Monday, August 06, 2007

Hanoi's unique highway code ...

In our original plan for mid-July we'd have been heading through Tibet into Nepal to begin trekking the 21-day Annapurna Circuit ...

For a whole heap of reasons (Mel's trauma on Mt. Fuji featuring highly) we'd decided to visit Nepal on a future trip, rather than during the summer monsoon. With the benefit of hindsight this was inspired decision making - 750,000 people have just been displaced in Nepal's worst flooding in living memory. Needless to say, this might have disprupted our plans a little ...

So, enter Vietnam. No gradual change in culture here as you cross the land border - everything is completely different. Buildings, clothes, even down to the style of motorcyle riding. Here in the countryside it's always "bandit style" with just your eyes visible above a full-face bandana - slightly unnerving until you get used to the fact that each overtaking maneouver isn't the opening move in a hijack.

Then we arrived in Hanoi, surely one of the very best examples of chaotic SE Asia you'll find. It's almost impossible to imagine the number of mopeds here - apparently the official figure is around 2m - in a city of around 3.5m people. The really impressive thing is how they seem to move around the city in swarms - and when one swarm meets another, they somehow just manage to pass right through one another. It must be seen to be beleived.

There are a few new skills you need to learn in order to get about here - all of which go against the natural instincts acquired living in a western society.
  1. Ignore all calls of "motorbike", "moto", "cyclo", "lychee" or "hat" - these are all things you will be offered several times a minute. Therefore any eye contact, never mind a simple "no thank-you" to each offer will just result in a doubling of your journey time.
  2. Using the "imaginary" pavement. In theory there is a real one, but in practice that's where people park their mopeds. The imaginary one is the first 75cm of clear road. The mopeds screaming past at 30-40 mph will avoid you - but only if you beleive in it's existence.
  3. Use of the "imaginary" zebra crossing. It doesn't really matter if you find a real one, even with a green man, they work exactly the same as the imaginary ones as the traffic doesn't stop anyway. Just face the oncoming traffic, beleive in the imaginary crossing and confidently walk across at a constant pace - the traffic will just move around you. If you lose confidence and stop or change your pace the traffic will somehow lose it's ability to avoid you.

Once these skills were mastered, we found Hanoi's Old Quarter a very pleasant place to spend a few days - incredibly cheap shopping, great food with the added novetly of vegetables (a little scarce in Chinese restaurant dishes), and our cultural activity of the week, the very wierd Vietnamese Water Puppet Theater.

Once again we proved that luck can be a better servant than informed planning - our visit to Hanoi conincided with the Quarter Final of the Asia Cup, the game between Australia and Japan being billed as the game of the tournament.

Armed with a ticket procured on the black market I headed out to the brand new "My Dinh" National Stadium in the scorching late afternoon heat. The journey in itself was almost as memorable as the game - my taxi had no less than 7 different horns, all of which the driver seemed intent on wearing out in order to cut a path through the sea of scooters during the 40 minute journey.

The game itself was pretty entertaining and at 1-1 following extra time it went to penalties. I think the writing was on the wall when a rather unfit looking Harry Kewell missed the opening penalty for Australia, and so Japan made it through to the semi-finals.

Back in town we went for one last meal of "roll-your-own" rice paper spring rolls filled with caramel beef and fresh herbs, all washed down with 640ml bottles of ice-cold Tiger Beer for just $1 ... rather predicatably, we think Hanoi rocks!

You can see the photos from Hanoi here

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