Rafiki Finally Gets a Scooter

Somehow it feels like cheating to be writing this post from a U.S. hotel room – but the week before I left Hà Nội went by in a blur and I didn’t get a chance to talk about our recent acquisition before I left.

Our Hesitation

When we arrived in Hà Nội we never would have imagined it would take us 7 weeks to get a bike. Our friends quickly acquired them upon arriving. I named my blog before we left about this soon to be member of our “family.” So, why did we wait? There are a few reason.

  1. There were a lot of decisions we had to make quickly. Within 12 hours of landing we were looking at apartments. David had a school year to prepare for. We both dove head first into learning the language. Frankly, it felt like something that could wait.
  2. Finding a reliable scooter isn’t easy. There are dozens of places to rent scooters in Hà Nội. Most of them will give you an unreliable bike that can be more of a headache than a help. Buying a bike is complicated, as registration is difficult for foreigners.
  3. Cabs are super cheap. Catching a Grab or Uber often costs me less than a dollar to get where I need to go. The more we use it the more promotions we get.
  4. David has other means to get to work. He has joined a shared-cab with other teachers at the school that helps him do the 30 to 45 minute community with friends. It is a better social experience than driving himself, better for his lungs, and safer for the rest of his body too.
  5. Scooters, known locally as xe máy are dangerous. I have already made several mentions about traffic. It is intense. Driving a scooter on the open road brings hazards, driving it in Hà Nội’s traffic brings the danger to a new level.
  6. Our medical insurance requires us to have a local motorbike license to cover accidents. It isn’t clear how much the requirement is enforced, but I am risk averse.

VIP Bikes

And yet, so many friends we have met that have lived here for years were encouraging me to get myself on a scooter sooner rather than later. We got good advise about a reliable rental agency that could help us source a reliable bike. Most of our other settling in tasks have been complete for weeks. I began to notice that I was doing fewer things in a day than I might have if I had my own transportation. So, on September 8th I headed to VIP Bikes to take the plunge.

Andrew of VIP Bikes is an Australian who came to Hà Nội years ago to work for the charity Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation. Like many people we have met, Hà Nội got under his skin and he settled here permanently. The business actually spun out of the charity. Its commitment to social responsibility made it a logical fit for David and I. He is known for being the best and the most expensive in town. Sometimes you get what you pay for.

There are also advantages to being able to negotiate contracts with someone else who is a native English speaker, though his Australian accent is deceptively thick. Because we waited until September, he had already been through the rush of his season when many new teachers and other transplants settle into the city. A booming business meant that was adding to his fleet.  Therefore, we were only able to choose from a selection of brand new bikes. Did we want red or maroon?

Meet Pumba

This is Pumba, our maroon xe máy named after the lovable warthog from The Lion King. The bike is a Honda Vision 110cc. Honda’s are the most common brand in Hà Nội. The Vision’s are automatic bikes. Although David and I are loyal manual transmission drivers in the U.S., it felt easier to adjust to life on two wheels while driving a “twist & go.”

Many people have suggested that if we want to buy a bike at some point, Honda’s are a good choice. It is easy to source authentic parts and they are reliable. We didn’t have a choice, but I am glad we were able to rent a bike that might be one we would own in the future so we can determine if we like it. When we picked up the bike it only had 10kms (about 6.5 miles) on the odometer.

Our rental requires us to bring the bike back once a month for a service. He will check the oil, tires, brakes, and engine and perform any required maintenance. He will also give the bike a good cleaning and send us on our way. I find this very reassuring. If I am going to sit right on top of gallons of gasoline, I want to know the bike is not about to catch fire.

Driving & Parking

“Twist & go” bikes have a throttle controlled by the right handlebar grip. To turn it on we turn the key, wait for the injector light to go off, and hit a small button to turn the engine on. Simply twist the grip towards you and the bike goes forward. The brakes are just like the bicycle you rode as a child with front and back brakes.  

Bikes are parked incredibly close to one another. I’ll admit that often parking the bike is more stressful than driving it. Attendants watch the bikes at almost all commercial spots. They will assist you in navigating the bike in and out of tight spots. Bikes on kickstands nest inches from one another, so the attendant’s help is much appreciated. I often have visions (or nightmares) of bikes going down like dominoes.

David and I both invested in good 3/4 face helmets to protect our precious skulls. Most people wear flimsy helmets that would never pass muster in the U.S. Sometimes the easiest way to spot a foreigner on a bike is by looking at their helmet. The visor also helps protect our eyes from flying bugs, stones, and other debris that inevitably gets kicked up by the other bikes and cars on the road.

Looking Forward

In the last two weeks, having the bike has increased my level of freedom around the city – but also underscored the need for a face mask to protect my lungs from the smog. On Monday I spent several hours driving around the city going from place to place and my lungs hurt. I am starting to get more comfortable, but I still have a healthy level of fear when driving, especially in heavy traffic. Everyday that fear subsides a little.

So, for at least the next two months we will have Pumba by our side. After that, we might extend the rental contract, or look into buying our own bike. I mentioned that we need to have a license to have our health insurance cover any personal physical damage we might get from an accident. We are in the middle that process. It warrants its own post, so stay tuned.

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