Motorbike 101 – Just Go

“This is the brake,” Chi said, squeezing the brake levers to demonstrate.

“Yep, the same as a bicycle,” I said.

“On this bike you have to hold the brake to start the ignition,” Chi continued.

Suddenly things seemed much more complicated than I expected, especially as I’d asked for an automatic motorbike so I didn’t have to worry about changing gears. I wanted to give 100% of my attention to the crazy traffic.

“So… that’s it!” Chi announced cheerfully. “Just go.”

“But how?” I asked, like a kitten mewling.

“Just go,” she said again, looking confused.

“Where’s the accelerator?” I ask, feeling like an absolute twit. Maybe I shouldn’t try to ride a motorbike in chaotic Ho Chi Minh City.

“Oh yes,” she said and mimed pulling back on the accelerator on the handlebar. I mentally slap myself. As if I hadn’t run around as a kid yelling out “rrrUMMMM RUMMMMM” and revving an imaginary motorbike in this exact manner.

“Just go,” she said again, and reached over and held down the brake, turned the key and pressed the ignition button. I squawked and turned the key back to the off position.

“So, you’re coming with me while I test the bike, right?”

Chi looks a bit worried. “Ah, no. The restaurant is very busy,” she said. I look over her shoulder and count four customers and five staff. She tells me to drive to the end of the alley and turn around and come back. I try to convince her to come with me but she keeps giving excuses.

This isn’t how I imagined I would learn to ride a motorbike in Vietnam.

I’d imagined Chi would ride beside me while I test-drove one of her rental fleet, giving me pointers and gently alerting me to all possible dangers. But no, her furrowed forehead tells me that she does not have a death wish, no matter what this strange foreigner might expect.

I grip the brake levers as tightly as I can. Chi leans over and turns the key and starts the bike again.

Chi’s Cafe is in a pretty narrow alley. I vaguely recall my first attempts to ride a bicycle involved a fair bit of wobbling. I expect the wobbles to turn into ricochets in this confined space. Slowly I release the brake. Nothing happens.

I exert the gentlest of pressure on the accelerator. The engine dies.

I feel like I’ve just finished an Olympic 100 metre sprint. I’m exhausted, every muscle aching, heart racing.

Chi leans over and restarts the bike for me. “Just go,” she says, sounding slightly impatient.

I exert slightly more pressure on the accelerator and the bike moves forward. It doesn’t wobble. It seems like it wants to go straight. I’m so pleased with the straightness and unwobbliness of my driving that I forget about the looming intersection until it’s too late. Shit. I don’t know how to steer.

I turn the handlebars and enter the intersection at a breathtaking speed. Must be all of 4km/hr. I nearly hit a conga-line of tall Nordic backpackers.

I straighten up and waste precious seconds mentally congratulating myself on surviving events up to this point. Suddenly I’m in the middle of the next intersection, in front of a bus, motorbikes everywhere. Miraculously I am out of the intersection. Unscathed but with a taxi bearing down on me.

I try to move to one side. Pedestrians thwart me. I pull desperately on the brakes. The engine dies. My heart continues to beat. But I am stuck in front of the taxi. The driver toots. A few motorbikes behind me also toot, helpfully I’m sure.

I walk the bike off to one side, allowing the taxi driver to pass.

I assess my situation. Being Vietnam, there are people everywhere. Being Vietnamese, they are staring. Being Vietnamese, it won’t be long before they start discussing my predicament, loudly and with great relish.

I could push the bike back to Chi’s, but that would involve displaying my butt and fat rolls to great disadvantage. I restart the bike, my face flushed red. I try to accelerate away as smoothly as possible.

There are so many things competing for my attention. There are parked cars, moving cars, motorbikes in front of me, beside me, parked, overtaking, swerving. There’s a banana cart. The fake Buddhist nun I see all the time. Backpackers trudging wearily along the side of the road. A Vietnamese lady in pyjamas crosses the road in front of me holding a bowl of soup. Two kids wobble along on a rickety old bicycle, shouting and laughing.

Before I can turn my mind to turning around I am at the next intersection, one of Ho Chi Minh City’s many intersections of death. I am going to have to turn right, across the traffic, to go around the block to get back to Chi’s Cafe. With terror in my eyes, I pick a gap in the craziness and start turning right. I get tooted from every direction but no one actually makes contact. It’s then I realise that I’ll have to turn right again, into Pham Ngu Lao, one of the city’s  many streets of absolute chaos. My last remaining stores of willpower are exhausted when I complete the turn without shutting my eyes.

My satisfaction is fleeting because now I realise – shit and double-shit – that I’m going to have to turn right AGAIN to get back to Chi’s Cafe.

Against all odds I manage the final turn, using up all my nine lives and defying the laws of physics.

I pull up behind Chi, who is facing the other way, the way I went.

“Hey,” I said, breathlessly.

“Oh, you are there,” she said. “Is the bike ok?”

I can only manage a weak smile. If I’m alive then I assume the bike is ok. Unless I’ve been hit by a bus and I’m actually a ghost.

“You like the bike? Will you pay the deposit now?”

I suppress the urge to laugh hysterically. And the equally strong urge to burst into tears. I find the kickstand, get off the bike and follow Chi into her restaurant on trembling legs, going over my calculations again. For about $65 a month the motorbike works out cheaper than being repeatedly ripped off by the mercenary xe om motorbike taxi drivers I’d been dealing with. Petrol was cheap, less than $1 to fill the tank. And Chi had told me a tank of petrol would last a week, maybe less if I drive a lot. The big question — can I actually survive riding in the congested no-rules traffic? Will my nerves go first? Or will my body be smashed into a pulp? Earlier that morning I had decided I could not cope with dealing with another xe om driver ever again. Now I was rethinking the length of my tether. Could I, in fact, cope with a little more xe om frustration.

No, I decided. “Let’s do it,” I said to Chi. She hands me a photocopied rental form and asks to keep my passport for security.

Bike rented, the next step was driving it to my guesthouse, a route that involved at least three right turns. I rode that machine of terror back to my alley, where the teeny-tiny receptionist pushed it inside and chained it up in the lobby for the night.

Chi’s Cafe
40/31 Bui Vien Stret, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Ph: – 84-8-3836-7622
(Chi also provides a visa extension service and has a mini hotel above the restaurant. She is a gem, a real straight-shooter in a city that can feel bereft of them.)

13 years ago

By: Barbara

A career girl who dropped out, traveled, found love, and never got around to going home again. Now wrangling a cross-cultural relationship and two third culture kids.


  1. […] Post You Feel Didn’t Get the Attention it Deserved Motorbike 101 – I am not sure that anyone’s actually ever read this, one of my first, written to test […]

  2. Dawn says:

    Wow, you have a really cool website : ) My husband has a Kawasaki Ninja and I let him drive me around the parking lot once…scary. lol You are brave! I look forward to reading more about your travels, family, and other adventures. Question: did you get a college degree? My site is about dropping out…of college.

    • Barbara says:

      Oh, thank you for the lovely compliment, Dawn. I’m Australian, so we don’t actually have college degrees, we have university degrees. And, yes, I have one. It doesn’t seem so important now but I don’t know if I would have gotten my first job without it. And without the skills I’ve learned over the years, I wouldn’t have been able to embark on this lovely family travel adventure funded by a location independent job.

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