Hanoi - The Old Quarter
Trip Start May 01, 2010
85Trip End May 01, 2011
A five minute walk down the street will take you through immense crowds of people - every square foot of space is taken up by parked scooters, food stuffs, people eating on little stools, raw meat, wobbly concrete slabs or old, gnarled tree roots stubbornly breaking through stone to reach the surface
Vietnam is renowned for its motorcycle traffic, particularly the number of motorcycle related deaths which is estimated between 12,000 and 24,000 per year – compare that to the UK’s 3,000 annual traffic related fatalities and the figure is astonishing, especially when you consider the two countries have relatively similar populations.
The way the traffic system works is still a mystery to me despite spending over a week analyzing it. Organised chaos would be an understatement. About 60% of the motorbikes I have seen do not have mirrors – and I am yet to see someone that owns mirrors actually use them – nor are indicators ever really used. On single lane roads it is not uncommon to see three rows of traffic per side criss-crossing amongst one another. Most of the city operates on a system not dissimilar to a grid network, meaning there are many junctions which do not have traffic lights. Therefore, at certain times, you can have six rows of motorcycles converging on the centre of a crossroads at the same time and all travelling in different directions. What amazes me is that there is no real thinking involved, it just happens and, remarkably, it works
Of everything we had read about Hanoi - and that we had been told about from other travelers - there was one tip which remained consistent; the “key” to crossing the road as a pedestrian. In much the same way as above, the trick is to simply step out in front of the traffic and walk at a calm and consistent pace, do NOT stop suddenly, do NOT quickly change your speed. The idea being that the traffic will avoid you at the last moment. When hearing this I thought to myself “it’s okay, I’ll just wait for a gap in the traffic and then sprint across” – there’s one pretty major problem with this; there’s never a gap in the traffic.
One thing which had an impact on the intensity of our stay in Hanoi is that we arrived during the build up to the Tet Festival – the Vietnamese celebration of the lunar New Year. For the Vietnamese, Tet is both Christmas and New Year rolled into one and is as important as both combined! This definitely lead to a higher influx of traffic as people made last minute arrangements and bought ‘lucky’ gifts for loved ones – a favourite being the small kumquat tree. Never again will I be surprised by what I see on a motorcycle! So far we have witnessed; five people squashed together, two people and a full length mirror, three people and a tree, two people and two pigs, three people and a metallic coat-stand… the list really does go on
We didn’t actually do much sightseeing while we were in Hanoi as we knew that we would soon be meeting up with Rachael’s parents, and we wanted to leave some things to do together. As a result we simply spent time soaking up the insanity, generally wandering around and mastering the skill of crossing the road without losing any limbs. We walked around the lake and saw many couples having pre-wedding photos taken against the backdrop. One evening we decided that we would treat ourselves to some tapas and found a lovely French run restaurant which made excellent food. We also visited the Ngoc Son temple which is situated on a little island in the middle of Huan Kiem (meaning Lake of the Restored Sword) lake where, according to legend, emperor Le Loi handed a magic sword back to the Golden Turtle God who lived beneath the waters.
The sightseeing was further hindered by Rachael getting a minor chest infection so a couple of our days were spent in bed, well, not for me, I was out dodging traffic to gather food and medicine! The timing of Rach’s poorly chest was not great as we had booked a tour to visit one of Northern Vietnam’s highlights – the famous Halong Bay.