Workin’ at the Motorbike Wash

A steady stream of customers keeps four bike washers busy most of the day.



Hanoi, Vietnam

Ooh, ooh
You might not ever get rich
But let me tell ya
It’s better than diggin’ a ditch
There ain’t no tellin’ who you might meet
A movie star or maybe even a Indian Chief

Workin’ at the car wash
Workin’ at the car wash, girl
Come on and sing it with me
Car wash…workin’ at the car wash

— Rose Royce (Listen)

Great photo shooting opportunities can turn up when and where you least expect them.

I was just arriving at my hotel in Hanoi, a small place in a narrow alley in the Old Quarter, when I spotted the motorbike wash. It was directly across the alley from the hotel, a blur of flying suds, spraying water and and spinning tires.

The old 1970s funk tune Workin’ at the Car Wash popped into my head as I grabbed my camera off the car seat of the taxi.

I told my assistant, Saigon photographer Khoa Tran, to have the hotel and driver take care of the luggage and I would check-in in a bit. I could not pull myself away from this amazing moment of urban Vietnamese life as daily commuters dropped their bikes off to be washed and shinned. The parade of bikes was constant, as the young 20-something bike washers hustled to keep up with the flow of business.

Some commuters waited for their bikes, catching a coffee at the outdoor cafe next door. Others went on to work, opting to pick up their bikes later.

After the hotel bellman tried to get me inside a couple of times, Khoa suggested I check-in and then return to the bike wash. After all, we were planning to be there three days and I would have plenty of opportunities. I reluctantly agreed. But I took Khoa’s observation to heart and shot images of the bike washers once or twice a day while we were there.

After about my second appearance on the street, the bike washers started getting annoyed. They would throw up the arms and shout in Vietnamese among themselves. Finally, they had some words for Khoa.

“What is he doing,” they asked. “We don’t know who he is or what he is doing. He is beginning to scare us.”

Khoa said something sharp to them and their protests stopped immediately. So, of course, I asked Khoa what he said.

“I said something in Vietnamese that is sort like ‘f–k off and start smiling like you are supposed to,'” he said.

They stopped complaining. And after some cajoling, the frowns melted away and the boys were smiling and washing again at the Motorbike Wash.

You can get tea and coffee next door while your bike is being washed and dried.

A woman finds some cash to pay as the washer puts some finishing touches on her clean bike.

An attendant (left) keeps things running while the young men wash the bikes.

Red towels dry and keep dust off motorbikes that have been cleaned and are waiting to be picked up.

One of the washers wrings out a wet towel.

Helmets, shoes and other items hang over a tool kit used for oil changes.

When it seems every bike in Hanoi has been washed, there is time for a nap on Sunday afternoon.
























































































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