Foreigners all seem to want to mount a Minsk and disappear into the sunset these days. But the appeal of catching a Wave also cannot be understated. These two humble machines, the Minsk and the Wave, have changed the nature of transport for your average westerner with a sense of adventure.
The group tour, with its “organised” fun and big clumsy busloads of blinking tourists is not an attractive option. And while Vietnam’s public transport system continues to serve travellers very well with its affordable, accessible and reliable rail and bus network, it does not provide quite the visceral thrill that a motorbike offers.
For expats, the choice for daily transport is either motorbike or bicycle. Some choose the environmentally friendly and healthy option of pedalling. They don’t last long. Vietnam’s scorching climate and chaotic traffic soon put an end to this noble pursuit. Some rely on the xe om. Such brave souls should be commended for their loyalty to this institution. But they are definitely in the minority - most foreigners living in Hanoi or HCMC sit proudly atop a motorbike, blending in with the upwardly mobile locals, or at least trying to.
Here we have one reason behind the popularity of the motorbike. It is the transport of choice for Vietnamese people. Westerners, despite their often unruly appearance and behaviour, really don’t want to stick out. If they are travelling or living in another country, they usually try to assimilate to a certain degree, so as not to appear as clueless tourists stumbling around blindly. Whether or not they succeed is another matter, but the intention is there. Eat local food, speak some of the language, grab half an hour’s kip after lunch and tool around the streets on a motorbike - the formula is simple - do as the locals do.
The relative ease and affordability of the motorbike is another big plus. A decent second-hand Minsk these days retails for about US$250, a Wave for around US$500. Most westerners are used to paying around $5000 for a less-than-impressive second hand car in their own country. Then you have repairs and fuel - both cost 10 times more with a car. There is no competition. The bike wins hands down.
One of the joys of living in Vietnam is the fact that just one hour from the city in any direction are splendid natural landscapes to explore. With a motorbike, a tank of fuel and an early rise on Saturday morning these destinations are quickly and easily accessible. Foreigners love to travel on a whim, so the motorbike makes perfect sense. It allows the luxury of unplanned travel. No need to book tickets, no need to even think about a specific destination - just pack a bag, kick-start the engine and go.
Superior economy, local credibility and mobility aside, there is one more obvious point about motorbikes that makes them so attractive. They are fun! Cruising around Hanoi’s charming, busy, colourful streets offers endless entertainment. A simple drive to work becomes an adventure, complete with near-death traffic experiences. Even more of an adventure is a week-long motorbike trip around Vietnam’s stunning northern regions. The north-west and north-east loops are now part of every westerners’ vocabulary. These routes have become legendary and there is no better way to do them than on a bike. There is simply nothing more enjoyable than the combination of an open mountainous road, an exotic landscape peopled with smiling, curious locals and a reliable two-wheeled machine spiriting you through it.
So as with any practise embraced by foreigners, for all the sensible, practical reasons behind it’s popularity, the fun-factor is the driving force.