A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about bikes

Crocodiles on mopeds and other tales from Hanoi

The crazy street life of Vietnam's second city


View North East Vietnam 2012 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

Last year's brief visit to Hanoi left a strong impression, even though Jen and I weren't able to make the most of our time there. Arriving straight from the Himalayas, we were tired and preoccupied by lists of errands. We arranged excursions to take us out of the city, thinking we would prefer the tranquillity of the coast and countryside to rubbing shoulders with millions of Vietnamese. It was probably the right decision at the time but it left me feeling short-changed by Hanoi. So we did the obvious thing - we went back.

Returning less than a year later felt like a homecoming rather than a holiday. Not only were we reunited with our cycling chums, David (Painted Roads tour leader), Phong (local guide) and Eddie (impossible to categorize), but we instantly fell in love with the city all over again. Hanoi casts its spell in unexpected ways. The guidebooks may try to talk up its tourist sites, but it's not the prospect of puppets, pagodas or pickled propagandists that excites me. Instead, it's the pulsating bustle of Hanoians going about their daily business in the enchanting Old Quarter. This is the beating heart of the city, an inside-out place where everything happens on the street. Ladies in shimmering blouses and stilettos revving their mopeds; pensive groups of men hunched over their cờ tướng boards on street corners; flower sellers weaving their bicycles between uniformed schoolchildren; street food vendors stirring, frying, serving and smiling. With so much life on show, we were keen to brush up on our street photography.

A motorcyclist stops to check his phone on the busy road along Hoan Kiem Lake's east side

A motorcyclist stops to check his phone on the busy road along Hoan Kiem Lake's east side


Parents coming to collect their children in Hanoi cause a traffic jam outside the school gates

Parents coming to collect their children in Hanoi cause a traffic jam outside the school gates

The Old Quarter was our base for the few days we spent in the city. Here, we watched Hanoi wake up, go to work, take coffee, exercise and go to sleep. A great many hours were spent at the street café opposite our hotel, sipping glasses of bia hơi and watching the city pass us by. At other times I would go off to explore, walking the streets morning, noon and night in search of the unexpected. Despite venturing no more than a mile from the hotel, my senses were thoroughly overwhelmed.

At first light, the street vendors begin to appear. Every morning, an estimated 10,000 of them - mostly women - converge on Hanoi from the surrounding rural provinces, as they have done for centuries. They bring fresh produce from their farms, but it’s not just fruit and vegetables they sell. I passed one lady whose bamboo baskets had been transformed into mobile ponds full of splashing turtles. Fresh ingredients are very important in Vietnamese cuisine, so the street vendors fulfil the same role as a Tesco Express would in the UK.

These women are amongst the poorest people in the city, earning around US$2 a day. Worse still, their earnings can be confiscated by the overzealous police, who increasingly enforce local laws which place restrictions or even outright bans on street selling. I have since discovered that the British government has recently provided funding for a project to improve the lives of Hanoi's street vendors.

My attempt to go undercover in Hanoi falls short of the mark

My attempt to go undercover in Hanoi falls short of the mark


One of the many women who travel to Hanoi on a daily basis to earn a meagre living as a street trader

One of the many women who travel to Hanoi on a daily basis to earn a meagre living as a street trader


A street vendor completes a sale at one of Hanoi's many food markets

A street vendor completes a sale at one of Hanoi's many food markets

Hanoi’s street cafés are a local institution enjoyed by city folk and foreigners alike. Space is at a premium in the Old Quarter, so the clientele sit on child-sized plastic chairs out in the street and conduct high-volume conversation over the noise of passing mopeds. Many cafés serve the aforementioned bia hơi, a weak home brew costing around 8,000 dong (25p) a glass. The quality can vary but at that price, who's complaining?

Others are purveyors of Vietnamese-branded coffee, a distinctive beverage filtered slowly into the cup and mixed with condensed milk. The connoisseur’s choice is cà phê Chồn or “weasel coffee”, the world’s most expensive variety. The coffee beans have passed through the digestive tract of an Asian palm civet (a weasel-like animal) which supposedly takes the bitter edge off the taste. A rather bizarre fact which begs the obvious question: who discovered it?

A smoker with his glass of bia hoi at a street café in Hanoi

A smoker with his glass of bia hoi at a street café in Hanoi


A newspaper seller cycles past a Hanoi café in the city's Old Quarter

A newspaper seller cycles past a Hanoi café in the city's Old Quarter

To the south of the Old Quarter lies Hoan Kiem Lake, the spiritual heart of the city. I wrote a blog article last year which discussed the famous giant turtle which inhabits the lake, a creature so rare it seems destined to join the dodo on the path to extinction. There were no turtle sightings on this occasion, but our lakeside walks offered up a number of equally extraordinary visions.

Dragging ourselves down to Hoan Kiem at dawn, we found the paths and parks had been taken over by a small army of exercising Hanoians, all stretching, pumping and burning. Around the lake swarmed an anticlockwise wave of joggers and power-walkers, whilst in a public square nearby, impromptu classes were being held for aerobics, salsa, ballroom, tai chi and, my favourite of all, laughter yoga. Perhaps they were laughing at the committed fitness fanatic who was attempting to target all his major muscle groups whilst sat on a park bench.

Laughter yoga is the latest craze sweeping Hanoi

Laughter yoga is the latest craze sweeping Hanoi

In the evening, another swathe of the population descends on the lake’s leafy promenades. The exercisers are now a minority, but this only seems to encourage exhibitionist tendencies, judging from the shirtless men performing chin-ups on lampposts and five-minute headstands at the very edge of the water. Meanwhile, young lovers stroll hand in hand and wedding photographers fuss over their subjects as they contrive to maximise the romantic potential of the scene. Quite what the turtle makes of it all, I can only wonder.

Ly Thai To park is floodlit at night, providing a perfect stage for skateboarders, breakdancers and rollerbladers

Ly Thai To park is floodlit at night, providing a perfect stage for skateboarders, breakdancers and rollerbladers


Performing your yoga routine at the water's edge adds an element of danger!

Performing your yoga routine at the water's edge adds an element of danger!

The action has spread to the nearby square, where the painted lines of badminton courts are being put to good use. There are no racquets to be seen, however, for the game of choice is played with the feet. The Vietnamese call it đá cầu and have made it their national sport, but it originated as jianzi in China. The standard is (literally) very high, with some unbelievable agility on show as the players leap at the net to smash the shuttlecock down into the opponent’s forecourt with their feet.

Despite all the activity on show, the Vietnamese revert to type when it comes to road transport: everyone and everything travels by motorbike. In Bangkok airport’s duty free zone I came across a neat little book called Bikes of Burden, a photo journal from across Vietnam showing an amazing variety of cargo being transported on bikes, from furniture to scaffold frames, carpets to water tanks and livestock to ornamental goldfish. We kept an eye out for unusual bikes of burden ourselves and found the Hanoians more than lived up to expectations. My favourite was a giant cuddly crocodile toy about the same size as the rider. Sadly there’s no photo to prove this – I obviously wasn’t snappy enough.

Crocodile! Snappy! Ok, I’ll get my coat.

A typical scene in the Old Quarter, where all manner of goods are transported by motorbike

A typical scene in the Old Quarter, where all manner of goods are transported by motorbike


A bamboo ladder would be a challenge to carry by oneself, but a passenger helps to balance the load

A bamboo ladder would be a challenge to carry by oneself, but a passenger helps to balance the load

Posted by Chris Parsons 13:03 Archived in Vietnam Tagged people food markets bikes vietnam hanoi photography Comments (3)

Going places


View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

Six countries in four months. Too much to take in? Too rushed? It certainly felt on occasions like we were stuck on a travel treadmill; a hamster's wheel of bus stations, taxi rides and departure lounges. On the flipside, he who leaves the wedding early cherry-picks the tastiest morsels from the buffet. And the sheer variety of places and modes of travel we encountered gave the engineer in me pause for thought. How can these countries develop their increasingly strained transport systems to meet the needs of their upwardly mobile populations?

In Kathmandu, the scale of the challenge is clear. In the tourist district of Thamel there are no pavements, so pedestrians are forced to share the streets with the Maruti-Suzuki taxis, motorbikes and tuk-tuks. Anyone carrying out a risk assessment would stay in their hotel, but despite the odds a functioning system has evolved which seems to minimise collisions. It relies on the drivers and tuk-tuk wallahs knowing the width of their vehicles to the exact millimetre, and on everyone knowing the significance of a sharp toot on the horn: "Look out, I'm coming through!" However, during the festival of Tihar there is an interesting reversal. The crowds take to the streets to dance, sing and play instruments, and no amount of horn-tooting can shift them.

Kathmandu street scene

Kathmandu street scene

Nonetheless, outside the old city the roads were still thronged with cars. At a busy intersection near the former Royal Palace, the Tata buses and Ashok trucks lined up six abreast alongside taxis and bikes at the traffic lights, revving their engines. In the midst of it all stood a traffic policeman, his manic hand-waving and whistle-blowing clearly taking precedence over the lights. There was only one problem though: cows don't follow orders.

On to West Bengal, where there's no doubt that Kolkata's transport system has benefited from an injection of order courtesy of the British Empire. The city centre was re-planned during the early nineteenth century to incorporate wide, traffic-friendly boulevards. Today, these streets are fought over by the usual jumble of traffic, people and animals common to modern Indian cities, plus, uniquely on our travels, trams. And like other great world cities, Kolkata has its own special taxi. The Hindustan Ambassador is produced locally to a 1950s design based on the Morris Oxford, and not a lot has changed since. Bench seats and central instrument panels are standard features; optional extras (based on our limited experience) include brakes, windows and door handles.

Ambassadors and buses in Kolkata

Ambassadors and buses in Kolkata

Kolkatans are tolerant drivers, though this may be due in part to the sluggish Ambassadors forcing traffic to move at a sedate pace. Moreover, the local authority has successfully promoted the practice of cutting the engine at traffic lights on both economic and environmental grounds. The first time we experienced this was strange to say the least. We were becalmed in queuing traffic, listening to conversations taking place in other cars (those without windows, at least). Moving off again is also a leisurely affair, for acceleration is not a gift bestowed on the Ambassador by its makers. In fact, so accustomed did I become to slow-moving vehicles that I made a misjudgement when wandering down one of Kolkata's railway lines and, like Matt Damon in The Bourne Supremacy, had to take evasive action to avoid a speeding train.

The Kolkata to Hanoi leg of our journey would have been time-consuming and logistically challenging overland, so we opted to fly via Bangkok. There were no alarms, but more than a few surprises. Kolkata, a city of 14.1 million people (thanks, Wikipedia) has an international airport with two departure gates. Bangkok airport has the world's most expensive Toblerones and a Leicester City FC shop. AirAsia is very good airline; Vietnam Airlines is even better.

Arriving in Hanoi felt like an evolutionary leap forward – smooth roads, lane markings, modern cars and not a cow in sight. If Katie Melua ever writes a sequel to Nine Million Bicycles, this is where she should come, for the Vietnamese have a love affair with motorbikes, and in the city’s Old Quarter, the moped is king. Flush with their recently acquired wealth, a bike is the affordable luxury most people crave. Thousands of scooters swarm daily along the narrow streets, weaving their way between the tourists, street vendors and stray dogs. Pavements have been sacrificed as bike parks and shiny new Yamahas, Hondas and Vespas gleam at the countless dealerships.

A motorcycle dealership in northwest Vietnam

A motorcycle dealership in northwest Vietnam

Walking the Old Quarter's narrow streets was daunting at first, especially crossing the road. There are no lights, no pedestrian crossings, no road markings even. But then we realised there are no accidents, because just like Kathmandu, Hanoi has devised its own system of unwritten road rules. When you step out into the road, you notice that traffic weaves naturally round you without appearing to slow down. Providing you continue to cross without changing speed or direction, nothing will hit you. This involves a fair amount of trust, but the Vietnamese are well practiced at avoiding each other. Just take a look at this brilliant time lapse video for proof.

Vietnam's economy is booming and new roads are under construction all over the north. But sometimes the heavy hand of communism overrides common sense, resulting in incongruous sights like empty six-lane highways running through middle-of-nowhere towns and giant phallic monuments presiding over roundabouts.

Cyclists dwarfed by a roundabout monument in Vietnam - but what is it?

Cyclists dwarfed by a roundabout monument in Vietnam - but what is it?

Across the border in Laos, we cycled for the best part of a week down the busiest road in the country. Of course, it was only when we got there that our tour leader revealed this fact. But there was no thought of us demanding a refund, for the Lao version of the M1 is more like an English country B-road. Apart from the occasional tourist bus blazing past, the bulk of the passing traffic was made up of chugging tractors, grumpy water buffalo and schoolchildren waving from bicycles. Luang Prabang also deserves a mention as a traffic-free haven, thanks to its location on a loop of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. It was refreshing to be in a city where the boat and the bicycle are the commonest forms of transport. And as we proved, with a boat and a mountain bike, you can go pretty much anywhere in Laos.

Our bikes go on a boat trip on the Nam Ou River

Our bikes go on a boat trip on the Nam Ou River

A common feature of Vietnamese and Lao mountain roads is their relatively gentle gradients. The steepest climbs were 10%, tolerable even with tired legs at the end of a long ascent on the bike. It would be nice to think that this was purely for the benefit of us humble cyclists, but I suspect the knackered old buses, trucks and tractors would die on anything steeper. There are no such problems for the Thais with their sleek, modern cars and superbikes, so they build their mountain roads accordingly. We found this out the hard way on the 100km Samoeng Loop to the west of Chiang Mai. It's a killer on a mountain bike!

Nowhere are the citizens of Asia more mobile than in Bangkok, a city which beats most European counterparts hands down in the futuristic transport stakes. My home town of Birmingham has Spaghetti Junction: Bangkok is Spaghetti City.

A bright pink Toyota Corolla whisked us from the airport to our downtown hotel along elevated highways which snaked between the skyscrapers. We cowered in the back while Thailand's answer to Sebastian Vettel took the racing line around every bend, reaching speeds which would have been unthinkable in Calcutta or Kathmandu. These highways are just one layer of spaghetti; above them runs the Skytrain, below them the city streets, and beneath the surface the Metro. Like a steep Himalayan gorge or a tropical rainforest, Bangkok is a truly three-dimensional environment.

A tuk tuk on the streets of Luang Prabang

A tuk tuk on the streets of Luang Prabang

It’s also home to the most unscrupulous tuk-tuk drivers on the entire continent. While the rest of the city zooms past at high speed, these guys go out of their way to make your journey as slow and stressful as possible. Our first attempt ended up with us abandoning the tuk-tuk within a minute of getting on board, as the driver stopped and drew us a picture showing us where he was going to take us (which was not where we had asked him to go). All our subsequent enquiries of tuk-tuk drivers were met with disinterest, incomprehension or an astronomical fare and a refusal to negotiate. It was nearly enough to persuade me to buy one of the ubiquitous "No tuk-tuk. Not today. Not tomorrow." T-shirts. But not quite, because elsewhere in Asia, tuk-tuk drivers had been our friends. Yes, they're pushy and they overcharge, but they are part of the fabric of life here and contribute to the buzz of the city streets.

Boats on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok

Boats on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok

Bangkok's busy riverboat taxis are another means of getting around the city. And as our travels led us further south to the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea, more of our time was spent on the water. Our boat to Koh Rong in Cambodia was delayed by three hours because of high winds and an absent captain. A substitute skipper was found, but it was not long into the journey before we were questioning whether he had ever left dry land before. He skilfully steered the boat so that the waves hit us broadside, drenching those at the stern, and then did his best to ram the pier several times before, to our great relief, we finally moored. The locals did not go fishing in such conditions, for theirs were the most basic boats I'd ever seen, constructed from nothing more than a rectangular board of expanded polystyrene.

A longtail boat bobbing in a turquoise sea is the quintessential image of southern Thailand. The noise of its engine may cut through the deepest of sleep (fact-checked personally) and there may never less than an inch of water in the hull, but I grew rather fond of longtails. I particularly liked watching the boat captains nimbly steering their crafts through narrow channels or off the edge of a reef. Any change in direction or raising of the propeller requires strength, agility and timing as the captain uses his body weight as a counterbalance to the pivoting engine, stepping neatly over (or under) the swinging tiller.

Longtail boat engine

Longtail boat engine

Less charming, but certainly quicker in a straight line, are the modern speedboats which carry island-hopping tourists down the Andaman Coast. If you're picturing luxury and decadence, think again, for in my experience they rival Nepalese buses in the unbearability stakes. On the first trip, I had to sit on the floor. On the second, I squeezed into the front of the boat on top of a pile of rucksacks. On the third, a one-hour crossing from Koh Lipe to Langkawi, I was relieved to finally get a seat. My mood soon darkened as we left the harbour and picked up speed. The sea was choppy, and if the boat caught a wave at the wrong moment it landed on the surface of the water with such force that it felt as though our spines were being crushed. The only lesson I can take away from this experience is that speedboats, like Nepalese buses and Bangkok tuk-tuks, are best avoided at all costs.

A Thai speedboat anchored off a reef at Koh Rok

A Thai speedboat anchored off a reef at Koh Rok

To conclude this blog entry I decided I had to go back to bikes and two favourite photos from the end of our trip. There are no cars on Koh Lipe, only scooters. You might think the local police would have been embarrassed to be photographed on their 100cc Honda, but far from it. They smiled, they waved and they still managed to look cool. It was all very Southeast Asian and I loved it. And then, not a minute later, we stumbled across a second photo opportunity, the little boy playing on his dad’s scooter. How can your heart not melt!

Cuts are biting in Koh Lipe's police department

Cuts are biting in Koh Lipe's police department


Baby biker, Koh Lipe

Baby biker, Koh Lipe

Posted by Chris Parsons 14:39 Tagged boats bikes india cambodia thailand vietnam laos transport nepal Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 2 of 2) Page [1]