Rules of the Road

“Bring back the post rally slump. Bring back the post rally slump.”

That’s what crossed my mind as I was piloted through the streets by Pham, my young AirBnB host. I attempted to look calm and composed on the back of the scooter as we pulled into multiple lanes of oncoming traffic.

The streets of Ho Chi Minh City (once Saigon, unlike Istanbul, the old name is still in common use) are teeming with scooters. Bicycles, cars, and foot traffic all take second place to motorbikes. This offers a small iota of confidence when you see a set of bus headlights aimed straight towards you.

However, beneath the initial insanity of the streets is an astoundingly well organized structure. Well, I say structure. Really, rules of the road.

1. Look forward. There is non of this Western motorcycling head-on-a-swivel mentality. Instead of watching all sides of your vehicle, you just look straight ahead and don’t run into the back of anything. So long as everyone does this (and I have yet to see anyone checking a blind spot) no one will rear end you.

2. Be smooth. Instead of notions like coming up to an intersection and then making a sharp left, just drift around the corner with the widest arc possible. If this puts you into oncoming traffic as you move left, that’s cool, since everyone is looking forward, trying not to hit you. This also means that there are typically bikes on either side of the road moving head on into traffic.

3. All traffic signals are completely optional. This is particularly true if they keep you from being smooth.

4. Pass behind an object. So, if someone is crossing the road, go behind them. This means that they can continue moving forward, and keeps the traffic ebbing along like a well oiled machine.

To this, I add my own rule, which is to stay in the middle of a small scrum of bikes. This may impede turning occasionally, but the benefits outweigh the costs of finding an alternate root.

This is only a first take on traffic, garnered during a thirty minute lesson where I was driving Pham through the streets of Saigon on my newly acquired Honda Win.

Acquiring the Win was interesting.

I had my heart set on a Minsk, a two stroke Belarusian bike that pulls well in the highlands and is a favorite choice for driving to Hanoi. However, all the Minsks on Craiglist were already in Hanoi. I believe this is because they have all been driven from Saigon. So, if you are doing this trip, consider starting in the North. Seriously. Spoilt for choice up there.

Anyway, I get to a used Minsk dealer in the center of Saigon. His shop is about a dozen feet wide by four feet deep. Alas. No Minsks in today. He pointed me to a Win with a beautiful black paint job.

“New tires.” He said, pointing to the rotted rubber.

New tires or no, I fired up the bike via a kick starter, since the electrical starter was dead. Surprisingly, the engine sounded good, and the garb nestled into a good idle. Overall, I liked the bike.

“Take it around the block.” The dealer said. “Just take four rights, and come on back.”

Four rights. How hard can this be?

A damn sight harder than one would imagine. Although Saigon is set up on a grid (imagine four rights in London. I am fairly certain that’s how we ended up in Edinburgh) the sheer number of alleys, large intersections, and streets intersecting the grid at odd angles.

So, after two rights, I found myself a little lost. And worried. Each alley seemed to contain the same menagerie of shops, bustle, and life. A strange street bisected mine at an odd angle, and I swung onto it.

Maybe a worry too much. Just another two turns (five turns? How did I do five?) And I recognized the shop. More importantly, the shopkeeper recognized me. This is good, since the possibility was decent of me finding a completely different motorcycle shop.

The first Win wasn’t the one I bought. On returning, the shopkeep showed me the working electronics and the broken headlight. “Can you fix the headlight?” I inquired. “I can fix anything.” Insinuated the mechanic.

He cut the zip ties holding on the lamp case. Two months ago, thus may have concerned me. Post Mongol Rally, I have become to see zip ties as a necessary part of a vehicle. The more zip ties, the better it is held together.

The bulb was examined and found to be not blown out. This pointed to a more serious electrical fault.

I was quickly shuffled along to another Win. This one looked newer, and had a full set of working electrics. The gearbox had the exact same whine as my BMW back home (maybe not the best), but she shifted smoothly and cleanly.

However, the idle is set quite low. This means that during traffic stops, it is likely that the power cuts out. This is bad, since giving the engine the right amount of gas and air takes hope, faith, several jabs of the starter motor, and a few kicks of the starter.

Once home, I set about with some initial repairs. This involved creating shims out of aluminim foil. Zip ties and aluminum foil. I also covered the bike completely with Gobi or Go Home stickers. For old time sake. Also, so I will be able to recognize my bike when I lose it among a sea of parked bikes.