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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)

Snapshots from the back of beyond

The title says it all really. These are some of the most memorable moments from our travels to Kyrgyzstan and Vietnam in last few months. Enjoy...

Big weather approaches a remote lake in Kyrgyzstan, 14 August 2012

Big weather approaches a remote lake in Kyrgyzstan, 14 August 2012

As I cycled over the brow of the hill, and saw this lake, it took my breath away. Instead of enjoying the downhill, I stopped every 10 metres to take photo after photo as the scene unravelled. In the end I took this shot while eating my lunch with my cycling buddies under a tarpaulin in the scorching sunshine. While eating our bread and cheese (which had become cheese on toast), a storm was slowly approaching. Part of me wanted the deluge, but the photographer in me just wanted to freeze the moment...

The open road, takes us high into the Tien Shan Mountains, 15 August 2012

The open road, takes us high into the Tien Shan Mountains, 15 August 2012

Kyrgyzstan was full of epic vistas. This was one of my favourites, and the road surface wasn't too bad at this point either!

Horses graze above our Yurts at Son Kul Lake, 20 August 2012

Horses graze above our Yurts at Son Kul Lake, 20 August 2012

When we went to sleep the night before, Son Kul Lake was enveloped in Scottish weather, just clearing with the sunset. It reminded me of the Western Isles. Fortunately the following morning dawned clear, so I set off up the hill behind our camp to capture some of the beautiful morning light.

Vast mountainous plains put a perspective on things, 20 August 2012

Vast mountainous plains put a perspective on things, 20 August 2012

If there's one thing that can be said of Kyrgyzstan, it's that it is unquestionably vast. This photo gives some sense of the scale of the place. It made me feel small.

Cycling down the Nho Que Valley, North East Vietnam, 30 September 2012

Cycling down the Nho Que Valley, North East Vietnam, 30 September 2012

The scenery of North East Vietnam is quite different to Kyrgyzstan. We often found ourselves dwarfed by the crops growing by the side of the road. This was a stunning valley, on a rare day when the atmosphere was beautifully clear, and around every corner was another bike stopping view.

Young children peel nuts beside the road above Yen Minh, North East Vietnam, 30 September 2012

Young children peel nuts beside the road above Yen Minh, North East Vietnam, 30 September 2012

On the same day, we rounded a corner by a forest clearing to find these children peeling nuts. Our guide, Phong didn't know why they were peeling nuts, and nor did the children, but they determinedly continued despite the obvious distraction of a group of westerners on mountain bikes. They deftly peeled the nuts with scary-looking knives, and oddly, the only injury sustained was a cut to my leg from a sharp stick poking out the ground, while I tried to capture this photo.

Dramatic views on the Chinese Vietnam border, 1 October 2012

Dramatic views on the Chinese Vietnam border, 1 October 2012

Cycling across the Rocky Plateau from Yen Minh to Meo Vac, I was left speechless on numerous occasions. This was one such. We thought we'd seen it all that day. Then we rounded another corner to find this! Chris helpfully provided the splash of colour in the distance.

School girls crowd round us on the road in North East Vietnam, 3 October 2012

School girls crowd round us on the road in North East Vietnam, 3 October 2012

These girls were probably the eldest in a group of about 30 children who were curious to see what a group of cyclists were doing sitting on plastic chairs drinking tea at the side of the road. When they eventually plucked up the courage to come close, we entertained them by reading their school books. They're probably laughing at this point because David Walker (our tour leader) was entertaining a group of younger children with his impression of the Nieeeeeyep man (a Nepalese phenomenon). Most of the children appeared confused with a few breaking out into smiles. But then again, as I commented in my previous blog When the wanderlust strikes again..., we probably seemed quite strange...

Posted by jparsons 11:42 Archived in Vietnam Tagged landscapes people vietnam cycling kyrgyzstan Comments (0)

The Eliminator Route

Chiang Mai from Doi Suthep

Chiang Mai from Doi Suthep

Although this is somewhat belated (we've been busy finding the middle of nowhere), I thought I should bring you right up to date on our most recent cycling endeavours.

We spent the festive period in Chiang Mai province in the cooler North West of Thailand, and after Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and three days of non-stop eating, I was itching to get back in the saddle. So, on the 22nd December, while Chris went to talk to the animals [see blog Chris goes to the zoo (again)] I booked myself onto Route 6X: The Eliminator Route. This was described by Chiang Mai Mountain Biking as

The ultimate cross country challenge, for only the strongest and most fit XC riders.*

At 40km long, the route promised to circumnavigate the entire Doi Suthep National Park along the mountain range crest, and crucially, included uphills. Perfect, I thought. What better way to work off the countless thai green curries? The following day at the morning briefing, I was instructed to don elbow pads, knee pads, cycling gloves, a helmet, and carry at least three litres of water and a couple of cereal bars...an ominous sign? At this juncture, I should point out that I was now slightly anxious about my choice of route, but still hopeful that many a weekend spent attempting to stay on down "technical" descents in the Peak District would work in my favour. I figured that the absence of beach material on the single track would also be an enormous advantage. I then prayed to Buddha that I wouldn't be found out.

We, and several other groups on the intermediate and beginner rides, were deposted at the top of the Doi Suthep mountain by jeeps. I was joined in the hard core group by three other victims: Laurent, Steve and John as well as our guide for the day: Jay. Now Jay was something else entirely. Jay was pint-sized, but on a bike, larger than life. It woudn't have surprised me to learn that he also slept on his bicycle from the way he rode. He disappeared off down the track into the jungle on one wheel (his front wheel being surplus to requirements of course). He reminded me of our ski instructor, Remy, in La Plagne: every fallen tree / mound of earth / major drop / boulder was seen as an opportunity to gain air time. Fortunately, the same wasn't expected of us.

  • *They may as well have called it The Yorkie Route (It's not for girls)

The select few - hot but not yet eliminated!

The select few - hot but not yet eliminated!

The riding was fabulous. We rode straight through the jungle on single track, and the descents were not so technical as to find me out. It turned out that the knee pads were also useful for bushwhacking, so overgrown were some of the sections of track we "cycled". The tough part of the route was a half hour ascent, which included walking (Jay even got off his bike here) and a poisonous snake spotting, and landed us right at the top of the mountain ridge from where we had magnificent views. These were masked only by the sweat pouring into my eyes!

The hard work is over as I relax on the Doi Suthep ridge

The hard work is over as I relax on the Doi Suthep ridge

Banana trees and jungle

Banana trees and jungle

The jungle

The jungle

The rest of the ride was predominantly downhill through jungle, past plantations of tomatoes along tracks lined with banana trees. We cycled well through lunchtime and out the other side, eventually stopping at a farm, where a toddler handed us some much needed local sustenance: bananas. Her father watched on in sandles fashioned from tree trunks. We were well off the beaten track.

Lunch...

Lunch...

Our day ended at Huay Jung Thao Lake with beers and curry. All four of us arrived, fortunately uneliminated and unscathed, about an hour behind all of the other groups. They were suspiciously clean. We were caked in mud, sweat, and dust with the odd tree branch here and there: a fine day out!

A route perhaps better described as The Eliminator Route is the Samoeng Loop. This 100km loop to the west of Chiang Mai up the Mae Sa Valley to Samoeng is usually aimed at "bikers" rather than "cyclists", however, Chris and I were not to be deterred. We hired two Trek mountain bikes from an affable Aussie called Damien (and his slobbery golden retriever Lucy) at Spice Roads in Chiang Mai, and packed our bags for a two-day adventure.

Me and bike number 7 from Spice Roads

Me and bike number 7 from Spice Roads

We must have been suffering some kind of withdrawal symptoms from "undulations" (there weren't any in Cambodia) for the mere words "Coffee House" and "Hmong Lodge" enticed us off into the Mae Raem Valley around a 38km extension to the usual route. The coffee house and Hmong Lodge turned out to be a wild goose chase (closed in high season), but we were rewarded with a 1,000 metre "climb"** up to Hmong Nong Hoi village at 1,400m. We soon realised the pitfalls of Thailand, an infinitely more developed nation than our previous destinations: the roads were so steep that we spent most of the day in granny gear, unlike in Vietnam and Laos where the local vehicles simply woudn't have made it. The wild goose chase made lunch finding difficult. However, our stomachs were unconcerned - we were powered by cheese cake and tiramisu from Wawee Coffee in Mae Sa (yum).

  • **A "climb" (as distinct from an "undulation") was variously defined by our Redspokes group as an undulation of 4km or more; any hill that required the use of granny gear; any hill that Phong was not cycling - see blog Sunburnt, squiffy and saddlesore

Fuel for the Samoeng Loop

Fuel for the Samoeng Loop

We ended the day sipping beers and noshing on an excellent thai take out at the Forest Guest House, taking in a fabulous view across the Samoeng Valley, and a less fabulous serenade by some particularly bad karioke wafting up from a nearby thai wedding party.

Chains of mountains behind the Samoeng Valley

Chains of mountains behind the Samoeng Valley

The only way to finish the day

The only way to finish the day

The following day was a comparatively lazy day. Abandoned were the plans for 60km off-road before lunch: our legs had had enough and our stomachs hadn't. We breakfasted slowly on eggs, and put off the ascent out of Samoeng (500 metres up in 6km) a little longer by testing out the local strawberry juice (much sweeter than the strawberries were). We still had some serious work to do to get ourselves out of the mountains and back to Chiang Mai, including two major climbs totalling another 800 metres. Only another cake stop at Bon Banana would see us through! In a continuing theme we ended the day with the spare Chang beer from the night before, which tasted all the better for having been carried all the way from Samoeng. The only minor improvement would have been a trade-up to Beer Lao.

The only way forward

The only way forward

As I write this, we have now finally tested out the local "bikes". Apparently they haven't heard of bicycles in Koh Lanta, so we hired a moped and sped off round the island for a day. Fortunately I didn't have to ride up the 1 in 2 out of our hotel on my first ever moped outing. This was not a suitable challenge for a novice rider, and one of the hotel staff took pity on us. Mopeds don't inspire quite the same thirst as a bicycle, but they do make you lazy, especially when the sun is ablaze. You can tell by the well-fed look of the locals here (by comparison with Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) that this is a place powered on petrol and curry.

Betrayal by "bike"!

Betrayal by "bike"!

Posted by jparsons 05:49 Archived in Thailand Tagged people food thailand cycling Comments (0)

Portraits of Laos

Chris is chased by schoolchildren down Highway 13

Chris is chased by schoolchildren down Highway 13


Children watch us eat lunch number one near Vang Vieng

Children watch us eat lunch number one near Vang Vieng


Drawing a crowd en route to Vang Vieng

Drawing a crowd en route to Vang Vieng


A brother and sister patiently watch me taking photos of mountains at their house near Phou Khoun, they then let me take this photo of them

A brother and sister patiently watch me taking photos of mountains at their house near Phou Khoun, they then let me take this photo of them


I meet the locals at our lunch stop in Nam Ming, en route to Kiu Kucham

I meet the locals at our lunch stop in Nam Ming, en route to Kiu Kucham


Children playing by the side of the road to Luang Prabang

Children playing by the side of the road to Luang Prabang


A girl sells handwoven scarves in a village on the Nam Ou River

A girl sells handwoven scarves in a village on the Nam Ou River

Posted by jparsons 02:57 Archived in Laos Tagged people laos Comments (0)

Portraits of Vietnam

Children on their way to a wedding near Nghia Lo

Children on their way to a wedding near Nghia Lo


Red Hmong mother and child near Muong Lay, Dien Bien province

Red Hmong mother and child near Muong Lay, Dien Bien province


This Red Hmong lady was doing crossstich next to the road

This Red Hmong lady was doing crossstich next to the road


I arrived at our teastop in the Na River Valley to find it deserted, the rest of the group having eaten and left. This girl was studiously doing her homework, oblivious to the cameras!

I arrived at our teastop in the Na River Valley to find it deserted, the rest of the group having eaten and left. This girl was studiously doing her homework, oblivious to the cameras!


This Red Dzao lady was in traditional costume in the market in Sapa

This Red Dzao lady was in traditional costume in the market in Sapa


This young girl was outside her nursery school in her home village of Lao Chai. She was so photogenic I photgraphed her twice.

This young girl was outside her nursery school in her home village of Lao Chai. She was so photogenic I photgraphed her twice.


8Young_girl..ao_Chai.jpg
Wellies are awkward at the best of times, this little boy was struggling with his outside the nursery school gate in Lao Chai village, Sapa

Wellies are awkward at the best of times, this little boy was struggling with his outside the nursery school gate in Lao Chai village, Sapa


Children playing in their backyard in Lao Chai, Sapa

Children playing in their backyard in Lao Chai, Sapa


These Black Hmong ladies kindly guided us down to their village

These Black Hmong ladies kindly guided us down to their village


What happens when east meets west?

What happens when east meets west?


This lady was sewing handbags in her shop in a village near Tule. This was the same place we tried unripened peanuts with corriander dip.

This lady was sewing handbags in her shop in a village near Tule. This was the same place we tried unripened peanuts with corriander dip.


These girls with their lollipops near Tule walked with us for a good half an hour, before they finally overcame their shyness enough to stop and chat...

These girls with their lollipops near Tule walked with us for a good half an hour, before they finally overcame their shyness enough to stop and chat...


This mother and baby near Nghia Lo were drawn in to meet us by Phong with the offer of sweets. We got chatting..."how old are you?" she asks, "31" I reply, "no children?" she responds. A familiar refrain!

This mother and baby near Nghia Lo were drawn in to meet us by Phong with the offer of sweets. We got chatting..."how old are you?" she asks, "31" I reply, "no children?" she responds. A familiar refrain!


Mr Hoan's children relax at their family homestay near Ninh Binh

Mr Hoan's children relax at their family homestay near Ninh Binh


A new recruit for Redspokes?

A new recruit for Redspokes?

Posted by jparsons 23:02 Archived in Vietnam Tagged people vietnam Comments (0)

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