I am alive, but dead still.
If someone was looking at this humongous bouquet of two-wheelers jammed together at the traffic light from a bird’s-eye view, he would be petrified. For an experienced rider like me, the street is my roller rink, and this congestion is nothing more than a little shaky spin on the wheels. My eyesight is blocked by Mr. and Mrs. On Vespa We’re In Love, which is unexpectedly enjoyable for I have learned to appreciate public displays of affection in an environment where everyone feels too awkward to touch even their own skin.
Unlike me, the Yamaha Nouvo young lady next to me glares at the couple with disgust and, I foresee, jealousy—how could a woman do such a thing: cuffing her man with her perfect legs and arms from the passenger seat in front of everyone? She is not the only one; dozens of riders around agree with her under their ninja masks and sun-protective clothing. Among those riders, a group of high school students in uniforms giggle on their bicycles—adults are absurd indeed. Next to these students, a motor-rider on his Dream ‘96 seems to be swallowed by his impatience: he releases an “album” of obscene curses from my grandma’s time with one leg on the brake pedal and the other tremoring in distress. Across from Dream ‘96, Piaggio Liberty remains incredibly unflustered behind his sunglasses with both hands on the grips, ready to go, even though he knows for damn sure it is not going to happen soon. My Honda Super Cub is grunting desperately in the 105-degree-Fahrenheit heat. I would have been proud of its loudness had it not been for the fact that we are in a sea of judgmental homo sapiens in a smoky traffic jam in an almost-eight million-inhabitant city.
Just as I expect, a rider to my right pats the headlight of my Cub and gives it a full-blown sarcastic smile: “Cut her some slack, would ya?” Then he turns to me: “Sister, how much would you sell this grandpa for? ‘81 model. Too old for you! A young urban lady deserves a Vespa.” He is right. About the model. My uncle brought this Cub to me from the village for my sixteenth birthday. “It used to carry pigs to the market for decades before carrying you,” he said, “no worries, it will never break.” This ‘81 Cub (Cheap Urban Bike) is my companion and my identity, just like the rider with his tedious, flamboyant SH (Super Honda, or Super High Class). In this city, the vehicle is a way to determine who you are or who you want to be. My Honda is modest, in shape, gender-neutral (I would have called it with “they/them” pronouns were it possible in Vietnamese), and always youthful despite its ancient street experience. The engine is so strong that it roars like a tireless wild horse after every kick-start. I feel so proud and powerful whenever I ride it on the street. It makes me different, since a common observation is most Honda Super Cub ‘81 riders are either much older, from the working class, or from outside of the city. The “village-y” aspect of the vehicle differentiates it from the rest of modern and upscale urban motorbikes. A tightly packed Honda back seat with animals, farm produce, or freshly baked bread and breadsticks remains one of the most vivid memories I have of home. There is no way I would sell my motorbike to anyone.
My Honda Super Cub helps me distinguish the people with taste from the clueless masses. The masses tell me to buy a Vespa, or anything trendier; people with taste want my Honda’s coolness, low maintenance, and amiability. The urban youths, especially those from “the city” of my city (the most antiquated, touristy, and expensive area around Old Quarter streets and Sword Lake) use their motorbikes to show their “class” among friends and scarcely would they inherit old vehicles from the family. They chase after Liberty, @, SH, Vespa, Air Blade; I belong to the You meet the nicest people on a Honda time. Their back seats are stuffed with polyester and covered with leather; my back seat is nothing but cold steel.
I am still dead in motion. Riders and drivers distract themselves by pulling out their electronic devices. The peddlers take advantage of the situation, pour out from the alleys, pass the crossroad, stand up from tea stalls on the sidewalk, and head towards the inescapable green light “waiters”/ “waitresses.” They know exactly who to approach—Liberty, Vespa, or anything of the same kind first, Honda Cub last. The SH rider begins to get on my nerves with his social-boundarilessness. We Vietnamese people can always surprise you with our cordiality; we believe your business is our business. Why should we let ourselves be subsumed by the barbaric urban speed of life when we could sit down, have a glass of green tea, tell each other thrilling stories about our extended families and be friends forever? I give SH my best silence. His dry humor and cigarette breath vex me. As soon as he finally switches targets to Attila Victoria and Attila Elizabeth nearby, my eyes embark on a journey up there among the intricate web of black cables. The black cables connect one electric pole to another; hundreds of wires intertwine like a giant mop of hair; some poles are completely covered by buns of telecommunication wires like bizarre hairy giants visiting the city from the darkest Cable Land. On top of some electric poles stand a decrepit loudspeaker from which Voice of Vietnam (VOV) is broadcasted every morning to the contentment of common citizens and the nostalgia of occasional Hanoi-born-and-raised returners, myself included. The wire systems clutter almost every corner of Hanoi’s streets, making themselves the most classic and distinctive sight in the city. I remember an artist friend of my family said that he was racing against time to capture the image of Hanoi’s corners tangled by electric wires onto canvas before all of them were placed underground, along the city’s major streets. I cannot trace where the wires begin and end; just as the system of this city: no one has a clue where it goes and how it functions.
“Excuse me, excuse me”—a young gentleman is holding his electric bike over his head and making an exit through the congested traffic conference. With his hair pulled back into a man bun, and a flowery type of Hawaiian shirt that we Vietnamese like to call “birdy flamingo” tucked under a half-buttoned business vest, he looks out of place. Yet his attitude is one of a kind: although rushing, he displays complete composure. It takes great courage to make such an interference in the crowd. His genius exit irritates a lot of riders, for they have to move their vehicles so that he and his bike can get through; some of them even curse at him, while others just refuse to move. The exit intrigues a foreign traveler sitting on a motorbike taxi (in Vietnamese we call it “hugging motorbike,” the peculiar type of taxi service in Vietnam that takes you anywhere on a motorbike). He pulls out his cellphone to capture the scene of the young man with his bike over his head shamelessly swimming across the sea of people. Ironically, he does not realize that several people are taking a picture of him—the nonnative—at the same time. He is the exotic fish in the sea—freckled, white, blue-eyed, blond, and ridiculously muscular—but that is not really the primary reason. He is wearing the helmet provided by his taxi driver, which has been worn by who knows how many people, and thus decides to protect his scalp from germs with a plastic bag. I have only seen this once before, when my uncle wore a black trash bag around his head before putting on a public helmet. He is a doctor; he has a fair reason for mysophobia. The traveler, however, marks his queer position among the crowd by juxtaposing his muscularity with insecure security. A man, especially that handsome and muscular, has the best right to be exposed, to the sun, to the germs, to the negligible external forces! He deserves to be looked at with esteem. He does not need to protect himself from anything. Now, with that plastic bag over this head, he becomes my 50-something-year-old uncle who has a medical doctorate degree yet never travels outside of his comfort home, or his comfort zone.
The foreigner suddenly gets off the back seat of the motorbike taxi and paves his way towards the young man with the flowery Hawaiian shirt. In more or less a blink of an eye, he reaches the young man with the bike over his head and gives him a pat on the shoulder, as if to say, “young man, let me help you out.” Flowery Shirt turns around, taken aback by how the rest of the crowd just created a nice, flat path for the foreigner to walk through, and they themselves are amazed by his act of generosity. Moreover, the traveler offers to help Flowery Shirt in Vietnamese! How adorable! Some people start applauding, while others smile with appreciation. No one in the crowd realizes that Flowery Shirt is all sweaty from an almost fifteen-minute attempt to make his exit himself, from the congestion, and from the curses of his people. “Yes, yes please. I’m already late for my job interview. Thank you, thank you so much sir…” The foreigner nods as a sign of “no problem,” and together they escape from the still-in-awe bouquet of two-wheelers.
The light finally turns green. I am no longer dead in motion, but at the bottom of my throat, something hangs stock-still. Some of us struggle everyday to get through the hustle and bustle of the city. And for some reason, even when they are so familiar with the place, the heat, the people, the vehicles, and the wires still find a way to flummox them on their own motherland.