“Death Wish”- 2019

If you remember the Charles Bronson movie with the title “Death Wish,” well, you’re old!  It’s probably fitting and possibly prophetic that this posting, my first since moving to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) carries that title. I say that because this first posting could easily be my last. You see, I rented a scooter last week for the next 30 days. If I actually survive the month, I’ll probably buy one.

Obviously, I’m skipping over a lot of details about settling into my new life. Quite frankly, nothing I’ve done since moving here on April 30 has been particularly notable enough or interesting enough to even post about.

Nevertheless, here is a quick, “ten-cent tour”: The teaching center I was assigned to five weeks ago is out near the airport (I can see the runway from the 17th-floor gym in the building where I live) and like most places where you find an airport, you don’t find much else.

From what I’ve been able to see (especially now that I can traipse around freely, on my scooter) I live in the least interesting part of town. In fact, the only decent highrise in the area is the two-building, multi-purpose complex that houses the teaching center I work in. Here, you will find a very well stocked supermarket, rooftop restaurant, swimming pool, and gym. It also houses the nicest apartments in the area.

Ergo, I took an apartment in the same building where I work. In other words, I not only have no commute to work (no small thing in HCMC) but I don’t even need to leave the complex to do most mundane things. Additionally, up and down my neighborhood there is an abundance of eateries, shops, and services. I literally never have to leave this area of town unless I have a compelling reason. Which are all the other reasons one could think of.

There’s nothing of any interest whatsoever in my out-of-the-way neighborhood. Hence my reason to get a scooter. I’m at least a 30-minute drive to anywhere and I’m tired of always ordering a Grab car just to go somewhere more interesting.

Up until now, I have used the Vietnamese version of Uber- Grab, which is cheap and very reliable. You can go “supercheap” by ordering a Grab motorcycle rather than a car. Something I was only willing to do once because of the inherent danger of riding on a motorcycle in HCMC traffic with a guy who has every incentive to drive fast to get to the next fare which is how my manager got banged up (including a concussion) in a collision a few weeks ago.

Given my location, just to explore anywhere means I have to take a Grab car to some starting point. So I figured that if I got a scooter, I would be much more inclined to actually leave my apartment because I just have to hop on and go wherever, whenever. I do pay for parking in the underground garage. Three dollars a month!

As I mentioned in a couple of previous postings from my visit here last December and February, the traffic in HCMC is simply horrendous. Even as a pedestrian, I don’t feel safe. Not when a “firehose” of scooters shoots onto the sidewalk to avoid having to wait for the light to change and if you don’t see this in time and get out of the way, you are immediately submerged in a sea of cyclists on the sidewalk! This is a new experience for me because even in China, this doesn’t happen.

Now that I’ve read  the above “out loud” I realize that I’m writing this in anticipation of getting clobbered on a scooter at some point in the not too distant future and it’s not a bad idea to let everyone know in advance so there’s no surprise or wondering how I ended up on a scooter in the first place. Which brings me back to the beginning of this blog entry when I said there isn’t anything of particular interest going on right now. That does include getting a scooter. It wouldn’t exactly be news back home, would it?

At some point, I will write a more detailed description of things including my new living arrangement, about the company I work for, what teaching in Vietnam is like along with thoughts about the food, culture, and people. It just seems to me that none of that makes for compelling reading or writing. Perhaps I’m just suffering from some sort of cosmic ennui or “writer’s block” (can a non-writer have this condition?) Something will come along and inspire me to post something worth reading about. For now, this will have to suffice as news.

However, since some form of incapacitation isn’t out of a question in the near future, this is a good time for me to post an update. Oh yes, when it happens, and if it’s serious, don’t forget to send your “thoughts and prayers.”

This is the first cycle I rented. It’s a 120cc. In order to drive legally without a driver license, you cannot drive anything over 50cc. So I was too terrified to drive in traffic. The guy who owned the store and rented me the bike simply instructed me, if I got pulled over, to offer the cop a 200,000 Dong bribe to forget about me. I’ve heard others cite that figure for a police bribe, so I guess that’s the “going rate.” That may sound like a lot but it’s about $8.00. If I had gotten into an accident, he said to simply negotiate with the other party because no insurance is available for unlicensed drivers. Negotiate? In English? Between breaking the law and the possibility of an expensive accident which would be my fault automatically because I am a foreigner driving illegally you probably won’t be too surprised that I elected to drive up and down a couple of side streets and call it a day. It’s also worth pointing out that I signed no paperwork, left no deposit, just my passport, and off I went on a total stranger’s scooter. Welcome to Vietnam!

Born to be Mild: Here’s my 50 cc scooter rental. I cannot get insurance on any level. It’s not a very reassuring feeling as I negotiate traffic. If I can get through the 30-day rental without an accident (I’m giving 2-1 odds!) I’ll probably feel confident enough in my driving abilities to buy a scooter. Because, you know, what could possibly go wrong after that?

I’m learning that the key to driving successfully is to simply focus on myself and my space, don’t worry about what others are doing and so far, I’ve stayed out of an accident (full disclosure: I’ve driven it three times.) The problem will most likely result from any number of scooter drivers who drive the wrong way on a street. Sometimes you just don’t expect to have to deal with that and if caught off-guard, well, that’s problematic. Making a left turn at a major intersection is also a very fraught experience. There seems to be absolutely no rules governing this. It’s just a massive amount of traffic vying for the ability to either turn or ignoring those who are turning. Traffic lights are meaningless at these moments. At times like these, everyone is bunched up at an intersection, inches away from each other. It’s very unsettling until it becomes just part of the experience.

“Brian- before his unfortunate accident- seen here, weakly smiling.”

Traffic in my neighborhood. Just walking on the intermittent sidewalk, I feel very exposed and vulnerable. There are so many directions that scooters can come at you.

Although this is a stock photo, if I could take a birdseye view photo of a morning or evening rush hour, I can’t imagine it would look dramatically different. Oh, how I yearn for the quiescence of Xi’an’s streets!