along with their kamikaze abandonment of road rules and safety. Late last year, a law mandating the use of helmets went into effect. Before then, seeing a helmet here was like spotting an alligator in the Arctic. And although citizens comply with the law, there remains an aversion to wearing helmets. Which is why they’re mockingly called rice cookers.

• • •

Since that first visit to Vietnam, I’ve returned several times. In June, I walked out of my hotel one afternoon to find an Australian guest sitting on the steps, staring out at the street.
“Interesting, huh?” I said, recognizing his traffic reverie.

“Unbelievable. Unbelievable,” he said. “I had plans to go out tonight, but, I’m not going anywhere. I’ve been sitting here for more than an hour and I just can’t take my eyes off it.”

I scuttled on past the dumbstruck Australian and handily flagged down a moto taxi driver. He revved his engine, popped up onto the sidewalk and braked at my shoes. His toe-front service meant he was extending his superpowers to me, ensuring I wouldn’t have to take one single extra unnecessary step. I got on, strapped my “rice cooker” across my chin and we were off.

I don’t know where it came from, this willingness to lob myself into the frenzied fray. But it happened on my second trip to Vietnam, when a late-night ride home was offered by a fellow journalist. It seemed rude to say no. And too touristic and foreign and fearful to call for a cab, yet again. And the chorus of locals egging me on sealed the deal. “Don’t be scared! We take care of you!” they shouted.

And soon I felt relieved to be free of the cluttered sidewalks where eating, card-playing, boozing, dealmaking, daydreaming, schmoozing, repairing, canoodling, sleeping, hair-cutting, and gossiping take place.

On foot I felt like a trespasser in a supremely crowded living room. On wheels, I began to loosen my grip. My posture softened. No longer bracing against the current, my spot on the back of the moto felt like the eye of the storm. I began to take motos whenever possible. I crisscrossed the city on moto taxis, just one more piece of cargo being ferried through town. This was it for me. I was joined with the masses. Me as we.

Zipping along, I watched as fellow motorbikers clipped past me. I began to note with pad and pen, there on the back of the bike, what I saw in motion: a family of four on a moto passing around a bucket of fried chicken, a stack of funeral wreaths being hauled, a driver with a huge bucket of live shrimp sandwiched between his legs.

I shot video while my driver u-turned into oncoming traffic on a bridge, then rewound to look at the footage, while other motos whizzed so close I had to squeeze in my knees.

Looking back, I’m alarmed at the danger I put myself in. Being bionic by proxy involves more than a little risk.

Now, propped on a mantel in my office half a world away, is my helmet. Every now and then I take it down and try it on, showing it off to friends and telling them stories of the road. Me and my superhero costume, nestled safely at home.

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