on a Honda
“My grandfather had that same motorbike … ”
A middle-aged woman in the Thảo Điền district of Saigon gestures appreciatively to my 1960s manual transmission Honda Cub. The bike, a memorable combination of lime green and cream, has one cracked taillight, a broken speedometer, and a clutch so old and stubborn I have to stomp down on it with most of my body weight just to shift from first to second gear.
“They don’t make them like this anymore,” I smile back, equally enamored of this slow-moving, ornery veteran; my barnacle-covered porpoise in a sea of zippier, barracuda-like Honda Waves and Dreams.
on metaphor and the motorbike
The sea and its creatures are not just convenient, all-purpose metaphors in this case. Motorbikes and motorbike culture in Vietnam constantly inspire aquatic description. Riders swerve and flow around obstructions in the road instinctively, just as a river bends around a stone. Similar to the ocean’s food chain, Vietnam’s road hierarchy is organized according to size and speed—the smallest and slowest minnows (pedestrians) are forced to adapt to the movements of the larger, faster swimmers (motorbikes, cars, and buses). The most common analogy you will hear throughout Vietnam, however, is one that likens city traffic to schools of fish: its millions of independent, chaotic bodies comprising a giant, unified organism, sharing a collective purpose and logic.
For centuries, well before the advent of motorized transportation, water was a poetic symbol associated with Vietnamese places and people. The river, the ocean, and the rain—three forces that have deeply carved the look and feel of Vietnamese culture and history—are still in many ways the functional and spiritual centers of the country. A “water lifeworld” is how one development sociologist described the deeply symbiotic water-society relations in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.1 As literary legend tells it, the first recorded Vietnamese poem was coauthored in 987 by a Chinese ambassador and a Vietnamese Buddhist priest while crossing a river, a defining literary event that was both collective and waterborne. Centuries later, during Vietnam’s war with the United States, Mao Tse-Tung famously penned that the guerilla fighter “should move among the people as a fish in the sea.”2 This image was invoked over and over in the Western press in order to explain the slippery elusiveness of the enemy to outsmarted American troops.
on the metaphor and the dream
In many ways, the motorbike has become the poetic symbol of contemporary Vietnam. It is associated, both pragmatically and lyrically, with mobility and freedom, the longstanding tropes of water travel in many cultures. The fact that motorbikes still carry close, vernacular associations with water seems no accident in this context. In the food chain of Saigon’s streets, motorbikes are both elevated status symbols that cruise along the surface, and heavy links in the greater commodity chain that often sink to the bottom, where their valuable parts are harvested and resold. The old bikes inspire long-viewed nostalgia, while the new ones conjure imminent dreams.
The Propeller Group’s The Dream (2012) swims effortlessly among all of these associations. It is an ode to the poetic ecology of the motorbike, and the abundant, teeming life at the bottom of the city’s ocean floor, without which its surface would look and feel entirely different. In the work, a time-lapse camera is positioned on one Honda Dream, on the corner of one street in Saigon, over the course of one night. From this simple vantage, we witness the gradual, physical decomposition of a charged symbol. Deep stillness and swarms of activity intermittently populate the darkness. In the corner of the frame, a tree sways in the wind like a giant kelp frond bobbing in the ocean tides. At the end, we are left with a scene reminiscent of a shipwreck: the leftover Dream skeleton a haunting and elegant fossil of its former self; the stolen parts returned to the great commodity chain of Saigon's streets.
- Judith Ehlert, Beautiful Floods: Environmental Knowledge and Agrarian Change in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2012).
- Mao Tse-Tung, On Guerrilla Warfare (New York, NY: Preager), 93.