We?d spent the morning sightseeing – walking about 6km between two pagodas somewhere outside Hanoi. The bus had ferried us there and back and we eagerly stared out at the chaotic traffic we?d soon be cycling through: there are 78 million Vietnamese and 50% of them have mopeds, it seems the rest have bicycles. It?s a fascinating living experiment in 2 wheeled transport in which the participants seem to care little for the niceties of traffic lanes, hand signals or actually ANYTHING except pointing their vehicle in the desired direction. But even the wonderful free-form traffic could not prepare us for the afternoon?s main event: a cyclo tour of old Hanoi.
Imagine a comfy steel chair suspended between two bicycle wheels. Behind the chair is a bike seat, 2 pedals and a third wheel. This is a cyclo and you sit in the front while some poor bastard pedals his heart out behind you and points you directly at the 3 million residents of Hanoi all hell-bent on cycling, mopedding, running, walking or driving somewhere before tea-time. Some of them are going your way – most of them aren?t and they?re carrying a mind-boggling collection of cargo as they pedal and scoot hither and thither. Favourite moped cargo option: the rest of your family – all four of them. Typical cyclo option: a battered three piece suite including sofa, 2 easy chairs and footstools. Possible bicycle option: 20 metal buckets, a full length mirror (in it?s frame) and a pig. When it comes to the ?Remarkable two wheeled cargo options? section of the next All Asian Bicycle Olympics I expect the Vietnamese to be the clear winners – they will sweep the gold in both artistic and technical categories.
And every moped has a horn which, it seems, is directly connected to both the throttle and the brakes and every cyclist could care less. And so you start your tour amidst the cacophonous honking and buzzing of 2 stroke engines. You approach the Opera House where 3 different weddings have simultaneously reached that picture-on-the-steps moment and five roads meet at one point. There are no traffic lights and, as there doesn?t appear to be a single traffic cop in the entire country, the thousands of travellers converging on this junction just merge, swerve, dodge and avoid and somehow come out the other side. The locals emerge nonchalant while the tourist Johnnies (i.e. me) emerge breathless and aghast with eyes like saucers and heartbeats like Gattling guns.
You start to notice that a piece of pavement and a wall is a perfect location for a haircut; a rebuild on a Honda 50; a post-abattoir meat dressing station or any number of other occupations that might normally require a license, a sense of hygiene or some form of specialized work surface more complex than a dusty flagstone with an adjacent gutter of stagnant, oily water.
You turn a corner and suddenly you?re in old Hanoi proper. One street is full of stores selling nothing but cheap plastic toys; another is filled with leather jacket shops; two blocks are populated entirely with businesses manufacturing headstones – the marble is cut, carved and polished on the pavement while pedestrians carrying live ducks step over the cables running to the water cooled power saws whose fluids pour into the gutter. Another area is filled with steel-working businesses – gratings and steel doors are being manufactured on the sidewalk while chickens, dogs and three year-olds play amongst the welding torches and rusty steel shavings. The front of a one room shop is all business – manufacturing plant, storage facility, sales office and showroom, whilst the back of the tiny establishment serves as granny flat, TV room, kitchen, laundry space and bedroom. So much activity is going on it?s truly impossible to absorb all the tasks that are simultaneously being accomplished in such close proximity.
Then you notice the faces. The people are busy, focused, happy, talkative, smiling and productive. You are so astonished and mesmerized by it all that you realise it is more stimulating than anything that could be dreamt up by the star performers of the combined R&D departments of both Universal and Disney Theme parks. Like a goldfish with lock-jaw your mouth has been open in awe and wonder for an hour and you step from your cyclo wishing you could do it all over again – those 60 minutes were as spectacular and as breath-taking as ANYTHING you have witnessed in your entire life!