Overcoming Fear: Driving a Motorbike in Vietnam
| Teaching House Nomads Blog
There is a motorbike in my living room. No, I didn’t drive it through the wall. I put it there on purpose. It’s just sitting there, looking at me as if it were a piece of furniture. Maybe if I keep the motorbike sitting there long enough I will start to think it’s a coffee table or a couch. But I know it can’t just sit there. I have to get on it, no matter how terrified I am to do so.
And having the motorbike stare at me every day as I eat my yogurt and drink my coffee is part of my plan. I have to look at it daily and crawl over it to get out of my house. This is the inspiration I need to get my ass on it and actually drive it.
The one thing that terrifies most visitors about coming to Vietnam was the very reason I wanted to come live and work in Vietnam – the motorbike traffic.
The challenge of driving in this environment was strangely enticing to me, yet it also made me want to vomit. I’ve been living and teaching English here for 4 months now, and I still haven’t managed to drive a motorbike myself.
In my defense, I have made some baby steps. I bought a good helmet and a mask. I rented a motorbike – the one in my living room masquerading as a couch right now. I got insurance. I even got a license thanks to an extra wad of cash I slid under the table at school to someone who ‘knew someone.’ My regular motorbike taxi driver, Lan, had even tried to give me driving lessons. But the fear of being out as a part of the motorbike craziness in Ho Chi Minh City had stopped me short. The motorbike continues to sit in my living room, and has been there now for 2 weeks without moving.
Until now. And now it is time.
It’s Sunday, there’s no rain, not much traffic, just the hot sun beating down on the pavement and the open road beckoning me for adventure. Actually I’d like to believe that it is beckoning me, but it was hard to hear over the noise of my inner fear. But I have let fear rule me for far too long; it is time I shatter the fear and push the damned bike out of my living room, get on it, and join the motorbike masses in Ho Chi Minh City.
Other teachers at my school had mastered this; so could I.
I have never ridden a motorbike before. When Mr. Linh dropped off the bike, he pushed it into my living room and asked me for 1.2 million Dong and a copy of my passport. I signed a contract, which I was unable to read, as it was in Vietnamese. Mr. Linh made sure I knew how to start the bike and, in fact, we practiced a few times as it sat in my living room.
As a result, my living room now smells a bit like a garage. He also showed me the horn, a critical feature of a motorbike in Asia. And then he gave me the most important tool – his mobile phone number.
My plan today is to treat this like a leap into a freezing cold lake. You can’t just dip your toe in or your brain will take over and screw everything up. You need to turn off your brain, use your heart, and just go for the adrenaline rush and do it!
I finished grading papers, put on my sunscreen, and placed my shiny new silver helmet on my head, securing it tightly. I put my insurance card in the front of my wallet, and I put the business card for the expat medical center right behind it. I test the most important part of the motorbike — the horn — and make sure I know how to turn off the turn signal. I push the bike out my front door, point it towards the main road and I jump into the lane of traffic with a slight scream of terror that escapes my mouth under my polka dot mask.
I feel as if every neuron is firing in my brain. I’m hyper aware of all of the road signs and traffic lights, something I hadn’t really ever noticed much when on the back of a motorbike taxi. I drive around the block about 3 times, trying to get used to balancing while turning on the bike. I have a strange feeling of being 16 again; the feeling of being behind the wheel for the first time alone. It is a feeling of independence yet I am ultra sensitive to every movement and action around me trying to figure out how I fit into the moving puzzle. God, that was 23 years ago; déjà vu but with wrinkles now.
After driving around the block multiple times, I realize I’m only making right turns at this point! Left turns seem too scary, so I continue to go in clockwise circles. Clockwise is good. I venture down a few other roads with more traffic and try to not worry about what is behind me or on my side; it seems as if the only space I am responsible for here is the space directly in front of me (12 o’clock) and the space from 10 to 2 – everything else doesn’t matter. You don’t check over your shoulder when want to change lanes, you just move over and everyone moves out of your way as if you all travel in a giant wave and are all somehow connected.
I once heard someone describe driving in Vietnam as akin to being in a school of fish. I think that’s quite an accurate description. Fish don’t turn their head and look behind them, they just move in this weird flowing unison. That’s how traffic here works – we are all fish. I must move with the school. However, this is really rather counter-intuitive to me. I like side mirrors, I like over-the-shoulder checks, and I like to know who’s in the space around me. But when living in foreign countries and cultures, you need to adapt, so I tentatively change lanes without looking. No one hits me or even beeps. I make a right turn without looking left to see if people are coming and I somehow easily slide into the school of fish moving in that direction. They all just adjust and let me in. They are calm; there is no road rage. I don’t even think they know the meaning of the term in Vietnam.
It’s time to take some left turns so I point the bike towards District 2, where I have friends and there are empty roads where I can practice more turns and get better at being balanced. This means I have to drive 15 minutes on a big road that leads out of town along with big trucks and buses. It also means I have to cross bridges with little narrow bike lanes. I have done this drive a million times on the back of a motorbike taxi, but never by myself.
A car pulls out in front of me and I panic. I know I need to stop – but my brain hasn’t retrained itself yet to know that the break isn’t at my foot, it’s at my hand. It’s a weird feeling when for a split moment I know I need to stop, but can’t remember how to do it.
While at my friend’s place, it starts pouring rain. I wait it out, and get back on the bike to go drive through puddles back to my house. However, when I get back into District 1, I feel bolstered by braveness and decide to put myself to the ultimate test – a traffic circle. Buses, cars, motorbikes, bicycles, and pedestrians all merge without looking. I point my bike towards the busiest traffic circle in Ho Chi Minh City in front of Ben Thanh Market. As I arrive, I take a deep breath, poise my left thumb on the horn and my remaining fingers on the break. I don’t look; I just go.
I decide if I can make it through this crazy traffic circle on a motorbike, then I can make it anywhere. And that means this bike will never sit idle in my living room again.