At least 324 motorbikes have caught fire, in the past two years, and none of them have been mine.
Last month, researchers from the Ho Chi Minh City Refinery and Petrochemical Technology Research Center released a report citing the presence of ethanol and methanol in the town’s gasoline as the possible cause of mysterious vehicle fires.
The researchers noted a rise in the importation of cheap fuel additives into Vietnam and cautioned that these chemicals could cause leaks and excessive heat in automobile and motorcycle engines.
The report was hailed as to the first and only plausible explanation for the fires, but I found it lacking. After all, the authors had failed to mention my rusty Honda Chaly or its refusal to burst into flames.
I bought the bike because it seemed “cool.” By that I mean the bike was far too small to be driven by a grown man. Most of the paint had rusted off the body and the fenders had been replaced by pieces of white plastic.
I quickly learned that the notion of “coolness” doesn’t translate well here. Few things that qualify as “cool” in America could be considered tuyệt cú mèo (interesting owl). No Vietnamese owl, for example, would be caught dead on a dirty old Chaly.
After bringing laughter to stoplights all over town for a few weeks, I began to dream of getting rid of it. I had purchased the Chaly for just US$200 and doubted that I could find anyone to buy it. But my antiquated bike seemed like an ideal candidate for a fantastic vehicle fire – and what would interest an owl more than a daring motorbike blaze?
“Foreigner’s cool bike catches fire” the headlines would read. I might even get some sort of parade.
Early government reports had attributed the fires to arsonists. Naturally, I considered picking a fight with some arsonists. The problem was, I didn’t know any.
But, my bike looked like it would have no trouble catching fire all on its own. A tangled mass of old wiring poured out of the body and snaked into a dim headlight (the vehicles’ only functioning electrical feature), which turned off and on with the help of a jury-rigged orange light switch.
The filthy 49cc engine had the horsepower of roughly one sick pony — barely enough juice to shuttle a Japanese person from the 70’s around town, let alone a heavy American from the future and his frustrated passengers.
In an effort to overheat the tiny engine, I pushed the bike hard.
At full-throttle, the Chaly reached staggering speeds of up to 40kmh and emitted a pathetic high-pitched groan. After a few weeks of steady abuse, the engine began to leak a combination of oil and gasoline. A promising bouquet of fumes accompanied the drip and I began offering smokers free rides.
At the same time, I tried to keep the Chaly on a strict diet of dangerous additives, by buying all my fuel in plastic water bottles at shady roadside kiosks.
Sadly, nothing could get my Chaly to burst into flames. In the end, I felt like a fool. After all, my motorbike has been not catching fire since 1977. In recent weeks, I’ve stopped hoping for the immolation of the Chaly. Instead, we’ve come to a strange truce. After all, we can’t all be cool—owls be damned.