by Hữu Ngọc
Visions of Honda Dreams are part of the fantasy life of many a Hanoian. The motorcycle forms the basis of a culture – a culture which, to my mind, reflects an ongoing compromise between the traditional Vietnamese orientation toward the community and more recently re-introduced individualism, combined with a dose of Hanoian pragmatism.
I often ride around Hà Nội on the back of what my friends jokingly call my son’s “xe ôm,” the slang term for a motorcycle taxi, where “xe” means “vehicle” and “ôm” means “to hug.” Indeed, sometimes I do hang onto my son, who must concentrate on traffic. However, I am free to gaze about in wonder at all the changes over time in this city I love.
I was born in 1918 in the Old Quarter of Hà Nội and spent my childhood and a good part of my youth there. I have always lived in the capital except for a few years (1947-1954) in the mountains during the War of Resistance Against France. As an elderly Hanoian, I have witnessed my compatriots’ lives and moods changing alongside innovations in the modes of transportation.
Hà Nội came under French control in 1884. From 1884 until the mid-1920s, medieval means of transportation prevailed, including the horse, the hammock, and the palanquin. The hammock, which hung from a pole with a bearer at each end, was the main mode of travel for common Vietnamese, while palanquins, usually carried by four bearers, were for the upper classes. The French introduced horse-drawn, four-wheeled barouches; the Japanese rickshaw also arrived in 1884. The first few automobiles appeared in the early 1900s. Buses soon followed, although these were largely for travel between provinces. The Hà Nội tram system became operational in 1902.
From the mid-1920s until 1954, Hà Nội experienced dramatic economic growth and social change, resulting in the formation of a working class and a more or less Westernized bourgeoisie. After the 1945 August Revolution, which declared Việt Nam’s independence, the French re-occupied Hà Nội from December 1946 until May 1954. Transportation was slow to modernize. Automobiles remained a symbol of privilege reserved for French officials and businessmen. Public transport consisted of the tram and rickshaws. Trams served Vietnamese of modest income, in particular suburban farmers and workers. Those with more money or those in a hurry called a rickshaw. Better-off Vietnamese owned their own rickshaws and hired drivers. Bicycles became very popular, although the first women to ride bicycles were denigrated as “feminists.”
In 1954, Hà Nội regained its independence but then soon had to confront the American War, which lasted until 1975. The bombing greatly limited operation of the Hà Nội tram. Extreme austerity and poverty followed the war until the end of the 1980s. Everyone was poor. Cars almost disappeared. Pedicabs (pedal-driven cyclos) replaced the rickshaws.
Despite the hardships, life in Hà Nội was almost serene. The bicycle became the Queen of Hà Nội Streets, as Australian author Rosemary Morrow enthusiastically described: “In 1989, I first came to Hà Nội and fell in love with the city and the people. It was the quietest city … with bicycles rolling through the streets. No vehicle pollution or horns. The only sounds were friends and families cycling side by side, chatting and laughing. At night, women swept the streets, and cyclos sped through the darkness.”
The reign of the bicycle-and-pedicab culture ended almost overnight at the beginning of the 1990s. The trams had already been dismantled in 1985. Đổi Mới (Renewal), which began in late 1986, started to bear fruit, leading to the expansion of a market economy, the creation of a private sector, and a new spirit of competition. In the past twenty years, consumerism and a vulgar materialism have transformed Hà Nội. Changes in transportation embody this change. I still miss the loud clanging of those antique tram cars as they passed by, stirring the dust as slowly as snails. Buses have taken the place of trams and pedicabs, but only retired civil servants and students use them. And now, many trucks also roam the streets.
Renewal has given birth to a class of nouveau riche along with a somewhat larger middle class. Nouveau riche industrialists and businessmen own their own cars. However, for now, the motorcycle – the favored vehicle of the average Hanoian – has succeeded the bicycle as Queen of Hà Nội Streets. The movement of vehicles of all kinds – including four million motorcycles in virtual anarchy – results in continuous and continual traffic jams.
Even after years of war and social revolution, the Confucian-imbued family remains central to Vietnamese culture. The motorcycle functions as a pillar of the family and also as an extension of the family home for many Vietnamese. Families pile on a motorbike or on motorbikes to go to school, to market, to the hospital, and of course to visit friends and family. Small traders also make their living through the motorbikes, while xe ôm drivers awaiting riders sit atop their motorbikes at just about every street corner. Drivers on the road only look ahead, never back, adjusting to the bikes in front of them and to the oncoming vehicles as they move in the wake of the larger flow of traffic, their motorcycles blending into the seemingly chaotic whole, all the while hopefully avoiding the unwary pedestrian.
During the post Đổi Mới era, Vietnamese have revived and reinvigorated the Western ideas of individual freedom, which arrived with the French and which many Vietnamese, especially urban residents, adopted and adapted. The motorbike is part and parcel of this expansion of the possibilities for individual expression. Motorcycles make it easier for the youth to escape the family home and ride unattended and unwatched anywhere around town. This allows access to new forms of entertainment and self-expression. After all, what can be more exhilarating than sharing a motorbike with one’s lover!
Already there are signs that the automobile will eventually displace the motorbike as the darling of Hà Nội streets. And so, now is the opportune time to capture Hà Nội’s motorbike life before it goes the way of the palanquin. In Hà Nội Mo To, photographer Markus Steffen takes us with him on a grand motorbike tour of Hà Nội, careening with the traffic as the participant/observer of a rich panorama, which he has reproduced through the sensitive and dynamic interaction between his camera and the energy and style of Hà Nội life on motorcycles.
Thank you, Markus, for vividly capturing this lively, exhilarating moment in the 1,000-year life of the City of the Dragon.
Hà Nội, Việt Nam
* Hữu Ngọc is the author of many works, including Wandering through Vietnamese Culture; Portrait of Traditional Hà Nội; and Hà Nội, Who are you?
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