An Ode to the Motorcycle

A few decades ago in China, young couples sought to own a bicycle, a sewing machine, a wristwatch and a radio before committing to marriage, the accoutrements of a new family on the rise. In Vietnam, the same was true until about ten years ago when, thanks to the opening of the economy, the bicycle was replaced with its motorized cousin, the motorcycle (or what Americans, accustomed to Harley Davidson definition of “motorcycle,” would probably refer to as a “scooter”). Replete throughout all of Southeast Asia, motorcycles seem to be in greater abundance here than anywhere else in the region – at rush hour every red light sees a rapid accumulation of them building up at the front of the line of traffic, weaving their way around cars and busses, only to burst forward like a swarm of very determined bees at the signal’s change (a chemistry or physics analogy seems apt here, something about heavy particles and light particles, but I lack the scientific knowledge to draw one – help, readers?).

At the risk of digression, it’s interesting to note the role of motorcycles in Vietnam when compared with the more affluent and status-hungry Thailand, where cars have become the mark of one’s arrival to the middle class and motorcycles are looked at as an indicator of one’s lowly, proletarian station. This is seen most readily in the Bangkok educated class’s attitudes towards dek wan, a teenage subculture known for their love of punk-derived style and late-night motorcycle racing (I wager, in fact, that for most Bangkokians, dek wan are the primary association made with the motorcycle). Seen as Thailands answer to “street gangs,” the media there have embraced the type of fear-mongering journalism common in the United States in the 1990’s, frequently reporting on dek wan races, accidents and police busts of wan gangs. And much like white America, when the subject comes up most middle class Bangkokians will shake their heads, cluck their tongues and bemoan the sad state of modern society, citing dek wan and their motorcycles as the primary cause of what’s gone wrong. I don’t know enough about Vietnamese culture to know exactly what the motorcycle connotes here, but a quick glimpse around leads me to think they’re still more of a status symbol (or at least just a really convenient way to get around), and, have nothing to do with being (to co-opt a phrase from Darwin) a mark of one’s lowly origin.

Indeed, it is impossible to imagine a modern Vietnam without motorcycles, ridden by people of all ages and used as far more than a mode of transportation, the motorcycle here is entertainment, a work horse, a fashion accessory, a comfortable lounge chair, and, it would seem, a trusted companion.

Without further adieu, I present to you a photo-homage to one of my favorite aspects of Vietnamese life: the motorcycle. (don’t forget to click on the images for a full-size view)

Motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City

Motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City

Motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City

Motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City

Motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City

Motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City

Motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City

Motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City

Motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City

Motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City

Motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City

Motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City

Motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City

Motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City

Motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City

Motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City

Motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City

Motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City

Motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City

 

 

 

Beneath the Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh City

Beneath the Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City (at one point home to colonial administrations and US-installed presidents) lies a network of rooms and tunnels built to be used as a military command center in the event of emergency. Its original equipment is still there, relatively untouched, looking like something between a movie set, a museum piece (which it is), and grandpa’s basement. I submit to you a small sample of its contents, in hopes that it pleases you as much as it pleased me.

Communications Equipment 2, Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh City

War Room, Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh City

Communications Desk 2, Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh City

Communications Desk 1, Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh City

Telephone, Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh City

Communications Room, Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh City

Saigon, the old and the new

The rapid entry of Vietnam into the industrial era under the communist government, followed by its subsequent steps into the global capitalist world have left some startling juxtapositions around Ho Chi Minh City. Not unlike many major cities in the developing world, Saigon is home to skyscrapers standing adjacent to ramshackle huts, and department stores abutting local outdoor markets. Below is a sample of images showing the inexorable advance of global capitalism on urban life in Saigon… or the remora-like vice-grip of traditional culture, clinging to the underbelly of progress. Whatever your perspective.

Saigon, the old and new

Saigon, the old and new

Saigon, the old and new

Saigon, the old and new

Saigon, the old and new

Saigon, the old and new

Saigon, the old and new

Saigon, the old and new

Work and Play in Saigon

I’m never sure whether to label my self-funded photography trips work or leisure. I’ve been known to take umbrage when friends and colleagues refer to such trips as “vacation,” yet if I’m completely honest, far too much fun is had on such trips to refer to them in their entirety as “work.” In honor of such discrepancies, I offer you a selection of images of the Saigonese* at work and play, shot on my first day here. Big ups to my younger half for playing secondary eyes with me all afternoon. (click images for larger versions)

work and play in Ho Chi Minh City

work and play in Ho Chi Minh City

work and play in Ho Chi Minh City

work and play in Ho Chi Minh City

work and play in Ho Chi Minh City

work and play in Ho Chi Minh City

work and play in Ho Chi Minh City

work and play in Ho Chi Minh City

work and play in Ho Chi Minh City

work and play in Ho Chi Minh City

 

*as I learned last night, the residents of Ho Chi Minh City, at least of a certain generation (referred to by a 31 year old friend as “my generation” – whatever range that implies, I’m not sure) prefer to refer to their city as Saigon and themselves as Saigonese. So much for efforts to avoid Americo-centrism in nomenclature.

 

And it begins

In a few weeks time, this eponymous web address will be host to my online portfolio. At the moment, however, I find myself distracted from the task of getting all that together by the fact that I’m traveling in Vietnam with the little sister. Laudable though it would be to simultaneously travel AND put together a portfolio site, in its stead I offer the following: a photo blog of my trip through Indochina with the L.S. Take it, and don’t complain.

-J.T.W.

korean school

PS – this photo is entirely unrelated to traveling in Vietnam. I just happen to find it soothing, and hope you will as well.