The land of 3 million scooters

Wow! Hanoi hits with you with a punch. A bedazzling load of sensory input that left us reeling as soon as our taxi entered the Old Quarter, having arrived late in the evening from the serene and decidedly first world Hanoi International Airport. The view was not more than a hundred metres in any direction as the narrow streets twisted off and away. There was however more to see than could be taken in as we cast our eyes around to get our bearings and find somewhere to eat.

The streets are a river of scooters, the footpaths are either packed with eateries or performing as a parking lot for yet more scooters, and people, people and more people fill the spaces in between. It’s an obstacle course, with most journeys requiring twice the number of steps you would ordinarily take to get somewhere. Buildings on either side of the streets had the feel of brightly lit canyons and businesses of every form fills in the blanks.

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The footpath obstacles of Hanoi

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Hanoi streetscape – it is busier than it looks here

Like other visitors to Hanoi, when we weren’t trying to escape it we were totally mesmerized by the traffic. Llewellyn King of The Huffington Post describes it as one of the wonders of the world.

‘Looking at the traffic is like watching a column of ants, going hither and thither in a courteously chaotic way. The only absolute rule on the roads is to keep to the right. Everything else is improvisation. Central to the Hanoi traffic triumph are scooters and very light motorcycles (some of them electric), the occasional moped and even bicycles.

To the more than three million scooters, most of which take to the streets daily, add the skill, courtesy and physical courage of the riders. They weave, dodge, brake, swerve, swoop, accelerate and slow in what, to American (or Australian) eyes, is an unscripted ballet with a cast of millions. The dance is known, but the choreography is new by the split-second.’ (Lewellyn King – The Huffington Post)

The whole thing is a triumph of chaos over system. On more than one occasion we stopped and stood on the corner of two intersecting streets and watched as the opposing streams of traffic met. It was fascinating because nobody stops, the traffic just merges through itself.

Then there is the honking. A cacophony (I love that word) that greets your ears with a level of sensory input to match that provided for the eyes. Scooter drivers are just like bats and whales. They navigate and communicate by sending out sound waves to the other drivers to let each other know they are there. Honking also seems to be correlated with speed. The faster you go the more you honk. Those exceeding the speed limit, if there was one, just ride through town sending out honks to rival any master of Morse code. It’s wearing. So wearing Oliver started to fight back. Yelling out his own ‘beeps’ to warn the scooters that there were now pedestrians that needed to be accommodated on the asphalt.

Into this scene we inserted ourselves each day, bracing as we left the sanctuary of the Hanoi Hotel3B. When we were in Bangkok, Paul (my older brother that is) told us a story about a driver he had once in India. Paul had asked this driver how he negotiated India’s traffic chaos, to which the Indian Driver had replied, ‘Be confident’! I imagined this coming out in a thick Indian accent.

So, ‘Be confident!’ became our street crossing mantra. There is no point waiting for a break in traffic. There are none. There is no point waiting for the lights to change, there are very few. Rather you must have

‘…the patience and boldness to know that the river of motorcycles, a river that ebbs and rises, but never ceases, will accommodate you’(Lewellyn King – The Huffington Post)

Be confident!

So we were. Sort of. Perhaps we were boldly timid, or timidly bold. Emma and I gripped Amy and Oliver’s hands tightly and probably issued ten times more instructions on where and when to step than they were ok with. Hanoi is a tough place to give the freedom to grow and still ensure everyone makes it home in one piece.

We did however get better at it with each foray away from our hotel. We shopped, successfully purchasing four new beanies to keep us warm in the cool Hanoi weather, but unsuccessfully searching for new sandals for Amy. We tracked down familiar banking institutions; we took in the sites including Hoan Kiem Lake, the Ngoc Son temple (built in the 14th Century in honour of a war hero, Tran Hung Dao, who thrice repelled the mongol hordes from China in the 12th century) and its famous red bridge and the Vietnam Military museum; and we navigated our way to the Indochina Junk offices to finalise arrangements for our trip to Halong Bay.

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Beanie selfie

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How could we not find anything suitable here??  Cinderella?

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At the Ngoc Son Temple

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Red Bridge to Ngoc Son Temple

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Military museum sculpture from bomber wreckage

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Everywhere there is an opportunity for commerce

After our Halong Bay visit, and with new friends at our side we explored the street food scene. Ryan and Kami, and their children Sage and Indy had been on a street foods tour before we met them and we soon found ourselves benefitting from their local knowledge. We ate some amazing food, including this indescribably good chocolate egg nog type drink (I dunno how else to describe it), in places that we would not have given a second glance, or even found for that matter.

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Chocolate egg nog surprise (Oliver didn’t want to stop eating for a photo)

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Watching a street performance with new friends

We left Hanoi at 10.00pm on our last day, catching the sleeper train to Danang. So adept were we at navigating the chaos we walked all the way to the train station with packs on and Amy and Oliver unrestrained for the most part by their parent’s hands. We were becoming (a bit more) confident!

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Hanoi train station – waiting for 10pm to come

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Intrepid urban hikers of Hanoi

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