A symphony of engines, humming a tune that crescendos as the light turns green and they speed on. Horns pierce the air like crashing cymbals. Exhaust fumes fill the air and mix with oriental spices leaving a specific aroma. A romantic way to look at the hectic, swarms of mopeds and motorbikes that makeup the streets of Hanoi.
Although it is sort of like a dance, watching them move about. Crisscrossing like square dancers, circle left, do-si-do and promenade, all moving somewhat seamlessly across intersections while dodging pedestrians, tour buses, taxi cabs, animals, and the onslaught of motorbikes coming from the other direction.
Mopeds are definitely the most popular and easiest way to get around. The streets are littered with them both on and off the roads. Motorbike parking takes up every sidewalk and storefront and in busy areas motorbike parking attendants will take your bike, squeeze it in somewhere and give you a tag like a coat check.
Sound like something that you would want to try? Well, when in Vietnam! Our AirBnB had an old moped for rent for $5 a day so we figured that we’d try it and if it’s too crazy, no harm done. Mark set off on his own for a while to get the feel of the roads before coming back to put me on the back. It’s not uncommon to witness one or more passengers dangling off the back of one of these things. The most I’ve seen so far is 4 people. Everything from two girls sidesaddle, a toddler standing up squeezed in between parents, cellphones, chickens, balloons and this kid (below) calmly eating an ice cream cone.
It’s not actually so bad. You follow the swarms, and you almost feel safer on the bike than as a pedestrian (thanks to Mark’s great driving skills). Trying to cross the road walking is a feat in itself. Even if there is a “walk” sign at a traffic light, that doesn’t mean the traffic stops. It never stops. As you look out into the typhoon of mopeds, you briefly consider living out the rest of your existence on this side of the road. Finally you summon the courage to slowly step off the curb and meander into the street, letting the hoards of bikes swarm around you like water around rock. The pace is crucial, too fast and they don’t veer in time, too slow they honk and don’t veer at the right angle. When all else fails, wait for a local and go when they go; we’re talking full on human shield.
A welcome relief comes every weekend, where some of the streets in the Old Quarter get blocked off and it becomes a pedestrian centre, with performers, stalls and food vendors. What it also creates is an excellent opportunity for young kids to go up to those foreigners wandering about and practice their English.
We were approached by a woman with two girls, who wanted to practice their English skills. Aged 6 and 13, these girls chatted with us for about 15 minutes using a binder of English/Vietnamese phrases as a guide. It was a lot of fun, learning about them and telling them about ourselves. So much so that we walked around more to try and get approached again. We did, this time by 3 kids about 12 years old, who lived in small village about 45 minutes away from Hanoi. They said they come into the city every weekend to come and talk with tourists to practice their English skills. These kids were much more advanced than the last, being able to speak quite freely with no assistance. Besides practicing with strangers, my girl said she watched Tom and Jerry cartoons and Mr. Bean to learn English. Her aspiration was to become an English teacher and her dream was to study at Oxford University in England. An obviously bright girl, with great courage and ambition randomly speaking to strangers in a foreign tongue. I hope her dreams come true.