I had failed my motorcycle test a few weeks ago, on a motorcycle more powerful than the one in front of me. This new one was a black Honda Future, a sticker with red flames pasted on the side of the fuel tank. It had deep scratches - scars, really - on the plastic front casing. Evidence of prior incompetence by foreigners like myself, no doubt. This Honda was a semi-automatic - no clutch lever, just a foot peg to change gears up or down - which sounded thrilling and dangerous, and much like the gun, I wasn’t fully briefed on how to use one.
Safety-wise I had a thin, red, plastic helmet on. It didn’t seem sturdy but it did have a dragon painted on it which was reassuring. To further protect myself, I’d forgone the usual Vietnamese motorcycle uniform of shorts, a t-shirt, and sandals, and had gone for track pants, a t-shirt, and sneakers instead. If I fell, I’d break bones but my skin would be nice and unblemished at least.
“You ready?” Nate asked. I’d met Nate the night before in the hostel. Drunk of Bia Saigon, we’d decided to rent and drive motorcycles maybe a hundred kilometers on the highway from Da Lat to Nha Trang the next afternoon. Not the whole distance, of course. That would be foolish.
I nodded, unable to talk because of the lump in my throat. Copious sweat would have beaded my forehead were it not for the flaking foam padding on the helmet soaking it up. Nate was in charge of directions on the basis that he could use an iPhone and drive a motorcycle at the same time. It wasn’t the safest way to get around, but we’d seen a man drive a motorcycle using a phone while a live pig was strapped to the back of his scooter.
We rode through Da Lat city center on the way to the highway entrance. Riding a motorcycle makes you hyper aware of how fragile you are. Each puddle on the road was a lake, each pothole a crevasse. Asphalt that looked so smooth from a car was now such that I could saw every jagged little rock that composed it. The paint that made up the lane markings was slick enough that you could feel the bike losing traction and jiggle every time you passed over one. Everything was designed to kill the motorcycle driver. The baseline - and only - emotion is fear.
That short ride through traffic gave me a change to acquaint myself with my ride. The rubber around the handlebars sheared off in my hands. The Honda sticker, suspiciously, was peeling off the side. The engine made a coughing noise which sounded oddly disapproving. The wing mirrors swiveled in the wind. All I could see in them was my face. The speedometer didn’t work. The gear indicators didn’t work, except for second gear. A large reassuring ‘2’ was backlit by a faint amber light when in second gear.
There wasn’t much talking between me and Nate. He, brave soul that he was, was on fourth gear and was way ahead of me. He stopped on the side of the road to let me catch up occasionally. I stuck to second gear. Second gear was safe. Second gear was home. Second gear was useless. I couldn’t keep up with Nate once we were on the highway. He was a blue speck in the distance, a reminder of my failings. I had come to Vietnam on sabbatical, an opportunity to be more than the cautious cubicle dweller I had become. And yet here I was, chasing a pixel in the distance too afraid to get closer. The metaphor was too painful and obvious. Much like Like Skywalker attacking the Death Star in Star Wars, I emptied my mind and thought back to my training. I may have failed my motorcycle test, but I must have learned something.
Ease off the throttle. Hands off the brake. Slide heel forward on the foot peg. Press the gear lever down. Ease back on the throttle. Rejoice. I was in third gear. In the annals on minor victories, this would feature prominently.
I leaned into turns. The wind felt good as it blew through the holes in my helmet. Born to be wild by Steppenwolf made sense. Guns n’ Roses made more sense. Rock and Roll made more sense. I was freedom. I was danger. I was the dragon on my helmet. I even thought about fourth gear.
One thing they teach you in motorcycle class was never to shift gears while accelerating. Deep in the thrall of my self-confidence I did exactly that. On a well-made motorcycle, when the shifting isn’t smooth, you lurch forward. On what was probably a cheap Chinese knock-off of a Honda Future, there was a hideous grinding of gears and my front wheel jumped into the air.
One thing they don’t teach you is what to do when a bus full of Chinese tourists, a giant orange-neon nightmare, comes screaming towards you while on the wrong lane of the highway.
The most important thing they don’t teach you is what to do when both of the above happen simultaneously.