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Tuesday, 06 February 2007

Moto, Madame?

Written by Jennifer Anthony
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The Taxi Way

The taxi pulls away from the crowd of cars and pedestrians at Noi Bai International Airport, wiggles and worms its way through the congestion, and zips toward the road that leads to Ha Noi. I roll down the window and the humid July air, tempered by a light rain, shoves its way inside.

 

On the main road, we are joined by a fleet of mopeds, or ‘motos,’ as they are called in Viet Nam. They appear suddenly on all sides of us, unrestricted, it seems, by the concept of lanes. Five minutes into the trip, I learn that it is the horn that dictates the rules of the road: drivers toot them incessantly to let others know their whereabouts, to warn each other, and to establish dominance in a straightforward manner that has nothing to do with road rage.

 

motoMerchants who are transporting a variety of goods ride motos carrying live and dead animals, construction materials, or piles of astonishingly large fruit and leafy greens. Other motos transport entire families: fathers and mothers sandwich small children, including toddlers who stand on the seats, fingers curled around parents’ shoulders. Faces are obscured by smog masks and rain poncho hoods.

 

Rice paddies flank the road, tended to by water buffalo and farmers too intent on plucking green shoots from the water to care about the hectic flow of traffic. The cabbie careens nonchalantly through the mass of vehicles, tooting and accelerating.

 

I wait for the accident, know it is imminent. I appear to be the only one who is stunned. But then I spot a crate of rabbits strapped to the back of a moto; they huddle spooked and shivering in the cramped quarters, blinking rapidly each time the wheels hit a bump or their moped swerves quickly to dodge a car. I want to rescue them from the moto, plunk them down on the car seat beside me, and comfort them.

 

I have read that motos are dangerous and that one should always, always, wear a helmet. No one here is wearing a helmet.

 

It is my first day in Viet Nam, and I vow to stick to taxis.


Pedestrian Prowess

Later that afternoon, I join newfound friends who are headed for the bustling center of Ha Noi, to the streets that surround Hoan Kiem Lake. When our group amasses at the corner, moto drivers call out: Moto? Moto, Madame? Shaking our heads, we pile into a taxi and speed away. Within minutes, we are hopping out onto the wide street, daunting and frenetic as a torrential river, which separates us from the lake. I stand frozen on the sidewalk.

 

One fellow traveler has been in Viet Nam a week. She smiles and motions for me to follow her. Walk in a straight line, she says. Slow and steady.

 

And she steps out into the street, directly in the path of a squadron of motos. It is us versus them, or so it first appears. She marches boldly, eyes ahead. I scurry to catch up, walking closely beside her as if her 100-pound frame has created a force field.

 

The motos swerve around us. It is not a battle, but a test of confidence. Confidence in myselfand confidence that the motorists don’t want to hit me as much as I don’t want to be hit. We arrive on the other side unscathed and I glance backward at the street, astonished I have made it.

 

After several hours in the country, I still stand firm against riding a moto. But I have become a little smug about my pedestrian prowess.


Moto Mania

The smugness vanishes when it is time to leave.

 

My friends want to return on the cheap, hail a xe ôm, or moto, instead of a taxi. You okay with that, they ask rhetorically before turning to negotiate a fare with moto drivers. It seems we are going to split up into pairs for a moto ride home.moto

 

One friend notices my clenched-tooth smile and says that I should ride in the middle, between the driver and herself. I throw a shaking leg over the seat and clutch onto the driver’s shoulders. Gently, he pries my fingers off and indicates for me to place my hands on his hips. My friend hops on behind me.

 

And we set off, swerving through the dense sea of traffic in the Lake District’s narrow streets. Our moto driver is a great fan of the horn: he honks ceaselessly. I’m not so convinced that the bus drivers or cars can hear our tooting. I pull my knees in when we squeeze through the narrow gaps between them and the sidewalks.

 

We break free from the labyrinth of streets and head out onto a wide thoroughfare. We accelerate, as do the cars, taxis and buses that zip toward us and around us. It is delightfully cooler at this speed, although the back of my throat burns from the air pollution. People may not be wearing helmets but most are wearing smog masks.

 

The moto driver delivers us intact to our hotel. He accepts the fare with a nod, and scoots away. Charged with adrenaline, I watch him go.


Off the Wagon

Like many people who overcome a fear only to discover a newfound rush, I become a little addicted to motos. After surviving that maiden voyage, I forego taxis when I can and take motos all over the city: to and around the Hoan Kiem Lake District, to the museums, to the botanical gardens. I run errands by moto, gently rest one hand on the driver’s waist and clutch shopping bags with the other. I relax, feel the rush of wind and the blissful, albeit fleeting, cooler temperatures. After several days, I no longer feel the burn at the back of my throat, which I know can’t be a good thing. I’m beginning to find the ride enjoyable.

 

Enjoyableand intimate:a moto is an up-close-and-personal form of transportation. On each ride, I sit as close as I can to the driver, my fingers resting on the stranger’s hips, in hopes that I won’t be pitched off the back. Despite the proximity, some drivers remain aloof, and we travel in silence. But many are quite chatty; we talk about everything from my country of origin to my marital status.

 

The moto drivers sense my addiction, know that when I stand sweating on the sidewalk, with a beet-red face, glassy-eyed stare, and crumpled map, I would much rather ride to my destination than walk. Moto, madame, they call. Sometimes I muster up the strength to say no. When my heel breaks one afternoon and I lurch down the sidewalk, the moto drivers descend like wolves who have spotted a limping sheep trailing behind the pack.moto

 

I am lucky, but not everyone is. In the twenty days that I am there, three friends are in accidents and acquire what we have termed “moto leg” or what other Southeast Asian travelers refer to as the “Thailand Tattoo” – a burn on the back of the right calf from an exposed exhaust pipe. There are reputedly thousands of moto-related injuries and deaths in Viet Nam each year. Like most addictions, my moto mania can have deleterious effects.


On the Wagon, Sampan, and Cyclo

I decide it is time to wean myself from the moto and sample Viet Nam’s numerous other forms of transportation. On a day trip to the Yen River, I try the sampan, a small boat manned by a sinewy fifty-something-year-old woman. After three of us board the boat, it sinks so low that the rim is inches away from the water. But unlike the middle-aged woman who navigates in the oppressive humidity, all I have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride, although guiltily, given that the woman rowing has about twenty years on me.

 

Back in the capital, I decide to try out the cycle rickshaw, or cyclo. For the full effect, I take one to the Hotel Sofitel, where Graham Greene stayed as he wrote The Quiet American. Like the sampan sculler, the white-haired driver somehow doesn’t break a sweat as he pedals with subdued strength. The leisurely pace, raised seat, and side panels make me feel more secure than the exposed moto. But like the sampan, it is hard to reconcile the pleasure of the relaxed, low-key ride with the feelings of guilt. If I didn’t feel like such an oppressor, the cyclo, too, might prove addictive.streets

A New Addiction

And so, like any dedicated addict, I am weak. Moto, Madame? A man calls from the sidewalk. And I succumb.

 

Back in the States, I’m sure I’ve shaken my obsession. I hop into my car and join the flowing freeway traffic. There are no families crowded onto mopeds. Instead, people cushion themselves from each other and the road in enormous utility vehicles. But days later in San Francisco, I spot a Vespa darting through the traffic, free and unencumbered, and I feel a curious but familiar rush.

©Jennifer Anthony

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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