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Two-wheeled swimming lessons in Vietnam

By Simon Stanley   May 21, 2017 | 12:00 am GMT+7

How to keep your motorbike alive on flooded streets during the wet season.

With torrential seasonal (and unseasonal) rains having caused meltdown in Saigon several times already this year, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the future is only going to get wetter.

Unfortunately, this is perhaps truer for those residents who now find their homes below street level after the (in)famous road raising projects that have been carried out around town.

I think we all have our wet season routines.

The umbrellas come out, a stack of towels by the door, and afternoon plans written off to stay safely indoors. I’ve already put my more expensive pairs of shoes and sneakers away in a cupboard until the dry season returns.

Unfortunately, I can’t do the same thing with my motorbike.

So, when driving through flooded streets becomes unavoidable, what can motorcycle owners do to ensure they make it safely through to the other side, and with a bike that still works?

Here are some basic tips for successfully (we hope) taking your bike for a swim:

1. Assess and observe

Can you find another route? Can you wait it out? If there’s no turning back and you have little choice but to push on through, pause to study other vehicles first. Guess the depth by noting how far up their wheels the water is rising; try to guess where submerged obstacles may lie (like sidewalks); consider what routes might offer the highest ground (often the middle of the road is highest), and, ultimately, decide whether it’s possible to get through safely at all.

Anything deeper than your knees simply isn’t worth attempting, and if the water is flowing rapidly, you can easily be swept over (and away).

Don’t take any unnecessary risks.

2. Open the throttle

In order to keep water from flowing into the exhaust (should it end up submerged), keep your engine speed high. This means riding in first gear while slipping the clutch. If you’re riding an automatic, “drag” the rear brake by applying a mild but constant pressure on the lever to achieve the same effect.

3. Fast, but not too fast

Remember how hard it is to wade through water? Your bike is feeling the same thing. In order to counter the resistance, maintain a brisk speed and try not to let your feet drag in the water. This means you’ll get to drier ground faster, but also will prevent your bike from stopping altogether, which is the last thing you want.

In the right conditions, a moderate “jogging” speed will help push water away from your precious air intake, though be sure your wake won’t affect other drivers nearby.

When it comes to speed, try to find a balance. Too fast and you won’t be able to steer, and you (and your bike) may end up in the wet stuff.

4. Pause if you can

If you can find a patch of high ground halfway through, perhaps on a sloped driveway or sidewalk, take a few moments to let your bike recover before continuing.

5. Don’t drop it!

While your average scooter can handle 30 centimeters or so of water, if you drop the bike, or if the water is too deep, and the entire engine ends up underwater, you’re done. It’s time to find a mechanic.

Switch it off (ideally, before it drowns and cuts out on its own), put it in neutral and start walking. If water has entered the engine, you may need a full disassembly.

6. Get indoors

Once you’re safely through, get the bike out of the rain and let it recover overnight. It’s been quite an ordeal for the poor thing. If it still sounds sick the next day, a brief (and affordable) trip to the mechanic for an oil change and check over is a wise move.

Rust may have formed on your brakes overnight, and therefore they may not work so well immediately. Before you actually need to use them, ride with the brakes lightly applied for ten seconds or so to remove any corrosion.

7. Time for a shower (not another bath)

Flood water is filthy. Really filthy. In addition to giving yourself a good scrub down, get your bike to the nearest car wash.

So, did it work?

Ironically, I got to put these tips into practice just a few days ago, and while my bike coughed and spluttered a little as we plowed through a submerged Thao Dien street, we did indeed make it out alive and with my little Nouvo still running.

I can’t, however, say the same for the Porsche driver that was heading in the opposite direction.

As Saigon gets wetter, it’s also getting richer, and while the average roadside mechanic can get your scooter up and running for just a few hundred-thousand dong, I can’t imagine how those with hundred-thousand dollar sports cars and high-end motorbikes might feel if they find their precious toys underwater. Ouch.

My friend Tristan Ngo, a local chef and entrepreneur, owns a Harley Davidson. I asked him how he manages to care for his bike during the rainy season. His answer was quite simple: “I put away my riding boots and save the Harley for a sunnier day,” he said.

So, just like my sneakers then.