The first thing that draws my attention is his multi-layered pith helmet, straight from the jungle. Then, it’s his smooth black leather jacket and cargo pants.
Finally, the flip flops, toes peeking out, nestled atop the pedals and carving his rhythmic cadence.
He’s flying. A swashbuckler, land pirate. All flair and dash, on full display, ready to plunder.
His mamachari is pristine: fenders, back rack, front basket, and bell, each shinier than the rest.
We’ve been out for a good 20k at this point, cruising just north of Hanoi near the Red River. We’ve left the riverside and are making our way through suddenly-delineated lanes and shops that tell us we’re on the edge of a town.
When he sees us, he jumps into action. Swoops alongside, daring and darting, matching our pace.
At first we’re confused, not sure why or how he’s decided to keep up with us. We straddle the line between amusement and discomfort.
Why is he joining us?
It’s mostly good natured fun, so we play along, confident that with our road bikes we can clearly outpace him.
So we think.
Turns out he’s riding the little bike that could, and his engine keeps up with ours, despite having a single gear.
Funny trick, this – if he wants to go faster, he pedals faster. And it’s immediately clear that he knows these streets much better than we do.
We round the corner and head deeper into town. He continues apace, alongside, turning with a wry grin, and even nudging ahead.
He looks back and waves at us.
Come on, let’s go!
The four of us ease to halt at a stoplight, and he finally sees a chance to say hello.
So he does.
We shoot him a hearty wave and big smile. He seems happy to join our fun.
G consults his phone
We’ll need to u-turn and head down that road
Surely, this is our time to finally part ways. We bid him adieu.
But, despite our best efforts to evade, he has other plans. He makes the same u-turn and shouts something above the noise of the traffic, pointing towards the corner. He extends his arm over his head.
It looks like a roof
I think he’s inviting us over for a frothy beverage or tea. But not for us, today. We need to get home.
I apologize and say thank you.
But either he won’t take no for an answer, or he doesn’t understand.
Persistence is valued, here in Vietnam.
We wave goodbye and pull away, or so we think. He’s unbowed, pedalling twice as fast, flip flops flopping and flipping in time with the spiralling pedals and spinning wheels.
He’s keeping up.
But, we truly know it can’t last. As we open into a long straight, into the wind, and pick up our pace, he finally yields.
I turn back and give him a nod and a wave. He slows and waves back.
And I wonder what might have been, with more time and space.