Lost in Hanoi

Hanoi traffic

"Hanoi traffic" by Chem7 (Flickr)

It’s a 32 degree, humid evening in Hanoi. We have just walked out of our hotel in the Old Quarter, for a casual stroll down to Vincom City shopping mall. We’re on a mission to locate an iPod charger, and pre-book our tickets to the water puppets and the circus. All we have is a fairly sketchy map of a city that’s celebrating its 1000-year anniversary.

There’s no clear CBD here. No skyscrapers, just lots of semi-detached, narrow 5 storey buildings . There appear to be no real planning laws either- which means a mosaic of buildings of varying different colours, heights and styles, all lined up one after the other. Some of these narrow, curving lane-ways are only about 5 metres wide, but contain busy streets of bidirectional traffic. A number of taxis, the odd tourist bus, a few vans, hundreds of motorbikes. Women with conical hats on bicycles carrying giant racks of food and oven parts, serving as mobile shops. The odd cyclo, and street stalls galore. Pedestrians share these narrow lane-ways in the Old Quarter, and each narrow shop front is studded with every kind of shop you could imagine. Convenience stores, clothes shops, fabric stores, souvenir shops, woodwork, artwork shops. Enticing are the T-shirts available 20,000 dong (or $1 USD), and the 7-disc region free DVD box sets for under $10 USD (Yes, we did get them through customs!)

Hanoi Opera House with traffic

Hanoi Opera House with traffic

The roads are sealed, but not always with a kerb. Traffic lights are reserved only for the largest of arterial intersections, and even still, the little flashing green man should be considered only at one’s own risk (and if it’s been flashing for long enough it actually starts running. That’s right, run fast because once that traffic light goes green, a lowly pedestrian isn’t going to get in the way of anyone driving in Hanoi). Around the lake the traffic becomes two or three lanes either side. There’s no real road rules or speed limits here, everyone just pushes in until they get through, and the roads are like running rivers vehicles, predominantly moto-bikes weaving their way from A to B.

After surviving near misses with a number of motos, and getting used to the disorientation of vehicles travelling on the right hand side of the road (so much for a relaxing stroll), the massive pedestrian crossing greets us at first with a modicum of hope, before we finally come to the accurate conclusion that it’s pedestrians that give way to all other vehicles in this city. This, and the fact that people actually only use the right side of the road when it suits them, means that you can forget that “look left, look right” business, and move onto 360 scanning mode as you risk your life weaving between the moto-bikes. Meanwhile, apparently in Hanoi, as a courtesy, every vehicle that overtakes another or sees another vehicle or pedestrian they are passing, beeps its horn. I find the odd horn useful to save a life, when I carelessly cross a road without looking, but here the horns are deafening, chaotic, and at times flourish into celebratory orchestrated patterns of nonsense, and I cease to believe they serve any logical purpose. Even the Vietnamese countrysiders make jokes about the use of car horns in Hanoi.

While we stare in disbelief at the pedestrian crossing (and in fact every time we stop walking for even just a moment to take a breath or look at the map) we are approached by about half a dozen local Vietnamese, gesturing at their vehicle and offering “moto” or “moto-bike”, to courier us to our nominated location for a nominal price. I’m not sure which was more terrifying, the idea of getting on a bike and losing my travel partner, and possibly end up flattened on the road somewhere (although in reality the traffic would probably be going slow enough to stop you doing any significant injury, unless you are old and osteoporotic, or are unable to protect your head), or braving the pedestrian crossing.

An elderly Vietnamese woman in a conical hat suddenly claps the hand of my friend, and starts pushing him gently into the road. Thank god, I breathe a sigh of relief. A local has seen a couple of bewildered tourists and has come to the rescue. Actually, she was far more clever than I realised. Realising her bones were slightly more fragile than ours, she decided to use my friend as a human shield to cross the road. Fortunately, she knew how to weave her way through the motorcycles, or so it seemed anyway. We made it to the other side, and lived to tell the tale.

c?u Thê Húc (Huc Bridge)

c?u Thê Húc (Huc Bridge)

Now only to walk around the lake, and down a few blocks to the Vincom City shopping mall. Fortunately, the ticket office for the Water Puppets is situated directly next to the lake, so it only takes us a few minutes to get our tickets, although all the evening shows are booked out for several nights in advance, and you can’t pre-book tickets except at the ticketing office, so be prepared to get your tickets early if you are intending on going!

Turtle Tower (Tháp Rùa) in Lake Hoàn Ki?m (H? Hoàn Ki?m)

Turtle Tower (Tháp Rùa) in Lake Hoàn Ki?m (H? Hoàn Ki?m)


After a walk around the lake, surveying the beautiful Huc Bridge and Turtle Tower, where we are repeatedly accosted by children selling cheap postcards, and walking past people practising Tai Chi, we finally realise the folly of our attempts to “stroll” down to the shopping centre, and catch a cheaper than $5USD cab down to the Vincom City, which fortunately is air-conditioned and has an Apple shop where we score a charger cord for the iPod.

Water Puppets

Water Puppets


Meanwhile, my map identifies the circus as being three streets away behind a large park. We decide to brave the walk, once again dodging a number of taxis and moto-bikes, past a number of street vendors selling banana fritters out of huge mesh baskets, and the like, and make it to what looks like the east gate of a park. This park is fairly mediocre, but packed, with people walking, jogging, playing soccer, and selling drinks and other items. A lady in bystander’s clothing sits at a little stall near the entrance gate, and calls out to you as she sees you entering so you can pay for your ticket to enter the park, and we make our way slowly through.

The circus is on the other side of the park, a few minutes walk from the north gate. After a ten minute stroll through the park, dodging soccer balls, we arrive at what looks like Hanoi’s permanent circus building, and there is a group of Vietnamese people of various ages sitting around the pavement next to the very closed looking ticket booth. None of them speak English, and I spend about ten minutes explaining that I would like to buy a ticket. On first appearance, this group of Vietnamese women appear to be bystanders, and all they seem to have to say about the circus is “no no tonight, no Saturday”. As I become more persistent, a lady stands up with her handbag, and unlocks the unused ticket booth, and presents a roll of tickets. I’m pretty persistent that I want my Saturday night tickets if possible, although she seems to be overly keen to sell the Sunday ones, despite the Saturday night still being available (and there were lots of empty seats).

Banana'n'Hanoi

Banana'n'Hanoi

After finally managing to score our tickets, we proceed to make our way through the park before realising our ticket only bought us a one way pass through the public park, and it will be another dollar approximately to re-enter. We brave our way around the perimeter instead, with a very keen eye on the traffic.

Now the sun is setting, and after a brief stop for a drink at the shopping centre, we finally make our way back to the lake via taxi, and walk back to our hotel around the lake (the only places where the pavements are vehicle free, and you don’t have to weave your way in-between parked motos.) By this stage, we are both worn out from the heat, fed up, and walking at different paces. Perhaps in hindsight, we should have stopped here on the west front of Lake Hoan Kiem for dinner at the I-box, a plush Vietnamese/Australian fusion restaurant, with three course meals for under US$20 and live piano playing on most nights, or stopped for an exotic milkshake or ice cream sundae at Fanny’s, a very exquisite ice cream parlour where they will make you a banana split called Banana’n'Hanoi, sheltered by a little conical Vietnamese straw hat, like the Vietnamese women in Hanoi wear, who are often seen carrying two baskets on either side of a wooden pole over their shoulder. (In fact, one woman even tried to give me her baskets so she could charge me for the photo opportunity.)

After crouching down to re-tie my shoelace, I look back up and realise my friend has totally disappeared. I don’t believe this. On the other side of the equator, in the searing humidity of northern Vietnam. After we both struggle to come to terms with the fact that we’ve lost each other, I turn to my mobile phone with very little battery left, and make a quick prayer to the Telstra God who invented international roaming, despite its expense. My friend has only enough credit for one text message, and doesn’t know the name of the hotel. He hasn’t yet changed his money so has no local currency with which to hail a taxi, although I’m sure some dodgy moto driver will be more than happy to relieve him of his $50AUD notes.

I have one chance at this. I quickly find my way back to the hotel, where I barely make it onto Google Maps given the hotel’s dodgy wi-fi connection, and get my friend to to text me his address. He is at Tien Dat Fashion, which according to Google Directory is located at 27 Hang Dau (pronounced Hang Zow in Vietnamese). I know where that is, I exclaim to myself, looking at my map. Hang Dao is the main arterial spoke emanating from Lake Hoan Kiem (we have been walking around), which becomes the Dong Xuan night market of an evening.

I quickly traipse my way across the narrow streets again, dodging the motos, to arrive at 27 Hang Dao. Bugger… it either doesn’t exist, or I’ve got the wrong address. This is a clothing shop, but no one has heard of Tien Dat Fashion, or seems to know where it is. I make my way around the streets, back towards my hotel, and finally a few people point me in the right direction (despite a few people pointing me in the wrong direction, a few moto drivers offering to take me somewhere completely different altogether, and the odd person that will only give me directions if I let them hold my phone with both hands, scrutinising my text message very carefully in order to read the lettering.) One dude is hanging onto my phone a little bit too long, and too keenly, and I quickly snatch it back off him before darting back into the traffic. A couple of cyclo drivers point at my pot belly and start giggling “ooh look… big fat!” They seem to think obesity is a matter of extraordinary comic value in Vietnam, as it’s not something they’re prone to at all. Anyway, I think I roughly know where I’m headed now.

Finally the street I am on, Hang Be, appears to become Hang Dau. Damn, that was Hang Dau, not Hang Dao, but it’s apparently pronounced almost identically. I’ve finally rescued my friend, who by a freak of chance, is literally less than 5 minutes walk from our hotel, where we charge the iPod and safely tuck away our Puppets and Circus tickets. First day in Hanoi. Survived. Tick!

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