You’ve seen a bit of what it’s like to ride a xe om around Hanoi now. Let me tell you, those videos are nothing compared to riding at night with an inebriated driver! I had a class (more on teaching soon) starting at 7:30pm so I took a ride with one of the drivers near my hotel. After I got on the bike I could smell the alcohol in the air. It’s the first time I felt seriously in danger. He accelerated rapidly through traffic, weaving in and out, slamming on the brakes a few times. All I could do was try and relax and be philosophical about it. A little adrenalin rush is good. If it’s my time…. etc. I made it to school and my ride back was way mellower, making me appreciate how a nice slow ride can be quite pleasant, especially at night with all the lights.
Then I saw an ad in The New Hanoian: Yamaha Electric Assist Bike for sale. I sent a text message and arranged to meet the owner on Sunday. Finding his school was an adventure – my driver kept having to stop and ask directions as the school was way off in the middle of a bunch of small streets. When I was let off the doorman ushered me up to the fourth floor. No one was around. Was I in the right place? I texted the bike owner. He texted me back and in a minute he stepped out of the elevator (gotta love text messaging!). He’s a big guy like me; volunteering as a trainer of teachers for children with autism. He took me down to look at the bike and I was sold. Especially when he told me his reasons for getting it: a perfect way to slowly get into the swing of Hanoi traffic. He gave me a few pointers on driving in the traffic and off I went, happily cruising back to my hotel.
It was a different matter though when I went to class that evening. I got lost several times, even though I had a map. But I managed to arrive on time. The fellow who watches the bikes at school, the staff and the students were all interested in my bike. Although they’re common in China (where it comes from) they’re a rare breed here still. Everyone wants a gas chugging scooter, not any type of bicycle. Apparently you can leave regular old bikes parked around Hanoi for days and no one will steal them (unless they’re a new looking mountain bike). When I’m riding it people are always looking at it. And with the electric assist I can power out through or past scary situations. Most scooter riders try to avoid hitting pedestrians or bicycles; I guess it looks bad if you hit one. And they probably don’t want to hit a foreigner either. Although I’ve heard that 10-15 a week die on Hanoi’s streets :..-(
Driving in rush hour is downright nasty. Drivers jam themselves as far into the pack as they can get, jostling for position. I try to stay to the side and keep an eye out for people whizzing in from the right or off the sidewalks. They never look out for oncoming traffic, they just shoot out into it. I had a woman on a bike pass me and then cut in front, jam on the brakes and stop, causing me to almost plow into her. The brakes on the bike were not very tight when I got it, so sudden stops were tricky. However, last night one of the guys at the hotel tightened my front brake for me. I had pointed it out but hadn’t asked him to do it. I was on my way to look for a bike shop today and noticed it had been tightened. Nice, eh? All it needs now is some oil and grease, the seat raised a bit and a Loud Horn! The little ‘beep beep’ it makes now disappears in the din of the other horns.
Although the traffic is still scary, I’m in control and it is a pleasant ride. I just get a mellow spin going with a minimum of electric assist and away I go. Keep an eye out for the potholes, other drivers and the odd chicken and everything is cool. Maybe I’ll take a ride out into the countryside on the weekend. Reminds me of my first bike and the freedom I suddenly had to go where I wanted, when I wanted. And, unlike Pender, there are almost no hills in Hanoi, so it’s easy easy.