Sunday, October 11, 2009

Lost in Hanoi

I am often left with some time to kill which I use as a period of relaxation and discovery. After dropping Celine at school I am left with a few hours before I need to pick her up. The opportunities are endless in Hanoi however none so far outweighs the chance to explore. There is no better way than to jump on the bike and just ride. No rhyme or reason. No plan, no preparation, no map.

Hanoi is a city of avid activity, the streets bursting with life. Negotiating the demanding traffic you become captivated, lost in the constant flow, connecting and uniting with the city. The city really feels alive and I feel part of it. While concentrating on the traffic your eyes wander jumping from image to image and if you don’t look closely you will miss the best part. If you don’t look closely the scene can be a blur. You will miss what moves Hanoi forward, the multitude of commerce and trade, culture and family. It is these images that strike something inside of you. You feel in a different world but one that is inviting and welcoming.

As I turn off the main road into smaller streets and alleys the setting becomes more intimate. The streets wind and bend in a maze of life. Ladies sell spices and fruits by the side of the road. Others display slabs of meat or the latest catch of fish. Women on bikes pedal the streets with a collection of fresh flowers. Men covered in black soot work vigorously repairing bikes. A nearby welder sends sparks onto the road and a few metres down you feel the heat on your legs as you pass the local blacksmith. Kids fill the streets, many playing around their families business. The older ones ride pushbikes, many on their way home from school. They are always happy, always smiling. Old men share a conversation over a beer or green tea; most enjoying a smoke out of a pipe and some playing Chinese chess. As you ride past many will glance your way, interested and intrigued I feel but friendly nonetheless. A small nod or wave will bring a beaming smile. They are happy people. As a turn aimlessly down another street, thinner than the last, the buildings on either side engulf me. The chipped paint and ageing roads only give character to the place. There are no foreigners down these streets. Small stores sell all your basic necessities; water, drinks, snacks and cigarettes. Street food can be found on most corners, simple boards advertising their menu.

Vietnamese flags hang from many houses and it is hard to miss that they are very proud and patriotic. They work hard and as you ride you see the constant development that is happening around Hanoi. Buildings are going up around the city and the economic growth in recent years is evident. Men push carts with bags of cement, others with bricks or pipes, for cars and trucks can’t access many of these streets. While the men work kids play around the site content with the simplicity of the setting.

At one point the road ends. After a minute of riding and with no warning I reach a dead end. I turn around and try and find my way back. All the streets look the same. I turn left and then right dodging a kid or a bike or a hole. I reach another dead end. I turn around and drive straight taking the biggest street I can find; one I don’t remember. I am in the centre of a residential neighbourhood and only the locals would know which street goes where. The streets are still busy and things are happening on every side. I have lost my way, getting more unsure with each turn. Finally the streets, flanked by towering buildings, open to an unpathed junction. A rocky road connects various paths of traffic and as I turn right I come upon a fenced rice field about an acre in area. High buildings surround the field proving an obvious contrast between the countries agriculture, a symbol of their culture and way of life, and the new modernisation that is changing the city.

A few minutes later I find my bearings, joining a main street with the peak hour traffic in full force. Admiring the buildings, which are notoriously tall and thin (for tax saving purposes), I have a lapse of concentration. A bike turns from my left across the front of me in order to make a late right turn. I slam on the brakes but to no avail. I smash into the side of him, my handle bars hitting his arm. He only gave me an apathetic look and before I could apologise he was on his way. He showed no anger or annoyance, a possible sign of the Vietnamese temperament.

There are bikes everywhere. Many carry three and sometimes four people. Young kids ride without helmets at ease with the hysteria around them. Bikes will carry anything you can think of; from large pottery to mattresses, kegs of beer or countless cases of eggs. I finally turn onto the street Celine works on crossing the busy traffic until I stop outside her office. I jump off the bike for the first time since I left with sweat running down my face. The ride can take it out of you and I felt foggy and drained. My skin was sticky and dirty due to the dust and pollution of Hanoi however I was content and satisfied. The city has so much to offer and there are new things around every corner. Today I was able to see a few of those.


  1. I love this post. It's great prose, wonderful writing. Leg xxx

  2. Sounds like your having a good time Ding, but seems as though your navigational skills haven't improved too much....oh well.

    Good stories though - they definitely get me keen to travel again.


  3. Great post Dan! Funny to hear about you getting lost again...