Drive Around The World (Australia)

One family, one car, one year, one planet

Hanoi, Vietnam, Day 81-92, 20 June-2 July 2008

Hanoi, Vietnam, Day 81-92, 20 June-2 July 2008


‘Gridlock’ – Warren Zevon / The Pogues

‘Charlie Don’t Surf – The Clash

‘Giải phóng miền Nam’ (Liberate the South) – Huỳnh Minh Siêng

‘California, Here I Come’ – Al Jolson


DB: Our arrival at the new and impressive Bangkok international airport was straightforward, as was our check-in. We had about ninety minutes to kill and we meandered up to a swank café for morning tea and to read the papers. Keeping our eye on the Departures board that blinked exotic destinations and airlines in Thai and English, all was in order in the world.

Our airline, Air France, had given each of us cute little stickers for our lapels (OK, T-shirts), and, only once we started making our way to our gate lounge did we begin to understand their purpose. An airport official honed in on us and exclaimed “Air France – quickly!” We weren’t sure what this meant – the plane was not to commence boarding for another fifteen minutes and the gate lounge was visible from where we were. “Quickly!”

We started jogging, thinking maybe our watches had simultaneously slowed. But then again, all the airport clocks and boards were on time. What’s the hurry?

We got to the gate lounge and went through that merry dance of security checks and bag-scanning. All fine there, but what did concern us was we were the only passengers there. “Quickly!” Maddy needed the bathroom, to which she was directed. Looking frantically at our plane through the large airport windows I was willing the pilot to keep his foot on the brake, or whatever it is they do. Maddy got back and we barrelled down the air-bridge. “Bonjour,” the friendly and tastefully attired air steward greeted us. What was going on? We’re still early.

We made our way to our seats and observed that the plane was not full. We taxied and took off. Half and hour early. And nobody explained why. I thought that air traffic control was a sort of life-and-death, don’t mess around with it or people could get crunched kind of exact science. It seems not.

Hanoi airport is everything the new Bangkok airport is not; drab, grey, minimalist. I hoped that it was not an indication of the entire city. We sailed through customs and our designated driver – part of the hotel deal we organised – spotted us before we spotted his hand-written sign with my name on it. We squeezed into his little Kia and, in exactly the same movement, he pulled out from the curb and honked his horn. And again. And many, many times after that. I became rather concerned that we had just caught a ride with a complete stranger who was quite mad, but then it became apparent that driving and honking continuously is de rigour for these environs. Even Raffy found it irritating, which is saying something.

The sound of car, truck and scooter horns was to be an almost constant soundtrack for our time in mainland Vietnam. Maddy made the comment that Vietnamese cars and bikes must be built differently; that the default or natural state is for them to have a horn blaring, and only by pushing the centre of a steering wheel or button does the horn stop sounding.

Most cars, it turned out, and some motorbikes and scooters, have car horns that defy logic. They are quite loud and were usually dual toned. Also, many of them alternate between the two tones in a minor third (for all you musicians) like the sound a child makes in those typical teasing songs, like “I’m the king of the castle”. The sounds alternate very quickly, and the really swanky ones play each note as a triplet. Then, if that’s not bad enough, the most outrageous ones repeat and fade, with a reverb or echo effect at the end. In the end they sound like a French ambulance driving off into the distance. So, you end up with these little cars and scooters – almost all of them – playing music to each other. Constantly.

Again, it sounds naive, but I was absolutely certain that someone was going to get maimed or killed during that drive from the airport to our hotel. And we thought Bangkok traffic was a bit gnarly. As we were to learn rather hastily, there is only one rule on Vietnam’s roads – big wins. Scooters were simply shoved out of the way by an oncoming vehicle. Large vehicles drove on the wrong side of the road, no matter what was ahead or how concerning a blind turn might be. I shut my eyes and put my trust in the driver.

We were presented to our hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi and we made our way to our room. Raffy had woken up that morning in Bangkok with a runny nose and his cold had progressively well and truly settled in during the flight, sleeping most of the time on my lap. He was in no shape to head back out and explore the city, so Sandy stayed with him while Maddy and I hailed a cyclo – a man-powered three-wheeler – to get our bearings and explore.

By the time we got back to the hotel, Maddy had faded quickly and the look on Sandy’s face told me that she too had succumbed. By the next morning all three were sneezing, blowing, snorting, groaning and lying very still. And so, for the next four or five days I made short walking trips around the Old and French quarters via the supermarket to buy instant noodles, tissues and drinking water.

It was quite a strange and novel experience heading out into an unfamiliar and exotic city on my own. I gave myself a couple of hours at a time before heading back to the MASH unit that was our hotel room to essentially get lost, then determine my location on my map and head back. I became quite deft at negotiating the crazy, constant traffic and deciphering local delicacies, and was able to cover bigger distances without the kids.

Traffic in Asian cities is legendary, and no more so than Hanoi. In particular, the Old Quarter, which was developed long before mechanised transportation, but that doesn’t seem to concern Hanoians. People are often faced with the ridiculous scene of gridlock, with a van or, incongruously, a flashy black Mercedes Benz CL AMG trying to get around a swarm of scooters, cyclos, street vendors and an illegally parked car.

(Pic: Scooter parking only on the footpath)

But the most difficult part of negotiating the Old Quarter on foot was that the footpath had been unceremoniously annexed by scooters for parking, meaning pedestrians are forced onto the roadway to get through. It might be some sort of analogy of the results of the industrialisation of the world, but the motorised machine has taken all the space of foot travellers and shoved them out of the way. Obviously this entails its own dangers as there are drivers and riders flying past seemingly oblivious to your existence while you walk along the road.

And if that’s not bad enough, it seems that not only are most scooter riders unlicensed, but they are not required to adhere to any road rules whatsoever. That means that they can fly through red lights, through pedestrian crossings and along footpaths – even narrow isles in markets. And they are literally everywhere – we were told that Hanoi has 4.5 million people and 3.5 million motorbikes. Given they swarm constantly it provides a certain challenge to accomplish the most simple of tasks, such as crossing the road. Initially my strategy was to simply wait for a break in traffic, but after what seemed like an eternity of watching a continuous noisy flow, and having locals stare at me incredulously, I needed to be braver. I began observing the locals and how they negotiated this unrelenting torrent of albeit relatively slow-moving scooter mayhem, and noted that they embarked on one of the most skilful, deft and dexterous manoeuvres imaginable: they simply stepped into the road and crossed. The scooters would glide past like a school of fish slipping past a piece of coral, the phalanx meeting up again having past within millimetres of you. Cars would be a little more difficult, but given they were so greatly outnumbered by scooters it hardly mattered.

So, after honing this skill, I was able to traverse quite large distances through the Old and French Quarters of Hanoi by staring straight ahead and walking into the motorised morass.

And, given that there is so much traffic, all the time, it is a testament to the drivers and riders that so few accidents occur in the city – the one we saw was when a scooter rider with a passenger ploughed into the back of another after being distracted by a bunch of tourists. The bulk of the carnage on the roads, it seems, happens where vehicles get up some speed outside the city areas.

(Pic: Some of the local delicacies seemed a bit too weird)

Our first morning in Hanoi commenced with a fanfare of announcements blasted from public address system speakers that were perilously attached to power poles throughout the area. We were told that the entire system is a remnant of the ‘American War’, and was used now by local authorities to provide reminders and direction to the proletariat about a range of important issues, such as the danger in using illegal fireworks, the illegal trade and consumption of wild animal products, and, disturbingly, encouragement to get your regular rabies shots. All fine and well, but this was a few minutes after six in the morning. Of course as we weren’t yet fluent in Vietnamese, we didn’t know what the announcements were all about. But it did go on, though. And, given this was our first morning, we surmised that this must be a daily occurrence (it was difficult asking locals about it as they seemed a little discomfited, and I wondered if they were a little fearful of making any comments about government procedure). Thankfully we did not hear similar announcements again until almost two weeks later when they occurred daily, and at irregular hours.


(Pic: A tube house, Old Quarter)

I quickly became fascinated by Hanoi’s narrow buildings, or ‘tube houses’. In the Old Quarter especially, shops, businesses, restaurants and hotels were often less than three of four metres wide, yet were long and tall. It seems that an ancient decree determined that tax on properties would be calculated according to its width, and hence people quickly learned to construct buildings as narrow as possible. This made traversing the Old Quarter even more rewarding as so much was packed into such a relatively small space. Every few steps presented a new premises with something unique to explore. Given that the commercial pursuits took place at the front on the ground floor, my exploration of small alleyways gave me an insight into the daily lives of Hanoians who lived and toiled behind and above their businesses.

Of course, pandering to the tourist dollar is a national sport, considering the desire for ‘hard currency’. Shopping again was sometimes overwhelming, but we mostly spent our time investigating local crafts. Working out the exchange rate was a challenge, and its result often provided us with wallets that would not close. During our time in Vietnam one Australian dollar equalled 15,640 Vietnamese Dong, which meant that we were sometimes millionaires. I had experienced this before in Poland, and could rationalise being in the possession of such wads of cash, but it was hard not to be reminded of the privileges of having a western bank account with western savings in it. For example, Bia Hoi shops and stalls sold local beer on the pavement. One particular intersection of five streets boasted four such stalls on corners, often frequented by tourists in search of a handy locale to rest the feet, cool off and watch the world go by. Even with problematic inflation rates, I still paid about twenty Australian cents for a glass of cold beer. Cheap for me, but not necessarily for the locals.

I visited Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum by hiring a ‘xe ôm’ (literally, “hug vehicle”) – a motorcycle taxi that is essentially unregistered, with its driver unlicensed. It is officially illegal, but not only tolerated but heavily relied upon by locals. They are everywhere, on every corner. “Hey, motorbike? Where you want to go?” is something I would be asked several hundred times a day. And, sometimes after I would politely decline their offer, an enterprising xe ôm rider would offer something else. Now, I know I haven’t had a haircut since just before leaving Melbourne, but I became paranoid that I looked like some spaced-out stoner, as the next question from the xe ôm rider was, simply, “Marijuana?” Was everyone asked or just me?

(Pic: The austere Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum)

After reaching the mausoleum complex I went through the tedious sequence of tasks of queuing up, security searches and ticketed registrations to view ‘Uncle Ho’s’ body. I had to check my daypack at one office at the entrance to the vast grounds, be assigned a special bag for my camera, which was then checked at another office prior to entering the actual mausoleum, stand in an orderly queue, not deviate from the required path, remove my sunglasses, and then upon entering the building keep walking along a raised platform without stopping, while admiring the man still held in such hight regard. A sort of rigmarole of rigor mortis, if you will. The thing behind the glass case really could have been anything – a wax figure, a manikin, Joan Rivers – but he was someone who Vietnamese obviously hold in high regard as there were hundreds of people there.

Rather less popular, it seemed, was the Ho Chi Minh museum – a rather large house in the Old Quarter that was his home and office when he was directing liberation and independence efforts, and where he wrote and proclaimed a unified Vietnamese independence. We were the only ones there, and the staff seemed resolute in their disinterest. Most labels of the dusty and rapidly decaying items were not translated into other languages, and hence remain unidentified by us.

Once Sandy, Maddy and Raffy were up to it, I took them to a market I had stumbled across that served the locals fresh produce including a local delicacy – dog. We remain oblivious as to what parboiled pooch, fried Fido or sautéed Spot tastes like, but I did note that there were far fewer strays in Hanoi as compared to our previous location, Bangkok.

Different streets in the Old Quarter were often dedicated to the creation, manufacturing or sale of particular goods or services. Historically, residents of particular streets trained and worked in particular professions pertaining to that street, and today entire streets can be dedicated to a single vocation – metal work, carving, silk, yarn and sewing (Hang Bo [Bo Street]), linen and bedding (Hang Dieu), or fresh and artificial flowers (Hang Ruoi). Work would be carried out not only on the premises, but on the footpath and on the street. And, it became obvious that in a world of disposable products and inbuilt obsolescence, everything in Hanoi was fixable. In Melbourne, if an electric fan stopped working it was put on the nature strip for some other poor schmo to take home or stuffed in the bin. In Hanoi, it was stripped, the electric motor rewound, the whole lot cleaned and was running again in no time. Everything was repaired on the footpaths of Hanoi from small gadgets to motor scooters and cars. Nothing went to waste. So much for western ideas on recycling.

(Pic: Remnants of the French occupation)

Of course, the influence of previous colonists, the French, is everywhere. I found it fascinating that, even though the French aren’t really remembered all that fondly, to say the least, fragments of French culture, food and language remain. While café culture is firmly entrenched in Hanoi, the quality of the coffee did not seem to catch on. The wide, tree-lined boulevards of the French Quarter, with its grand buildings and gardens are obvious.

SK: There we were, the three of us, feeing miserable, holed up in a hotel room in Hanoi. Why couldn’t this happen in Bangkok! We spent the days watching cable television, alternating between cartoons, Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus concerts and occasionally the news. We ate meals brought in by our fabulous nurturing hunter/gatherer, who also brought tales of the fascinating city just outside the door.


(Pic: Some stalls specialise in traditional tombstones, but who’s this?)

Finally, we were up to exploring. Slowly at first, each day we covered more ground, and experienced first hand that which Danny had told us about. Silk, handcrafts, shoes, bags, food, beer and more silk. So overwhelming that after the first day of wanting everything, I soon decided I needed nothing.

Maddy and Raffy were at first quite overwhelmed by the traffic, noise and people, but soon got into the swing of it. They crossed roads staring straight ahead as the traffic flowed around them, ate everything put in front of them (their favourite – caramelised squid), and didn’t mind being called “baby” by the locals.

(Pic: Flower seller)

While waiting in the bank queue, I watched an elderly woman in her ao dai  (traditional dress) and non la (conical hat) negotiate the layers of contemporary bank culture. Forms completed in triplicate, signed, printed, signed again … overseen by a younger relative in jeans, brand name sneakers and a polo shirt (collar up). She would have seen life pre-Uncle Ho, the American War, post war struggles, and the opening up of the country to tourism and external capitalism. The country has developed so much in the last 20 years since the government has seen the potential of market economies. What must she make of it all? We would have liked the opportunity to chat with local people, to see how they minded the great influx of tourists, the dominance of foreign currencies, the changes they were experiencing, but people were reluctant to be drawn into discussions, and we needed to respect this.

(Pic: Maddy and Sandy enjoy a cyclo ride)

DB: Some other Hanoi staples, such as a show at the famed water puppet theatre, the Museum of Ethnology, the Tube House Museum in Ma May Street, markets, the Lake of the Returned Sword and a visit to the Temple of Literature were thoroughly enjoyed.

SK: The Temple of Literature was amazing – a university almost a millennia old and still intact! For good luck we rubbed the heads of stone turtles, on whose back sat stellae engraved with the names of graduates over the last 700 years.

(Pic: Halong Bay)

DB: Once Sandy, Maddy and Raffy were better we began planning our sojourn to the famed Halong Bay. After reading about various recommended tour operators – as well as those who some wanted to hang, draw and quarter – we made our selection – Wide Eyed Tours. A day and a half later we were on a mini-bus for the three-hour journey through the Red River delta (I learned it was so named due to its colour, not its current ideology) to Halong City and gathered with hundreds of other tourists, hoping we didn’t get lost or forgotten. On the way we passed the Long Bien Bridge, a beautiful old iron structure designed by Gustav Eiffel and built in 1903. Then, a short boat ride to the main boat – a timber vessel that looked somewhat akin to a Chinese junk. We were a little nervous as there seemed to be hundreds of similar boats as far as the eye could see moored near the shore, and we wondered if this wasn’t just another tourist hole. Yet all was well. We sailed into the sunshine and clear, blue waters of Halong Bay and were served the first of our sumptuous meals. We were taken to see the Surprise Cave (still not sure what the surprise was, other than it was quite extraordinary), and to a traditional floating fishing village. Maddy and I paddled in a canoe to another cave, and we all dived off the boat at sunset for swims in the sea.

(Pic: Danny on the boat in Halong Bay)

The bay is famous for its soaring limestone peaks – islands of sheer stone that emerge almost vertical out of the green water. Puttering around the bay, we spent most of the time simply watching these huge peaks, the local fishermen and the cool, calm water.

SK: While Danny and Maddy were kayaking, Raffy and I hung about at one of the floating villages that served as a kayak departure point for a number of tourist boat companies. We saw pens of amazing fish and other sea life. We were equally fascinated with the other seagoing creatures, the large wooden vessels that were jostling to unload their tourist cargo on this seemingly frail little floating jetty. The boats constantly bumped each other, the timber groaning and creaking and making the jetty shudder. Women hawkers in small boats laden with chips, biscuits, beer and soft drink had to deftly manoeuvre out of their way in order not to be sunk. Quite a view of tourist imperialism in action. 

(Pic: Raffy helps out)

DB: Maddy had not hung out with anyone her age since leaving Singapore, but it was on this modest cruiser that she hooked up with Kiya. She was travelling with her family from Tasmania and, after eyeing each other up for a couple of hours, became inseparable, including gasbagging the whole bus journey back to Hanoi while everyone else dozed.

As mentioned in previous posts, I enjoy reading local newspapers to get a sense of local issues and responses. In Hanoi I read the Viet Nam News. Being a country of communist authority since the American War, it is obviously a state-endorsed propaganda machine that serves to describe and display the greatness of Vietnam and its progress in the modern world without any of the finicky details about how some people are getting on, like low levels of health, support for the needy, etc. Which is not to say that everyone in Vietnam leads a life of abject poverty and misery, but it was difficult to get a picture on some of the real and immediate issues the Vietnamese people face. A particular favourite are stories and colour photos of dignitaries meeting and shaking hands with their clones. For example, on Friday June 27, 2008, the front page had stories of Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nong Duc Manh, with Ju Sang Song, the Security Minister for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; Vietnam National Assembly Chairman Nguyen Phu Trong shaking hands with French Senator Jacques Oudin; and Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung meeting “overseas Vietnamese business leaders and intellectuals” in Houston, Texas. Oh, and a glitzy shot of Miss Universe contestants who were in town. Entire statements from the government are reprinted in full in all their dry, nonsensical politburo-speak, seemingly attempting to describe wondrous developments but not really saying much at all. Usually, the media details developments and relationships with other likeminded countries: North Korea, China and Burma get a pretty good run, while they seem to be rather proud of growing relationships with Algeria and Libya… They, like most south-east Asian nations, are soccer-mad (well, at least the males) and so the current UEFA Cup got more coverage than anything else.

(Pic: Trying out Bia Hoi in Hanoi)

We returned to Hanoi, spent one last day exploring the city, got marooned by a flash-flood that was one of the most exciting things Maddy and Raffy could imagine, and caught a cab to the airport. We trawled the gift shops and succumbed to the drastically overpriced restaurant for a drink, and noticed that not only did everything in the airport only accept US dollars or credit cards, but newspapers were strictly unavailable. This seemed rather odd, and unexplained. For a country that stands resolutely at odds with the west, it was difficult to understand how a state-owned resource like the capital’s airport would only accept a foreign currency – except if you were to cynically suggest that it was a bare-faced attempt at scooping in some hard currency, and that such a system could not stand side by side with an official voice of the regime. At any rate, we left the country with a few hundred thousand dong stuffed in our wallets – notes that we would find impossible to sell at least in LA – and set ourselves for the long haul to the west coast of the infidels. I remember Hanoi most fondly – smiling, happy people happy to assist and converse, and a remnant of a different world in a different time, that no doubt is transforming and disappearing before our very eyes.

(Pic: The rain sets in)

From Hanoi to a quick stop in Taipei, and then the long haul to LA. California, here we come.

(This post dedicated to the late Shirley the wonder chook)



  Peter Quinn wrote @

Hi. I am a long time reader. I wanted to say that I like your blog and the layout.

Peter Quinn

  David Taylor wrote @

Hi Guys, yet another brilliant travelogue. Certainly is fascinating reading. Halong Bay looks wonderful. It makes it so much better, when we have to photos to look at. I completes the word picture. Glad you’re over the colds again. At least you were somewhere that you could get chicken soup.
Bloody cold here, coldest winter for several years. At least we have had some rain, not heaps but some indeed.
Hope you’re all well in the US and happy.
Take care,
Luv & peace, David.

  Hilary wrote @

finally caught up with hanoi, even though i imagine you have long since allowed l.a. and las vegas to pass through you. the recycling you mentioned in hanoi reminds me of descriptions of life in cuba. makes you wonder if these habits of extending the life of machinery a blast from the past or a herald of the future?

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