I was recently flipping through the channels of Vietnamese cable hoping to find something mildly interesting that I could understand. I’m not sure why I keep going back in vain to the remote in hope that I somehow missed a diamond in the ruff; BBC or CNN or a travel channel.
As my demeanor was deflating with every click I suddenly saw the Superfriends flicker across my screen. I stopped and did a double take. Memories of Saturday morning cartoons came rushing back to me. However, there was an additional familiarity to the Superfriends; I felt a weird déjà vu when I saw Batman, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman. The masked crusaders looked strangely similar to what I see every day on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. I started to wonder if the Imperial Palace in Ho Chi Minh City was really the secret Hall Of Justice where all of the masked crusaders (errr…I mean masked commuters) gathered to fight evil and injustice in Vietnam.
HCMC is a motorbike mecca. If you’ve ever been here, you know what I mean; if you haven’t then you can’t even begin to imagine what a motorbike commuting mess it is. There are 8 million people in HCMC and 6 million motorbikes. There are really no rules except ‘watch’ your front wheel and use your horn. There are some ‘traffic lights’, however they mean very little as motorbikes travel en masse, if you have a few other motorbikes willing to go with you through the red light and take on the cross traffic – then you go. They travel in packs; packs have power, not the silly red and green lights.
As frightening and infuriating as HCMC traffic can be, I actually find it to be one of my favorite things about Vietnam. The motorbike culture is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I’m like a kid in a candy store – I don’t know what to look at first as there is so much to see! Thanks to my years spent in fashion retail organizations, the motorbike fashions always catch my eye first. There is a helmet law that is mildly followed by adults and rarely followed by children. The law has spurned a whole new fashion culture. People express themselves through their motorbike helmets – colors, flowers, texture all play into the helmet fashion decision. My favorites are the ones that are camouflaged as a regular baseball hat or sun hat, but are actually a hard helmet underneath.
Aside from the obvious safety concerns when commuting among 6 million other motorbikes which don’t follow any obvious traffic rules; there’s a hidden danger, an invisible evil superpower; pollution. Most days I’m perched on the back of my motorbike taxi looking at everyone around me to see what strange thing they are carrying on their motorbike, and I get mesmerized by the masks, glasses, and gloves that they use to stave off the harmful rays of the sun and the gas fumes which feel like they are being forced up my nose. The pollution is terrible, there’s no escaping the noxious fumes when you are on a motorbike or simply walking down the street. However the locals have found a way to combat it, or deter, it or simply make themselves feel a little better; they wear masks.
These little masks fit nicely around your ears as if you are putting on a pair of glasses. The masks are nothing special, they aren’t made of any super hero material that repels bullets, instead they are simply fabric that keep a layer between you and the fumes. For those that have fashion sense, the masks are also a way to ‘complete the outfit’ I suppose. They come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. There are some that look like surgical masks with little kittens or flowers embroidered on them, or there are some that look a bit like gas masks that cover your neck and back of your head to protect yourself from the sun presumably.
The women riders tend to go one step further than the full mask, they also wear long gloves and socks. I used to think of Gretta Garbo and elegant old Hollywood when saw long gloves, however now my mind associates long gloves with Vietnam culture. Once again, in a culture that is obsessed with hiding from the sun’s harmful darkening rays, they have spawned a whole industry that protects them. Long, flesh colored gloves are sold to the discerning Vietnamese woman concerned that her lilly white skin will be tainted. Along with this come the matching socks, with a ‘big toe’ glove like design so that you can wear them with your flip flops of course.