Multi-Purpose Vehicle

When we walked through the villages in the valley near Sapa, Vietnam, we noticed a common type of vehicle that the locals used for many purposes (and it’s an unlikely one), the small cc motorcycles. In Southeast Asia, it’s pretty common to see small cc motorcycles dominating the traffic especially in big, crowded cities like Jakarta, Phnom Penh, Bangkok, or Hanoi. I didn’t expect to see these motorcycles as much in the mountainous region around Sapa, however, since you would think it requires bigger engine to have these motorcycles going on steep climb and descent in some of the area roads, and even going on gravel or dirt roads in the rural area. But since these motorcycles are also quite affordable in comparison to cars, surprisingly you can find many of them around. There are even some people who provide service by giving others ride between Sapa and the nearby villages. In some cases, we saw people carrying heavy loads on the back, or even having three adults riding on one small motorcycles.

I thought it’s interesting to see how people would push the boundaries of the ‘operating conditions’ of these motorcycles. I thought of similar cases in many developing countries where you have to make the best use of what you have, and it’s about necessity, not luxury, to have these vehicles. Back in Indonesia, when I was young, my father owned a Vespa (Italian scooter) that he rode everywhere in Jakarta since even before I was born. He rode the same scooter for more than 20 years, and whenever it broke down, he would find some ingenious local mechanics who figured out how to fix it. You hear similar stories with the 1950s cars in Cuba that are still in use today — people with their ingenuity manage to prolong the life of these vehicles, even when at times the use was beyond the intended ‘operating conditions.’

Compare that to the wealthy countries like the United States. In the US, there are more cars than motorcycles, and when people drive cars here, I think on average the cars are probably around 5 years old or younger. You do see older cars, but a lot of people if they could afford it would look to get new car every several years. And these days most of the newer cars are so complex and sophisticated that you almost need to take it to the authorized dealer service center to figure out using computerized diagnostic tools if there is anything wrong with it. Try to take those cars to places like Sapa; I would be reluctant to do so lest it breaks down and noone knows how to fix it. Also, here I do care about keeping my car in good condition (for its resale value) that I would think twice before driving it to any off road or even unpaved roads since the car is not a 4-wheel drive. I’m sure if I had no choice I would’ve found ways to make it work with what I have.

The photo below was taken as we walked on the main road in the village of Tavan. You see a man riding his small cc motorcycle with ‘wide load’ on his back seat. I’m not sure if this would even be allowed in the United States.

Wide load

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