Stress and the Art of Motorbike Maintenance

For a while in early 2019, I owned a motorbike from the year 1978. It was a perfectly cute, red and white Honda Cub with no fuel gauge, 3 sticky gears, and turn signals which appeared to be inspired by Dr. Seuss books (they didn’t work; my hands could do the trick, I was assured). For a while, each time I attempted to kick start my tiny motorcycle under the beating Saigon sun, I asked the same question: “is it supposed to feel like this?”.

cub 2.jpg

It wasn’t.

At the time, of course, I had no idea. This was, after all, the very first motorized two-wheeled vehicle I had operated. I learned to ride it slowly on a back street with the help of a patient mentor and felt like I was getting the hang of things. I became convinced that the sensation of an engine sputtering and gasping for air, the omnipresent smell of gasoline, and a sharp rightward lean were just par for the course when it came to old bikes. But when it was good, it was good; and when it was bad, it was fun.

On a scorching Thursday afternoon in January, when I first bought the little Honda Cub, I didn’t know how to drive it. Not to fear, however, because the guys who sold it to me, a smiling group of middle aged men in an alley in Gò Vấp, a neighborhood 12 kilometers from my place, nominated one of their pals to drive it back to my apartment for me. The thing kicked up dust and shot out smoke like a champ, its pilot bobbing along happily, cigarette-in-teeth. He wouldn’t accept my offer to pay for a cab back home, which I still feel bad about. You meet the nicest people on a Honda!

Anyway, it did seem to run alright when it came under my ownership. My friend Dan, who helped me buy it and, by a truly astounding coincidence, had purchased an impossibly cool Honda 67 from the same men 3 years prior, was happy to guide me through its necessary repairs. He got the thing on its feet and I started to drive it to work. I thought it was weird that I ran out of gas a day after filling it up, but was blinded by the Cub’s charm and didn’t question things until it became a true inconvenience.

Whenever I felt like something was wrong with it, I would stop by a mechanic and type into Google translate, with mixed results, the following request: “drive it and tell me what you think”. I figured the combination of me speaking next to no Vietnamese and, somehow, understanding even less in the parlance of mechanics might cancel each other out. This approach got me a new carburetor (nice), a fixed gas tank, and, on one occasion, a drastically loosened rear brake (?). Only once did the cost of one of these fixes exceed 12 USD, so I was cool with it. One time I met an Australian guy at a cafe who also drove a similarly-dilapidated Cub and looked like he might be knowledgable of motorized things, so I asked him to take it for a spin. “It’s not that bad, but, mate, don’t put any more money into it,” he said kindly. You meet the nicest people on a Honda!


Thankfully, I didn’t run into any real trouble on the bike, but it did keep things entertaining. One lovely night, I was returning home from dinner in Thao Dien, which requires crossing two large bridges. After coasting down the second bridge, I could feel my attempts to accelerate grow feebler and feebler—by then, I knew the feeling. I had run out of gas on a large road, and refuge was on the other side of a median. I flagged down a moto taxi driver, hoping he’d give me a push for a couple of kilometers; instead, he pointed to our collective biceps and motioned for me to grab the back of the bike. We then carried the cub, without much care, over the length of the grassy separation between highway and petrol stop. I laughed the rest of the way home.

Nevertheless, I felt that a more reliable form of transportation was probably a good idea. The last straw came when I visited a mechanic who, after giving it a trial run, mimed an engine exploding and typed the word '“soon'“ into his phone. From there I drove it to a garage whose proprietor—shirtless but wearing dress pants and a bluetooth earpiece—bought and sold bikes. This was a negotiation process I would unquestionably lose. At one point, the salesman grabbed a shirt from a hanger, but then decided not to put it on. So I wrote down a number, he wrote down a number, and, in the end, I was happy to take whatever he’d give me for it. The process turned out to be remarkably easy and I was thankful that he’d entertained my proposal out of the blue. You meet the nicest people on a… you get the idea.

Goodbye to my Honda Cub, you will be missed (sort of).