Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Biking in the Big City

When I first arrived here, I had no problem with walking everywhere I went. That changed after two months, though, when I moved into a house that was twice as far from my work as my hotel had been. Where a fifteen minute walk was tolerable, thirty minutes, two times a day, in the sweltering HCMC heat was just a bit much.

I had a bit of a dilemma – Vietnamese food and this daily regimen had delivered me a new, svelte figure that I’d grown attached to, and knew that a owning a motorbike would soon see the end of . So I compromised: I bought a bicycle.

I used to bike everywhere I went in Dunedin, a city that, while much sleepier than this one, is also far hillier. Because of this, I figured it’d be no problem here – I’d zip around much faster, save precious time, and generally be more mobile.

And it was a marked improvement. All of those things came true; no longer is a trip to the corner store for some ice cream a twenty-minute time investment and no longer am I accosted by endless streams of motorbike taxi drivers. I leave my neighbourhood more often, and generally enjoy all the perks that come from bigger range.

I do have a few complaints, though. For one, a good seventy percent of the people I pass collapse into laughter. This is for a myriad of reasons; for one, the bike I ride was designed for the Vietnamese frame. My 100 kilograms make me resemble the clich├ęd gorilla on a tricycle, which I can understand is quite mirth-worthy.

I also wear a helmet, which nobody in Vietnam does on a bicycle. This is not something I understand quite as well as the above reason; an impact at speed with a moving bus, truck, car, or motorbike is equally traumatic, no matter what you're riding. So to the people who laugh at my helmet, I say this: I’ll be laughing at you when you’re in a coma.

Finally, the fact that I’m even on a bicycle is hilarious. I think it has to do with the same mindset that finds dark skin so repugnant: biking, like a tan, is for peasants, and all people of means and with any self-respect avoid bicycles like the plague. Since the assumption is that all foreigners are filthy rich (which, to be honest, we are in relation to the cost of living), it is hilarious to see one on a bicycle.

That’s not the only negative aspect of biking. Even though it’s flat here, it’s also incredibly hot. Along with a raincoat, a second shirt is now high on the list of things I don’t leave home without: far too many times have I taught a class of 13 year olds who, in keeping with the theme of my life in Vietnam, were overcome with laughter at my sweat-soaked carcass. This particular laughter, however, soon turned to watering eyes and wrinkled noses as my sweat dried and began to emit a distinctive, thoroughly unpleasant aroma.

I also often fear for my life. The motorbike reigns supreme in Ho Chi Minh City, closely followed by buses who dominate with their size, followed by cars who usually push motorbikes out of their way but are swarmed in busy times, with bicycles bringing up the rear. With the speed of a car in traffic but without the power, I literally have no control. On countless occasions, I’ve made turns I didn’t need to make, gone down incorrect streets, and pulled over to wait because the inexorable flow of the traffic made going the correct way a life or death decision that would result in the latter.

But I still didn’t mind, because I was getting around faster than when I was walking. Then I got a dose of the last thing I needed: perspective. A Vietnamese friend, fed up with driving me around and dubious of her ability to steer with me on the back, insisted that I learn to drive her motorbike. The first ten or fifteen minutes were sweatier than all my bicycle rides put together as I gingerly accelerated, certain that I was going to propel my passenger, her bike, and myself into something or someone. But soon enough I was blasting through traffic like – in my eyes, at least – a pro.

It was fantastic. I wasn’t getting worn out, I was going way faster than a bike, and finally I could dictate my own destination rather than be at the mercy of everyone else’s. All the limitations of my bicycle were dealt with in one fell swoop.

Then my friend went home, and I had to go to work. Upgrading from walking to the bicycle was a dream come true – but downgrading from the motorbike was a living nightmare. I never felt so slow or sweaty in my life as I did that day.

But I’m holding out. I’m sticking with my bicycle, partly out of commitment to regular exercise, partly because I got incredibly ripped off when I bought it and want to make my overspending worth it, and partly because I enjoy bringing it up whenever someone starts talking to me about the evils of pollution (invariably a person who, in one of life's refreshing ironies, swears by their motorbike).

It’s anyone’s guess as to how long it’ll last.


  1. keep wearing your helmet; think of your mother. Who loves you.

  2. haha free bottled water