If ever I hear the cartoonish beep-beep of a motorbike, even in the middle of Missouri, I will immediately think of Vietnam.
I had stated emphatically for years that my feet will never leave Ozarks soil again, but recently consented to traveling with a marketing group to Southeast Asia. In just 14 days, we visited three cities in the southern and central parts of Vietnam. Our first stop was Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.
As soon as we left Saigon International Airport, the pesky bleeps came at us from every direction. It was nearly midnight, yet we were in the midst of a rambling symphony of mechanized tootles and honks that never ceases – and, from what I could comprehend, carries on for no particular reason.
I later learned there are 3 million motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh City. Drivers must be at least 18 years old to obtain a license and must wear a helmet, but it seems that’s where the law ends. I watched as motorbikes whirred down sidewalks, where, incidentally, much other trade and socializing, including walkway-sweeping, people-sleeping, chicken-plucking, noodle-eating, game-playing and motorbike-fixing takes place.
Woven wicker and bamboo infant carriers hold the tiniest travelers atop the fuel tank, while toddlers generally sit or sometimes stand on the seat between their parents or siblings. The largest human load I personally saw was a family of four zipping through town, but I heard tales of a family of five (or was it six?) on a motorbike.
With small engines (50cc to 400cc), motorbikes are considered the most economical and versatile form of transportation for many Vietnamese. They even have “moto” taxis. We saw some mind-blowing things hauled on motorbikes – computers, six full water-cooler jugs, dressers and chairs, caged poultry, huge framed paintings and bundles of coconuts that nearly concealed the driver.
As one of our interpreters explained, the motorbike craze erupted in the last 20 or so years. Along with the noise and disorder, air pollution is also now a serious problem. Many riders, pedestrians and street workers wear dust masks (often with brightly colored designs or cute slogans) to prevent breathing the toxic fumes. In some parts of China, motorbikes have already been banned for this reason.
When daylight came, I was pleased to see that bicycles and other human-powered devices are still plentiful in Vietnam. The iconic rickshaws are now mostly used to cart tourists around, but large tricycles with heavy-duty carts on the front still haul tools, market goods and heaping piles of fresh produce. I admired the cyclists’ agility and wondered how many of us could pilot such monstrous loads.
On the waterways, another pedal-powered vessel caught my attention. The long, wooden boats appeared like any other until I saw the operators row casually by – with their feet. Unlike chunky plastic paddleboats found at water parks, these sleek craft are built for fishing and graceful passage – low to the water, quiet and non-polluting.
In Hoi An old town market, I watched a barefoot man stitching sandals with a treadle sewing machine out on the sidewalk. I’m not sure if he brings his sewing machine outside to draw attention to his shop or simply because it is cooler out there. I stood there and admired his workspace and craftsmanship until my companions dragged me away.
Still popular, too, are the wooden or bamboo carrying poles with baskets strung from both ends. The weight and bulk carried by tiny women much older than me was astounding.
Once I stopped gawking at motorbikes, I marveled at the amount of walking and other physical activity going on around me. Vietnam seems to be a country that encourages fitness, as all manner of free exercise equipment and group exercise and yoga classes are in the beautiful, numerous city parks. Before the sun is even shining, long lines of men and women of all ages are flexing, stretching and twisting to start the day.
I came back from Vietnam with plenty of pictures and ideas for human-powered tools. And, I know just the guy who can build them for me.
For more pictures of Vietnamese human-powered tools, please see our blog.