26 February, 2007

Goodbye, old pal

I sold my bike today. My apple green darling had no gears, but it did have a bright and trilling bell which amused me to no end when I used it to communicate with the other honking beasts on the road. Hwonnnk! Hwonnnk! would go the motorbikes, and tra-la-la-la-la would go I in return. Also, I never had to worry about rolling up my pants legs, because there was a nifty little mesh guard protecting the chain from any sort of apparel intruders. You could sit straight up while riding this bike, and imagine yourself a willowy young thing with a white ao dai and long black hair, cycling through the Mekong on your way to school. I mean, that’s who these bikes were designed for. You still see millions of girls all in white, ramrod straight, pedaling along. But now they’re talking on cell phones. My bike had a key attached to the back wheel which I could lock if I liked, thereby forcing any would-be bike stealers to have to carry the darn thing, and a basket attached to the front (which never made it onto the dorky list in Asia, believe me, but is rather a necessity). My favorite thing about the bike was probably the back seat. Welded above the back tire, black and sleek and luxuriously padded, it made the bike seem to say to the world, “yes, I am a lowly human-powered machine. Yes, I frequently am ridden by two people simultaneously. But they ride in style.”

Yesterday I was trying to hustle the bike. As I do when I have no idea where to begin looking for something, I started at Ben Thanh Market. Not actually in the market, of course, since (fortunately) they don’t allow people to ride through the market. [They do in other markets around town, and it is a sincere pain in the ass. No one is insistent like a Vietnamese person on two wheels—it doesn’t matter who or how many people are blocking the way, nor does it matter how permanent the blockage appears to be: they will crunch up into each other’s pedal space, inching forward relentlessly, honking sharply all the while. Add to this the lack of concern for rules governing which direction you must go on a particular street (or aisle), and you could have one guy sitting astride a bike, perpendicular to the bikes around him, at a stalemate because he’s being increasingly penned in on both sides by hurried, crowded, exhaust-spewing motorbikes. But no one would stop to let him back out. It’s lovely, especially when you are the sole walker (or God save you, cyclist) flattening yourself against the side of a dingy stall, and you have just bought a tall, dripping bouquet of flowers for your friends’ lunch party which you now have to hold above your head and are just trying to get past the raw, hanging chunks of carcass next to you to buy some tomatoes and maybe a Toblerone bar. Nothing says yummy like rare rack of ribs hanging directly next to a nose-picking guy on a motorbike with no muffler.]

Anyway, I was walking the bike down a street outside Ben Thanh Market, and the plan was to go blithely unawares down the street, gazing up at some clouds or something, while people read the sign tacked onto the front of the bike basket advertising it’s availability. Then, theoretically, they would stop me and ask, in broken but comprehensible English, if they could possibly take a look closer. They would look and coo and agree with each other, and then I would seal the deal, we would smile and nod our heads at each other once, and I’d walk on home, 800,000 dong the richer. But you can’t play a player, or something like that, and in retrospect who did I think I was kidding? These people make a living, daily and for generations, by selling what are probably twenty-cent tee-shirts to tourists while clucking their tongues and pretending that it’s a bloody shame to let the “Tin Tin In Vietnam” shirt go for anything less than three dollars, but they would do so just for you, and you don’t have to be exceptionally gifted linguistically to realize that when you walk away, they are now clucking appreciatively to whomever made the sale, probably saying something like, “Oh Thuy, you old bird, you’ve still got it! Did I see a tear well up in your eye when you agreed to forty-thousand dong? I tell you, I almost peed my pants! You deserve an Oscar! I still think the big pink man on the end would have settled for fifty-five, but hey. It’s the New Year. Pork ribs for everyone!” And then they’d be off to the market, on motorbikes of course.

The best offer I could get yesterday was 450,000. I haggled and explained and showed off the warranty, even tried to get some cooing started, but everyone had poker faces on and was insisting that I would get no more than 200,000 anywhere else, but they were willing to be generous. I paid a full million dong for the bike about five months ago, and have kept it in pretty good shape, replacing a tire here and adjusting the kickstand there. Plus I had all the paperwork with me, ready to show off, which I did, to back up my asking price of 800,000. Now honestly, a thirteen dollar loss after owning a bike for five months is very, very good. I know that vehicular things depreciate like heck as soon as you breath on them. But I figured, if I start at eight hundred, I could probably get six hundred by the time bargaining was done, and that would be fine. I learned this in Ben Thanh market, actually. The salesgirls habitually start the numbers at about four times what they think you’ll pay. Then you chip away at your end, and they chip away at their end, and you make a few walk-away attempts, and they call you back, and eventually, with much eye rolling, they let you pay one fourth of whatever they had started with. Or one half, if you haven’t been charming enough or it’s a new moon or something or you’re the first or last customer of the day. Who knows. Sometimes you’ll go from being almost violently persuaded to part with your money at one stand, and refused outright at the next. There’s something going on there, but I haven’t figured it out yet. It’s usually an older lady who just looks at you out of the sides of her eyes and gives the old wavy hand gesture, and you know that for some reason, she’s not going to sell you a sandwich or a pineapple or anything, no matter how much money you’re willing to give up. It’s a mystery.

So today I rode my bike to meet my friend Lindsay for lunch at the Black Cat, one of my favorite places to go for a healthy lunch. We’re happily tucking into lentil soup, carrot juice, and green salad, when the owner’s wife approaches me and asks about the bike. I barely manage to swallow to begin my sales pitch when she’s agreed to buy it for my asking price, 800,000 dong. Uh, sure! I blather on happily about all the bike’s sweet little features, but it doesn’t matter anymore—the money’s in my hand, and I am now an ex-bike owner. A little sad, but not really. I’ve got pictures. I’ll remember the good times. And to reward myself for being so ambitious with the sum on the front of the bike, I go buy really good souvenirs for family at home. They deserve it. They taught me how to ride a bike, and how to make signs.

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