In Hanoi the sip lid hole is an inconvenience.
Every single coffee shop offering takeaway has a roll of tape at the counter. Your coffee is prepared, lidded and the hole, or holes, are taped to stop spillage. The cup is bagged and the bag hooked onto your motorbike as you continue your journey to work or home.
People don’t walk in Hanoi. Nobody strolls sipping from a takeaway latte.
This is what all those tourist traffic tales and tips for crossing roads don’t get. Yes there are ways to cross the road, but most of us will go months between crossings. Hanoians don’t cross roads. When you literally park your bike in your kitchen, then on the pavement outside work, a cafe, shop or bar, why would you?
Even if you’d like to walk you can’t. The pavements are full of bikes.
The coffee is for the destination. Not the journey.
After six years in Vietnam the temptation to take photos of traffic is lessened but hasn’t completely disappeared.
Recently I tried in vain to film a school boy on his motorbike on his way to classes, desperately trying to finish his reading. He was driving incredibly slowly, his book in one hand, holding the page open in front of his face, the other on the accelerator. Every so often he’d have to juggle driving with page turning.
I wondered if he’d considered driving much faster, arriving early and reading before class instead.
Yesterday I was driving to the inlaws when I spotted this mirror being carried in front of me. I’ll admit I followed it for some way trying to get a better picture of it. Large sheets of glass are often carried by motorbikes across Hanoi. It’s hard not to imagine the range of injuries it could inflict. Gripping the pane by its side with bare hands, you’d think more fingers would be lost.
If the glass was to shatter, well it’s best not to think about it. But I can’t help it.
Of course while I’m not adverse to tutting motorbike mobile phone users – I’m hypocritically stil taking photos with mine. In Hanoi there are various levels of madness.
Answering phones is bad but it’s a lesser sin. Texting on motorbikes seems near impossible and yet it’s constant – even with a wife and kids sitting helmetlessly behind.
The last of my two small accidents on a motorbike in Hanoi was when I encountered a driver going the wrong way on one of Hanoi’s faster roads. That in itself would have been not so unusual as to cause me to crash. Neither was the fact that he’d decided to text at the same time.
What threw me was that he stopped in the middle of the road to complete the task. It was a traffic variable too far.
It wasn’t the coldest, nor the wettest, not even the windiest – but it was still the worst combination of all three that I’ve endured. As you might imagine the work commute by motorbike was not pleasant.
On the last leg, of the admittedly quite short trip, I take a side road down to the lake away from the worst of the traffic and kill my speed and ride quietly home. Increasingly though the hulking SUVs are also looking to avoid their own kind on the more widely used roads.
With cold rain stinging my eyes, my suit drenched despite my raincoat, an SUV behind me was peep peep peeping for me to get out of the way – so it could drive dangerously quickly along this winding, populated stretch where kids often play.
I had to pull up to let him past, my already soaking feet splashing down into a puddle. I looked into his window and shouted, obviously in vain, “F**king, f**k off you f**king w**ker!”
I can’t even swear in Vietnamese.
If you ride a bike, motorised or otherwise, it is very easy to hate cars in Hanoi.
There are the nippy little hatchbacks and taxis which are an irritant but little more. Then there are those mid sized little trucks that chug up and down the dike road at too-high speeds, beeping and beeping and beeping. Worst of all is the ridiculously large SUVs that Hanoi makes no concessions too and yet the arrogance of their drivers appears unchecked.
On a dryer day recently I rode the long way around Westlake, hoping to get some air before I got home. On one stretch there was a horrendous traffic jam. At its epicentre was a single SUV parked and filling two thirds of the road. It was outside a bia hoi where, presumably the owner was sat watching the chaos he caused.
I suffered a similar tail back on that road only to battle my way to just behind the cause and found a middle aged woman behind the wheel of car – driving while spooning ice cream into her mouth from a large tub. Her slow speed caused the tailback and yet her erratic zig zagging meant no one could over take.
Cars beep you continuously to make way – the problem being that naturally in such traffic they should drive even slower than bikes. However their sheer size bullies you into pulling over fearing for your physical safety. Their louder horns meanwhile torture your ears till you can no longer stand it.
Day by day they plough through the traffic. In wet weather they literally makes waves. It’s hard to know if they just don’t care, don’t notice or actively enjoy the chaos and resentment they cause.
Hanoi has literally no car parks, few houses have garages or even drives. Where can they all be parked at night?
Like most lines you’d rather not cross you know there is one reason that you might. Family.
On expat message boards arguments rage over what is most irresponsible – running a car in Hanoi or using a bike as a family vehicle. Having a car also means being able to escape Hanoi in its hot hot summer. It means countryside, fresh air and exercise is close at hand for all the family.
For these reasons I’ve know a few ambitious young Vietnamese mothers who want cars. One foreign friend, married to a local, said he had relented recently and borrowed a car for a family trip. He told me how it didn’t take long before he was cursing bikes and acting King of the Road.
A lot of the presumed wisdom about Hanoi traffic is being turned on its head.
Don’t look, just walk slowly out and the traffic will part around you.
Peeping doesn’t mean the same as back home – it’s more ‘coming through’ than ‘f**k you’.
I’m not sure either are true any more.
Like much of what development brings it’s inevitable and though I don’t much like it I can’t swear I won’t one day give in to it.
Sadly this city isn’t built for cars, the Hanoi that will have to emerge for the car generation is going to be very very different.
I mean, I know why foreigners wear them. They are concerned about pollution, their lungs, asthma, carbon monoxide – the list is endless.
But the health and safety scornful Vietnamese? Worrying about all of the above just didn’t seem like them. And yet, the masks are everywhere – particularly on the roads.
I’d assumed that women wore them while men didn’t because men considered worrying about your health a little cissy.
But I finally asked.
The answer…no, no, no – it’s not fumes. Just dirt and dust. Okay so dirt and dust can be considered pollution but it was the grunge you can see that they’re guarding against rather than the chemicals you can’t.
To put it another way it’s their faces they are safeguarding, not their lungs.
Not worried about asthma?
Well the dirt can apparently stick to your face and mess up your make-up while I’m told the masks help preserve it.
Also, that avoiding the sunlight thing. Staying pale.
Okay so that was from a survey sample of one but, considering local attitudes, it makes sense to me.
This morning I turned left on a city centre road and the next thing I knew there was a policeman standing in front of me waving me over to the curb.
Had I broken the law? Yes and no.
Waiting in the middle of the road, it was impossible to complete the turn until the traffic had stopped coming from the opposite direction. So yes, by the time I had made it on to the other road the light had turned to red.
Usually foreigners don’t get stopped in this way. People have various thoughts on this – we’re more trouble than we’re worth, they don’t speak English, we bring money into the country etc. But the whispers are the situation is changing.
I guess it was just my bad luck to chance upon a policeman who fancied his chances of showcasing his English to his colleagues.
Without going into too much detail most foreigners inhabit a sliding scale of (il)legality. In short, if someone wants to make trouble for us they can do it fairly easily. For most complete legality is the aim and daily we gossip about just how we can achieve that – but it isn’t easy.
Threatened with having my bike taken away and having to pay for the privilege, I called a friend. She gave them hell, which was enough for them to leave us waiting by the roadside if only to annoy us.
In the meantime we saw other drivers stopped, we saw far more obvious transgressions unpunished and we also saw one driver who was very obviously shaken down for cash.
He was stopped, there was short conversation – he then paid another, non-uniformed, guy on a motorbike in the corner and he was free to go. The money was the only paper changing hands.
Me? I was torn.
I knew my initial breaking of the rules was marginal at best but I also knew there were other areas where my legality could be questioned.
I felt duty bound to pay what I should pay. It became obvious, however, that the policeman didn’t actually want to take away my bike. He wanted the pay off.
After an initial stand off he called me over. Even with my limited Vietnamese I can tell you he called my friend crazy but told me I was intelligent – as if between us the pair of us could find a way to sort this out. He kept repeating the English word “souvenir”.
To give him the benefit of the doubt he was possibly telling me I should walk the bike away and consider its freedom a souvenir. More likely he was fishing for cash.
In the end I made to push the bike away and he didn’t stop me. He even returned the ownership papers and insurance details – the little legality I do have.
Corruption is a strange one. This time it was my friend’s insistence on not giving into it that ended with me walking away unfined.
We all like to think we aren’t part of the corruption and yet, when there’s something we want doing, most people aren’t adverse to a little cash to oil the wheels.
Expats can become supremely indignant when they’re shaken down. But many will still happily boast of successful bribes paid to ensure they get what *they* want.
Soon it becomes hard to work out what is corruption and what isn’t. As part of the wedding bureaucracy I recently paid a trip to a hospital for 2-minute check up and had to pay 500,000 VND for the privilege. I was told to pay up and come back for the results.
Results? They had only checked my weight, heart and blood pressure.
But then again I followed this with a trip to my own Embassy to find that a photocopy of my passport and a stamp would cost nearly $40 for 30 seconds work. My Embassy says its because they are underfunded and need to bring in cash where they can.
The officials and organisations of Vietnam can, of course, claim the same.
In my time here I’ve known contracts whereby clauses include cash gifts to officials’ wives on Women’s Day. Sounds like corruption, right?
But then again you take cash in envelopes to weddings. A pre-wedding ceremony includes another round of present giving to assorted elders – the gifts now pretty much being whisky and cigarettes.
For the foreigner in town, the hard part is just how much we’re all trying so hard to be legal. Laws appear to change by the week and often these law changes only become common knowledge among the foreigners here as they spread via gossip.
And while all foreigners want to be legal, few employers have the same desire. My old newspaper employer used to regularly run shock horror stories of illegal workers and yet they refused point blank to make me legal.
I know it’s a situation that many others also find themselves in.
In reality though, few people really seem to know entirely what it takes to become legal.
Others, paradoxically, accept that in order to become legal they may have to engage in certain illegal pay offs.
To put it all in context, Vietnamese corruption may be far more sophisticated than in my last posting in Cameroon. However in Cameroon it has killed the country. In Vietnam development continues regardless.
In the end, perhaps the problem isn’t so much corruption but enforcement.
When the rules are made clear, the grey areas eliminated and the laws clearly implemented, then we’ll all know where we stand.
But that costs money and perhaps, in the short term, corruption and uncertainty is a much more workable and cheaper option.
Not to mention the fact that it’s in the grey areas where the money is made.