I never finished writing about New Zealand last year, work just got too busy. We rode all around the South Island, it was nice, I’ll write it up sometime. (And here’s a plug for a good gig- if you’re interested in being a bike tour guide or mechanic, we’re crazy short staffed. Work in the summer, travel in the winter! This to can be yours! We need people bad. Check it out here: Wilderness Voyageurs).
Anyway, I did a quick ride around my old stomping grounds in Greensburg before packing up. Still grey, sloppy, and fun.
Then we flew a long way.
“This way to Hanoi?” I ask a girl from Korean Air holding a sign. We just landed in Seoul, only 10 minutes before our connecting flight. We were delayed in a snowstorm back in JFK, sat on the runway for three hours waiting for the big dinosaur looking trucks to come around and spray the airplane antifreeze.
She flips the sign around. “This you name?” I nod. “Come with me,” she says, and starts to sprint through the terminal. Colleen and I run after her, clomp along the moving walkways, weave around wheely bags and slow walkers.
She’s fast, and the Korean Air flight attendant uniform isn’t exactly athletic wear. Two-inch heels, a tight skirt, tight button down jacket, and lipstick, hair in a tight bun, and a little blue bow to top it off. I follow kinda close trying to figure out if she’s even breathing hard, or if she’s some kind of android super attendant. She’s breathing. So she’s just a regular Korean super attendant.
We make it to the other terminal (probably ran a mile) right at the departure time.
“Thanks so much. And you’re real fast in those shoes,” I say. We never would have figured out where to go in time without her. She smiles and does a little bow, and we head onto the airplane.
“That was awesome,” Colleen says.
“I know, can you imagine landing in Atlanta or something and having somebody run you to your flight?”
We land in Hanoi four hours later, and pay for our visas. The only hitch there is that the officials won’t loan us a pen, so we wander around for a while and beg other travelers to use their pens.
Bikes were delayed, which we figured would happen after the mess in New York. But when we go to check on them, the guy at the Vietnam Airlines desk tells us they’ll be there in an hour. Sweet. Colleen gets a coffee, I grab a beer and we sit outside on the immaculately shiny granite plaza.
After we build the bikes, we head off down the highway to Hanoi. The airport was all shiny and pristine, but as soon as we leave the terminal it’s all Vietnam.
Clattering diesels, putting scooters, dried up fields on fire, smoke, trash on fire, meat of fire, welding, grinding, stone carving, water buffalo, cows, noise, horns, horns, horns everybody blowing their horn.
Cross the bridge over the Red River, haze over the city. Red tile roofs, concrete buildings.
The first roundabout is terrifying. I follow a wave of scooters into another wave of scooters, glancing behind to make sure Colleen is still there. Then we’re rushing along in the stream of traffic, I’ve done a fair amount of city riding but nothing anything like this. No rules, no stopping, constant steady forward motion.
I look down to check my OsmAnd app as we wind through the city. So glad for this thing, it’d take four times as long to get through here with a paper map. There are streets on streets, tiny alley ways and sharp turns. And Hanoi is a big city, more than eight million people.
We ride through the gate into the Old Quarter, where the tight crazy city is even tighter and crazier, and make the confusing series of turns to get to the Flipside Hostel. Free beer at the desk, awesome room with a balcony. Wind down.
Before we came here, I’d read a paragraph in the Lonely Planet about horn use, and those few sentences made buying the book worth it. When we landed, I already had it in my mind to ignore them which lowered my stress level biggly.
People don’t honk their horns here because they’re angry, and they don’t honk at you. They honk at everything in general. Honk to signal a pass, signal a turn, signal slowing, stopping, honk around a corner, through an intersection, while pulling onto a street. Everywhere and at everything. Some people just have beepers on their cars and bikes that go constantly.
It’s like the honk I do at home through a little tunnel where I can’t see oncoming traffic.
Going through an intersection is very straight forward- you just ride right into a blob of about 5000 oncoming bikes, and assume that everyone will weave around each other.
Bikes avoid each other (I’ve only seen one bike on bike fender bender so far). Cars and trucks do not move and expect bikes to do whatever it takes to avoid them.
Sometimes people stop at traffic lights, unless it’s more convenient to blow through them.
Sometimes people go the correct way through the roundabout, unless it’s more convent to go the wrong way.
And people almost always drive on the right side of the road, unless it’s more convenient to drive on the left.
So those are the traffic rules.
The next day we go out walking in Hanoi. We hit the first obstacle when we step out the hostel door.
How are we supposed to cross the street? It kinda made sense when we were riding, but on foot I have no clue, everyone is moving all the time, so there’s no break in the traffic.
Then I see a little old lady step into the road. She walks deliberately, and like a stone in the river the scooters flow around her.
Ok, gonna have to try it. We step slowly into the stream, and it works! Hundreds of bikes flow past changing course honking and buzzing to avoid us. We reach the other sidewalk, my heart rate doubled.
Terrifying. I’m so lost here.
A very very quick Vietnam primer as I understand it, I’m certainly not any sort of expert:
Vietnam has been occupied by foreign powers for almost it’s entire history. First by the Chinese, then the French, briefly the Japanese during WWII, then again the French.
When the Viet Minh were fighting for independence against the French after WWII, Ho Chi Minh actually wrote a letter to President Truman asking for support. Thomas Jefferson was one of his major influences, and he thought that as a former colony, surely America would support the Vietnamese independence movement.
But the French insisted that if America interfered with her fight to win back her colonies, France may have to move to the Soviet sphere of influence. So we sided with the French. JFK authorized bombing missions, then more bombing.
The French were driven out, America took up the fight to prevent the spread of communism, things snowballed in a very horrible and unfortunate way. Lots of smart people knew right from the start that it would be a disaster to get heavily involved in a war here, but we did it anyway. Partly because of the communism thing, mostly because it would be embarrassing to lose.
But we lost (in school I was taught that the war was a draw, though I have no idea how you could spin it that way). Saigon fell, was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, and the country was unified and independent.
Vietnam had another war with China, relaxed the Communism stuff, and now everyone wears knockoff North Face puffy coats. They’re nice knockoffs, I don’t know if the factory just makes extras or what.
Vietnam, when you read the word you probably think of all sorts of horrible things. For my parents generation it rightfully means all sorts of horrible things.
Today, I can go skate at Lenin Square and have a very pleasant day. The world’s a funny place.