With the sights sounds and smells of Beijing still fresh in my mind, it was time to turn my attention to the next adventure east, Vietnam. As a person who was raised in the 1960’s and subsequently fed a diet of Vietnam war films, (Full Metal Jacket to Good Morning Vietnam) my impression of the country was to say the least, tainted. It still is a communist country, but its also a place that appears to want to move forward and not repeat the mistakes of the past. Its past is not just about the war with America, the Chinese then the French got there first.
Indochina as it was known was ruled with an iron fist in the 19th Century by the French and it took until 1954 for the Vietnamese under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh to finally shake off French control and gain independence only to face the American invasion the following year.
The “Hanoi Hilton” is the notorious jail built by the French during their occupation. Conditions for the incarcerated Vietnamese under that brutal regime were truly appalling. Isolation cells sending prisoners mad, bad food rations, beatings and executions were a daily occurrence. Many died in that awful place. Our trip was to include a visit to this infamous hell hole, now a museum.
The war with America raged until 1972 and divided the country. Its effects can still be seen in the faces of the elderly, they rarely smile at westerners until they realise you have noticed this, then a most warm and welcoming smile fills their faces. They are by all accounts a very forgiving and generous people.
So with decades of wars and invasions the country’s infrastructure has a unique blend of old Chinese and western architecture, mixed now with high rise tower blocks that are now appearing all over Hanoi. Many of these tower blocks are built by the side of wide open rice fields, giving an impression of both the old and new Vietnam. The rice fields are punctuated by the occasional farmer shin deep in water wearing the traditional nón lá (leaf hat), wide triangular conical shaped woven hats, tied under the chin with cloth.
One look around Hanoi and many of the poorer workforce are also wearing the same hats, punctuated this time by the occasional western tourist sporting their newly acquired conical souvenir hat and not attracting even a second look by the locals. The Vietnamese middle classes won’t wear them, they are hats for field workers…..
Hanoi is famous for its traffic. Its everywhere. In the smaller side streets the pavement is for parking and extending your shop front stall, the road is for everything else. King of this labyrinth is the motorcycle. Within a few days of arriving I had reached two conclusions. 1. there isn’t anything a Vietnamese won’t strap to his bike and 2. all backstreet crossroads carry no road markings.
I saw impossible loads with barely enough space for the rider, to seven young pigs in a cage system strapped to the rear seat on their way to market but the most incredible was a full grown cow trussed into a wire cylinder and strapped across the rear seat of a Honda Dream travelling at 40mph on the Vietnam equivalent of the motorway. The cow appeared to be enjoying the experience….
So how does a Vietnamese on a motorbike (with or without cow) negotiate the crossroads if there are no road markings? Like the punch line from a very bad joke the answer is simple – very carefully.
I sat one afternoon on a junction in the old quarter for twenty minutes and watched the most surreal motorcycle display team perform before my eyes and in all that time there was not one impact. This is even more amazing when you add, pedestrians, taxis, tourists, street sellers and boy racers to the mix. Their crazy system works for them. Everyone gives way to everyone else, prompted by a blast on the horn of course. Accidents though I am told later do happen and happen frequently, but in three weeks I saw only one, and that was a motorcycle where the load moved and tipped the bike over. The traffic is one of the most lasting memories of the trip.
Saturday night as viewed from the rooftop restaurant. Amazing spectacle if a little noisy.