Sede Vacante

The light is on but no one is home.

I was there: helmet day 2007.

Some day, while talking to friends over cà phê sữa đá, a teenager in Viet Nam will look at his shiny motorbike helmet and marvel at the thought that there was a time when no one had to wear them. He’d imagine a long bygone era when beautiful long hair would flutter in the wind, and every now and then you’d see a bright crimson streak with bits of that hair and brain and think to yourself: how poetic it is when placed against the dull gray of the pavement.

Lookit all the helmets!

Today is helmet day. From this day forward all passengers and operators of open-air motor-driven vehicles are required to wear helmets. I may have missed the fall of the berlin wall, and the first (supposedly) democratic elections in Iraq. But I was in Viet Nam on helmet day, 15 December 2007. Let the world know.

I walked out of my apartment this morning to go to work. It seemed like the same routine I had been going through for the past 2 months. I locked the door, put the phones in my ears, cranked up my ipod, and started to walk the thousand yards to my office building. But today, something was amiss. I didn’t realize it at first. Something was different.

It wasn’t until I came upon the dry goods store that I had passed by a hundred times since I’d gotten to Viet Nam. There was a ruckus. People were gathered around a pile of motorbike helmets. And then it hit me. It was the day.

I tore my eyes from the shiny pile of helmets and draped my gaze unto the street. There all throughout the length of the Phan Dinh Phung, as far as my eyes could see, a million little gook noggins in bright plastic china-made helmets. Each one was different, in color, style, size, and adornments. Stickers, tassles, name tags, labels. Each one unique. Like… multi-colored rainbow snowflakes. And I hadn’t even done drugs.

According to my friends here, the police are very concerned about everyone’s skulls. They enforce this new law with near-zealot fervor. They care so much about everyone’s skulls that if they catch anyone without a helmet, they’ll promptly bash him over the head with their black wood truncheons. So much for caring.

All humor aside, I think helmets are important. Back in the day, when I used to race road bikes (I mean bicycles because I’m proudly a geek), I’d bashed up a few helmets flying head-first into pavement. Those are the funky aerodynamic soft-shell racing helmets, too. Without a hardshell, the foam of the helmet literally pulverizes on impact, absorbing most of the force that was intended for your head. After you regained consciousness, your buddies would invariably toss the pulpy remains of your helmet into your lap just to show you how lucky you were.

As for the Vietnamese, obviously it’s going to take some time getting used to it. You do feel much hotter in the head when you’re wearing one. I don’t care how many vents and air scoops you have on your helmet, it doesn’t quite provide the same feeling of freedom as a bare head. And most of these guys were wearing cheap basic models with no provision for airflow. Think of it as a mobile sauna just for their heads.

I’m sure these things will save a few lives. Hopefully a few more lives than those who die from the excessive lead in the paint they use to make the damn things.

As I stared across the plastic-helmed throng on the corner of Phan Dinh Phung and Nguyen Trong Tuyen, every few seconds my eyes would catch some schmoe trying to scratch his head through his helmet; or adjusting the straps, or grimacing in annoyance as his rear passenger’s helmet would knock into his. Everyone’s annoyance is pretty obvious.

Deep down inside, I giggled.

More about the helmet law, here.


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