A Vietnamese Garage That Reminds Me of Home

As soon as we arrived at the garage of Cuong’s Motorbike Adventures, full of U.S. Army Jeeps, motorbikes, and stacks of spare tires, I knew we had made the right decision. This garage was my kind of place. I was ready for a 3-day motorbike tour of northern Vietnam. 

I had been nervous about the trip, even though I was riding in a sidecar rather than driving a motorcycle through the bustling and seemingly lawless streets of Hanoi. The trip would require me to trust a stranger, our guide named Phu, with my life. Not to mention, my brand new husband was planning to maneuver his own bike through the streets, and although he was confident, he had had zero practice in this type of traffic.

But when I saw the garage, I felt at home.

The garage reminded me of my childhood home, with the smell of grease and the organized chaos. Somehow my dad knew where the sockets were when he needed them, even though to an outsider, it looked like a mess. Similar oil stains spread on the concrete floor here. Wrenches were thrown in a pile with other wrenches.

Men crouched in ripped jeans, happily plucking away at the motorcycle’s motor. My dad also worked on his trucks, but more often out of necessity than out of fun. When his work truck wouldn’t start in the cold morning, he had to tinker to get it running before he could leave. 

This knowledge of mechanics–of how to fix things with a hard grip and a yank of an arm–gives a person an undervalued quality: A common sense of the hands.

The swift movement of our guide, Phu, as he turned over a water bottle full of gasoline he had had to run to the market to purchase after the fuel line on the sidecar had leaked an entire tank onto the ground in the middle of the night. The exact pour of the rest of a tank of gas from a plastic pitcher blackened over time by the man who owned the market and reminded me a bit of my dad. It was a relief to be around this type of person again.

These things can’t be learned in an office. And it’s a shame we place so little value on them.

And I am lucky to feel such ease in that garage. Not everyone would. A lot of people might feel uncomfortable, like it was too grimy or unkempt. But I said to Joe, “Can I stay here forever?” and he was enthusiastic about the idea.

Although I wasn’t handed the gift of mechanics from my father (I’m not sure I could change a tire), I was given this common sense of the hands. At my former D.C. rowhouse, my roommates called me Ms. Fix-It because I was often able to look at something and decipher how it worked. Whether it was a food cooler my roommate had no idea how to open, or a bike stand we needed to screw into the ceiling, I could figure it out. These things often made sense to me in a way that they didn’t with others.

This is a gift. And I am proud of it.

Spending time in this garage was an essential step on my journey toward defining what success means to me. As I have written, I recently quit my job, and I am figuring out what to do next. I don’t want to rush, but it’s important for me to note that not only was I comfortable in a garage setting, but I felt almost giddy. Not that I’m going to run off to become a mechanic, but I think it means I need to work in a laid-back environment. A place where there is some hands-on work. I don’t know what that means yet, but I will figure it out.

I need to utilize my own common sense of the hands. Not everyone was blessed with it.

Joe and I have one more week in Vietnam, and we are spending it on the beach. It will be a much-needed relax, so don’t expect to hear from me until we’re back in the frigid States.

Until next time,

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