Date: 10th November 2006
Destination: Hanoi, Vietnam
As I stepped off the plane and into Noi Bai airport, I was surprised to see so many uniformed men with guns. With everything written in Vietnamese and no clear indication of which direction to go in, it put a very human chill up my spine. This is what I’d come for, to immerse myself in a new culture, a new people. I got on a public bus that said ‘City’, paid my 2 (tourist) bucks and smiled back at lots of toothy grins.
The drive into Hanoi will stay with me forever. The driver seemed to favour being on the opposite side of the road, tooting at oncoming traffic to get out of his way. In Vietnam, it’s a case of largest vehicle wins. On their 8 lane dusty motorway, I couldn’t help but think of the Mad Max movies as bikes, numbering in the thousands, zoomed in all directions, narrowly missing one another. There’s a real sense of lawlessness to the place, but the people are so friendly that you soon realize it’s more like organized chaos. That said, I saw my life flash before my eyes more times than I can count during the hour and a half journey.
The buildings all along the roadside were mesmerising. There was a mix of brightly coloured French Colonial townhouses, some of them battleworn and dirty and then lots of ramshakle huts in various states of disrepair. The ever changing view was a welcome distraction.
I arrived in Hanoi’s charming Old Quarter safely and hadn’t realised that I’d been digging my finger nails into the seat in front of me the whole time. Looking back, the journey had scared the life out of me, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat. After a shower and a change of clothes, I was ready to explore.
It took about an hour for my ears to become accustomed to the roaring engines and the never ending sound of horns. With my pale skin, I stuck out like a sore thumb and became a sitting duck for Xe om taxis constantly asking “You want moto?”. I felt safer walking, although the locals are quite fond of driving their bikes on the already overcrowded pavements, making it easier to actually walk on the road and sacrifice your arms to passing wing mirrors.
I found that all I had to do was go for a walk to soak up the atmosphere, or sit and watch family laden bikes drive around with a seemingly endless supply of fuel, just for the sheer hell of it! I soon became fascinated with the way they drive and their total disregard for road safety. Most Vietnamese refuse to wear ‘rice cookers’, their pet name for helmets, and drive by circumstance rather than a strict set of rules. It costs them dearly and makes the road death toll horrific. Vietnamese news reported that over 11,000 people were killed on the road in 2010. There may be traffic lights and junctions but they are largely ignored.
Crossing the road is an adventure in itself. The key is to walk slowly and let the bikes part around you. On my first go I sidelined a group of local ladies, which made me feel somewhat protected and made it across unharmed. However, following that, I had my fair share of near misses. I’d stand and watch, heart in mouth, as tiny elderly woman wearing their iconic conical hats, would casually meander their way through busy traffic like seasoned pros. Every crossing was like a starting grid, where taunting the tourist with revved engines seemed to be a favourite pastime for the boy racers.
The traffic doesn’t even stop for bad weather. The Vietnamese have an uncanny way of being able to tell when it’s about to rain and carry plastic ponchos under the seats of their bikes. As the heavens open and you’re caught unawares, you can do nothing but stand there, soggy and marvel at them all zooming around undeterred by the torrential downpour.
After a few days, I was totally captured by the city and not just its crazy driving. The street food scene is fantastic! You don’t have to stroll far to find people cooking vats of noodle soup outside their front door and various barbeque vendors selling an unidentifiable array of meats. The markets quite literally take your breath away as you inhale the smell of raw animal in 35 degree heat and your eyes scan over all the unknown fruits. There’s one street for selling shoes, one for books, one for toys, even a street purely dedicated to selling and repairing photocopiers. Women wear gloves and cover themselves from head to toe in a bid to try and remain pale. There’s even whitener in the soap! The city is intoxicating, a feast for the senses. You either love it or hate it. I didn’t want to leave.