M is for motorbike
I’ve had a little M on my license since 2012 saying that I’m qualified to drive a motorcycle. So the irony of a man who has never had a drivers license of any kind teaching me to operate his third-hand Honda Win is not lost on me. At home I drive an automatic scooter. I’ve never had the pleasure of letting out the clutch until it bites and finding the sweet spot between the revving the engine and stalling the motor. Hanoi is a city of 5 million motorbikes. It’s a city of swerving traffic, driving the wrong way on one ways, motorbikes on sidewalks, through markets, tight alleyways filled with people selling things, pedestrians and blind corners. Hanoi’s traffic makes me hold my breath and squeeze my knees a little tighter, and I’ve only ever been a passenger.
He drives a few laps around Ba Mau Lake, the same spot he learned to drive from his friend just a year before. In the months since then he’s put over 9,200 km on his bike. Her name is Delilah and she’s a Vietnamese knockoff Honda. A motorbike model that’s exclusively in the domain of Vietnamese farmers and western travelers who want to feel the wind in their hair as they drive around the mountains. He tells me to watch his hands. I sit a little straiter peering over his left shoulder. I catch every other word as his narrates what his left and right hands are doing as he accelerates, changes gears and brakes. Let off the acceleration and pull in the clutch. Brake and keep the clutch in, let it out just until it bites. He explains the gear box, why the semi-automatic I drove around the mountains had jerky gear changes and why once I can drive a manual I’ll never want to go back to having less control.
We stop and get off. He turns off the bike and with all the confidence in the world says it’s my turn. I had tried the new Yamaha he rented in the north on a quiet town road and never got out of first, I didn’t have the finesse. The Win is light but sort of a piece of shit compared to the Yahama. The indicator on the dash is broken so I don’t know what gear I’m in. Does it roll forward when the ignitions’ off? That’s neutral. Half a click to first. The lake is quiet but not dead. There are cars and delivery trucks and motorbike drivers who unlike me aren’t driving 10 km per hour and stalling out every time they brake going over a bump and forget to pull in the clutch.
He sits at a cafe and orders a beer, smokes a cigarette. I do another lap and he whistles when I report back that I only stalled once and got it into second and back down. Third lap there’s traffic at the stop sign. When there’s no one coming towards me, there are motorbikes coming up from behind me passing on the left. My palms sweat, and not from the heat. Last week I made it through the mountains on my little Honda Wave, the first time I drove a semi-automatic. I thought the gears, foot brake, and hand brake would feel complex. I learned it in 15 minutes. He rode on the back my first time out. I passed muster and off we went. I was slow but he was patient, waiting for me at beautiful vistas when he hadn’t seen me for a while. The cliffs up north dropped of into ravines far below. Trucks and busses passed too quickly. I didn’t lay the bike down once. I didn’t get burned or scraped. Yet somehow turning left on a quiet lake by the railroad tracks in Hanoi has got me more worked up than switchbacks at 10% incline.
It’s obvious I’m just learning as I’m just doing jerky laps around and around the lake, driving too slowly and stalling out by the fishermen on the far side. A Vietnamese man is at the cafe on the same Yamaha he rented in the north. I’m grateful for the practice and don’t want to take advantage. He says, it’s no problem. I should go for a few more laps. We’ve got time. The Vietnamese man gives me a thumbs up in encouragement. I change directions. Now I’m going clockwise around the lake and the terrifying left turn becomes an easy breezy right. There’s some glass in the road just after the big bump and I’m avoiding it with ease. I get the bike up to 30 km per hour. I brake without stalling. I can start her in 2nd. I feel like a total badass. He whistles when I pass and I tell him I think I’m getting it. He asks if I’m ready for more traffic. I say no. He says for him it was a baptism by fire trying to follow his friends around Hanoi, trying not to get hit, seeing where they were leading him and not stalling out. At this point he’s seen the majority of Vietnam, Cambodia, visited me in Laos twice. He’s leaving soon. So am I. Delilah has to stay behind. She was good to him, good to me. She’ll be good to the friend who taught him to ride who will take her up north.
He’s right. I’m already thinking of trading in my scooter for a manual bike. I’m already planning my own motorcycle trip through Vietnam in my head. I’m already plotting my return to Hanoi.