Oi troi oi (pronounced oi zoi yoi)

I’m coming to the end of my stay in Hanoi and I’m starting to get all reflective on it.  Both on the transport experiences I have had and talked to others about as well as my whole project and what does it mean to live in different cities for a couple of weeks and then move on.

I don’t think the streets and roads of Hanoi are paradise.  I don’t think they are filled with smiling happy people who wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.  However, there is definitely something special about the people on the street and how they are as a community.  There are definitely some smiles, and some people having animated conversation with each other (both between bikes and on the same bike).  There are also looks of peace and some enjoying the thrill or feeling rather cool.  There are also those who seem frustrated, some seem bored and others are deep in contemplation.  I guess that’s life, but for me the interesting thing is you can see it.  You can see what other people are doing and feeling.  There is no hiding on the streets of Hanoi.

It’s noisy and smelly at times but maybe that heightens your other senses as you see and feel so much.  The wind on your face, the seat between your legs (warning don’t park your bike in the sun on a hot day), the building, the people, the bikes, the movement, the trees and the sky are around you.  I loved looking at what people were carrying on their bikes, firstly it was in amazement, then I became curious about how they physically managed the balance and control, and finally it was realising that this was part of life without a car – you had to move things (big, small, fragile, awkward, living, dead) by bicycle and it was possible.

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve started refering to motor bikes as bikes.  I guess that’s because it’s the norm with bicycles becoming less common for middle class residents in Hanoi.  I have come to Hanoi in Summer and so I can appreciate that people don’t want to sweat it out here in the heat.  There are lots of electric bicycles starting to hit the streets of Hanoi and I think this is a great way to try and clear up the air a little.  The buses are probably the worst culprit for pollution though although there are some newer ones.

Two weeks will never be long enough to know what it really feels like to be a local traveling through their city, but I think I have had an interesting glimpse.  I have been through the little motor bike sized petrol stations, to a drive in ice cream shop, I have parked my bicycle in a massive shed filled with thousands of bikes, I have cruised for 70km on my bicycle on day stopping along the way for mia da (sugar cane juice).  I have also taken transport in all sorts of moods – happy, silly, excited, bored, frustrated, sleepy, hot and sometimes a little nervous.  Now I feel so comfortable riding on the back of the motor bike I will happily close my eyes, look up at the moon, at the buildings or anywhere other than the road ahead.  I’ve come to trust my friends to drive safely and I’ve come to trust the system which tends to allow everyone to get where they want with no major collisions.

I am nervous for the rest of my trip because it feels like no city can compare to Hanoi.  And if it does I am going to be leaving each city with a tear in my eye wondering if I’ll ever come back to meet the people and see the life on the streets that I have come to love.  I have even come to love how people in Hanoi never go a direct way to where they need to be.  I feel like I have had many scenic tours of Hanoi as we have taken interesting paths.  I love the lakes, the nights with people on the street (roller blading is all the rage at night in Hanoi), I love getting around with friends together on bicycle and I may have even learnt to love karaoke.  I have eaten amazing food too – fresh fruit, smoothies, sticky rice. so much fish and all sorts of other goodies.  I have had lots of fun!  Goodbye Hanoi, I hope my little film and blog can do justice to your beautiful city x

Xe om (going with a hug)

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Going along with a hug or just the touch of another is one part of Hanoi’s transport that has ‘touched’ me.  As I looked around at the people I have been sharing the road with, I saw people sharing motor bikes giving each other a hug, resting their hand on the shoulder of the next, their body pressed against the back of another or their head rested on their shoulder.  It was sweet to see such signs of affection and I wondered if these simple touches had an impact on the relationships between people.  In cars and buses and even bicycles ridden alone don’t allow for the same level of incidental touch.  This was not limited to young couples.  Whole families were hugging in the traffic.  Friends were in touch and it was just part of a normal friendship.

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The locals of Hanoi probably don’t think anything of this and that makes it all the more beautiful.  In a world where touching other people is limited to greetings, dancing and purposeful moments of affection I love that people can be in contact with each other for an hour and not think anything of it.  It’s just part of life.

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It’s also nice that it takes place in public, and I hope, as it does for me, that it gives other people a positive feeling to see all these hugs on the road.

Where is the stop for the number 8 bus?

Determined to use the public transportation of Hanoi, I left my friend with a space on the back of her motorbikes and headed off for a walk in the city before I took the number 8 bus home.  In my pocket my worried vietnamese friends had written down what I was to ask the guy who checks/gives out tickets so that he could tell me when to get off the bus.  I felt a little over prepared.  So, I wandered through the park to where the bus stop was meant to be.  Then I made a big mistake.  I asked for directions.  A guy started speaking to me in very poor french and told me to go 200 m to the right towards the theatre.  As I headed off down the street I realised that it had turned into a one way road and any bus going that way wouldn’t be going where I wanted to go.  So like somone who has invested badly but hopes they can make it up through more investment, I would just find myself getting further away from where I wanted to be and getting tempted to catch a xe om (but no I didn’t succumb).

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I finally spotted the number 8 bus and got so excited I actually exclaimed aloud ‘it’s the number 8 bus’.  A few people looked around and I tried to imagine what I would think if someone in Australia enthusiastically announced in another language the existance of a bus.  So I followed where it had come from and it took me back to the bus stop 20 m from where I had first asked the man for directions.  While I was waiting for the bus school kids flocked out of their school and onto bicycles or their parent’s scooters.  The routine of the school pick up with two wheels instead of 4WDs.

Nervously I hopped on the bus and took a seat.  It costs 5000 Dong (about 25c) to go anywhere in Hanoi.  I handed over the piece of paper to the guy who collects the money and divvies out the tickets.  He just smiled that smile of someone who is looking at someone naive and nervous.  I soon settled in though and I put a camera on my head to record my experience.  This caused a few interesting reactions.  The lady next to me apparently was worried about being filmed because she was carrying an oversized bucket that was too big for the bus baggage requirements (the bus is the only mode of transport with restrictions on what load you can carry :P).  The ticket guy was intrigued and wondered if I was filming him because I thought he was beautiful.  This was all happening through a spontaneous translator standing near the door who chimed in as she saw that I wasn’t understanding what was going on.  For the rest of the journey I just sat and looked around.  The air conditioning was working and it was quite pleasant even when the bus filled up a little.  The voice of the lady who announces the stops í quite elegant and musical in someway.

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Traveling on the bus meant I got to see different areas of Hanoi that I normally wouldn’t ride past.  We went past a number of schools and I saw the communities of school children and how they would talk, play and start their trip home.  I didn’t need the driver to tell me when to get off as I recognised the home stretch and someone had already pressed the stopping button.  I jumped off with three students.  One was also crossing the road so we crossed together.  I have since caught the bus a number of times and once you know where it is and how much it costs, you can sit back and daydream while you watch the hot (both in temperature and looks)  motor bike riders outside.

Sorry I haven’t taken any pictures in the bus – but I have lots of footage 🙂

Riding the tide on my motorbike

It took guts for me to get on a motor bike in the back streets of newcastle (my home town in Australia) so the thought of hitting the streets of Ha noi was slightly intimidating for me, to say the least – but then you see all these stylish and dainty vietnamese women taking on the traffic looking like they are on a yacht cruising along.  So after a little practice in the countryside and being told I could start in second or third gear no problems, I slowly put on the throttle and headed off along the road to the centre of Hanoi.  Of course I wasn’t alone, it wouldn’t be right to ride in Hanoi alone when some people are carrying three or four passengers.  I had my friend Trang behind me and she had my camera pack on so I had lots of precious cargo.

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I kept my head looking forward, occasionally glancing in my mirror – no one checks their blindspot here, it’s assumed the drivers in your blindspot have a sixth sense that you are going to pull out in front of them and they will know how to swerve in such a way that other vehicles will move out of their way – I guess it’s just a series of waves of people getting out of each others way.  The best thing is, it is not competitive and it’s not fast. I felt like I could take it easy and just keep my eye out for vehicles approaching from my periphery and slow down or swerve as needed.   I managed to stop and start without stalling (I think these bikes don’t stall too easily) and I learnt that you don’t wait til the light goes green.  There is a countdown for the end of the red light – you hear the engines rev from about 10 seconds to go, and they are off at about 6.  This is if you stop for red lights.  I slowed down for one light and trang told me to keep going – it’s just one of those lights where no one is coming from the side street anyway so there’s no reason to stop – kinda like the way many cyclists approach traffic lights.  I managed to turn right and left without too many dramas – I did need to come to an abrupt holt momentarily as I was squeezed between traffic coming directly from my right and a lady on a scooter swerving around me.

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I was a little bit frazzled by the experience but I definitely had moments of peace and moments of fun while we were going along.  I had unfortunately lost my sunglasses – they fell out of my bag the day before while I was on the back of a motor bike and it was like watching them being trampled by a stampede – although my driver nearly did a quick and fearless u-turn into oncoming traffic before I convinced her it wasn’t worth it.  Most people in hanoi don’t wear glasses and I can’t work out why – the glare and the dust are pretty full on.  I had to wipe my eyes a few times.

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I enjoy looking around at the other motor bike riders.  There is something about them that just makes them so awesome – it might be their laidback almost elegant look while they are surrounded by millions of bikes, or it could be the fact that high heels and glamourous skirts sit comfortable next to engines and exhaust pipes.  After a few more times riding I might try to be a bit more glamourous but for now I’m happy to have made it safely.

Same same but difficult

So I’ve been getting out and using transport and so far I have no scars to show for it (the only scar I have on my face is from hitting my head on a chair while frantically cleaning up before leaving Australia :P).  The main thing that has changed for me is an increased sense of autonomy and an understanding of what other people are going through when they are getting around their city of hanoi.  So in the heat I have pedaled, walked, ridden, waited and hopped on bicycles, motor bikes, taxis, buses and my own two feet to feel what it’s like to move around hanoi – I don’t have the grace, the poise or the compacency of residents who are familiar with the system, but I have one week to get there – so let’s go through my first attempts at the bicycle and then I’ll get back to you about my motor bike and bus experiences…

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Bicycle – it was a fine sunday morning in the suburbs of hanoi.  With map in a hand and feeling generally comfortable weaving my way through traffic on a bicycle I decided I could ride to meet my friend in the wild west of hanoi.  This involved riding along two very wide roads which were connected by a more human sized street – I think around 10km in total.  I guess the vasts roads feel safe because there is lots of room but they are not pleasant, particularly in the heat.  It feels like there is heat radiating towards you from every direction and the space makes you feel very exposed.  I guess the only comforting things around you are the people and your fashionable face and body covering clothing (pictures to follow).  Riding a bicycle does allow you to ride as close to the right side (close to the curb) as you like as long as you are comfortable swerving for ANY traffic entering from the right.  It’s also important to be aware of the girl on the fancy scooter who spots some avocados she wants and spontaneously swings her machine to the curb to have an animated and seemingly long conversation with the avocado seller as she shakes the fruit to check whether they will make awesome smoothies.  Anyway, things happen on the road – people pull over, talk and text as if full concentration and being predictable aren’t too important to keep the road functioning…  and the buildings around you are actually really interesting – ranging from advertisement filled plain but colourful buildings to very ornate and interesting architecture.

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OK, I feel like I got destracted from my bicycle riding for a second there – an easy thing to do in hanoi.  I have to admit there is some shade and being close to the curb allowed me to take advantage of the trees that line sections of the road.  But then I did find myself wanting to overtake all sorts of vehicles and realising that my style of bicycle riding was probably a bit vigorous for hanoi because I was overtaking bicycles like they were standing still.  I guess I was hitting a high cadence on my little one speed pink machine.   Maybe I needed to learn to chill out and just cruise along or pick up passengers to weigh myself down.  The locals almost look like they are meditating as they pedal along.  I arrive at my destination after asking directions a few times along the way and feeling proud of myself for negotiating intersections where you feel like the movements of the vehicles and people could only have been co-ordinated to work through an arduous rehearsal schedule like it was a dance routine.  And when you ask local people how their traffic system works (as in how they co-ordinate between themselves who gives way to who) they look at you a bit confused and say they just drive slowly and it’s ok….

Once I arrived at my destination a young girl helped me out by telling me to park my bicycle around the side – and as I rode around I saw motor bikes and bicycles swarming towards a massive shed -there was about a hectare of underground parking for bicycles and bikes and it was all being used.  It was free to park my bike and I got a ticket and the corresponding number was drawn on my bicycle.  It felt like we were being processed as people lined up their bikes, gave their bags to a locker service and headed off to a typical suburban mall.

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Since my first ride I have taken the opportunity to ride into the city.  On the more narrow roads you feel more like you are part of a river.  You know that the people around you that are heading in the same direction as you are protecting you and I guess you are protecting them.  There were a few times I didn’t want to stop or turn because it felt like a tide was pushing me along – but once you realise you can stop almost anywhere or turn left from the right hand ‘lane’ (there aren’t really any lanes), you realise you have lots of freedom and friends.  I guess the trick is not to get arrogant with your assumption that we are all giving way to each other.

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Another interesting experience is dinking my housemate through the market.  Luckily my seat is a bit low as I had to stop a few times and tried to keep going without wobbling as there was no room for such nonsense – bicycles, people, trucks, motorbikes and chickens all shared the road and my passenger was carrying precious eggs for dinner.  The markets are lively and people seem unpredictable but yet bike riders always seem ready to move the right way to avoid them.  I guess the locals make it all look so easy ….

I have a bicycle!

Today I bought a bicycle thanks to my three favourite vietnamese sisters who had an animated discussion with the lady at the shop to get a better price for me.  It is pink and I have ridden it on the local streets here to the markets.  I have to remember to ride on the right side of the road or lane or whatever piece of land can accomodate a bicycle.  I also brought a very sensible ridiculous shirt for riding on the bikes – it has little hand covers and a hood and it also has flowers and kermit the frog on it – I think it will go well with my bike :P.

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I had a little practice on my friend’s motor bike but  I am still a little scared to ride on the little roads (and maybe too scared to ride on the big roads too).  I am enjoying riding on the back of bikes and I have stopped worrying at all about crashing – things just seem to always work out.  I think I am even becoming ok at crossing the road.

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Hanoi streets vary from the vast hot open highways with no shade but people tend to move freely (always looking forward) to the small streets shaded by lush looking trees and way too many power lines.  There are interesting ornate buildings to look at throughout the city.  I am staying in such a lovely neighbourhood with three delightful girls.  I have joined in a vietnamese game which is a cross between badminton and hacky sack, I have gone to the markets almost everyday, and I love going down our little lane with neighbours saying hello.  Tomorrow I am off to tackle (and embrace) the traffic system of Hanoi on my bicycle 🙂

The calmness and calamity – my first impressions of hanoi

I feel blessed to be in hanoi, from the moment I checked-in for my flight here I have met really lovely people that make you feel like you instantly have a friend.  My original plans to catch two buses to my friends place were thrown out the window when a guy I met waiting for the plane offered a lift with him to the centre and then my friend trang offered to take me the rest of the way by motor bike.  So with 20 kilos on my back I hopped on the back of a bike with a cute little vietnamese girl and calmly rode along.  I really enjoyed the ride – the chaos of thousands of motorbikes flocking on the streets actually felt quite peaceful.

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While waiting for Trang to pick me up I had noticed so many beautiful elegant bike riders so I felt privileged to be riding with one of them.  Trang giggled as we rode along and even slowed down for the bumps.  At some stage I felt so relaxed I got my camera out and started filming.  I will show you some of the footage someday.  Helmets, jackets and covers for faces were all fashion accessories.  I saw some very casual and fun dinking (doubling) on bicycles with one pair of girls both pedalling together, another girl on the back of a bicycle gave me a big wave.  It seemed quite friendly on the streets.  I guess the level of co-operation required in order to keep such a chaotic system smooth can only work if people are friendly.  I will let you know more once I get on a bike myself – I might try to ride with an umbrella in hand to feel like a true local.

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P.S.  The food and hospitality on this trip so far has been awesome!  Carrot cake (which has no carrot or cake in it but tastes awesome), lots of yummy green vegetables,  coconut water, mango drinks, food from a little thai restaurant with lots of mushrooms and sticky rice – yum.

leaving australia with a poem or two..

I left newcastle on a high, with my cousin giving me two pairs of orange undies and telling me they would be good luck.  I think I need a belt for my pants because I’m quite sure on a number of occasions the brightness of my undies has been on display.   I would like to share the poem she wrote for me that went along with the underwear (for future reference always write a poem to go with your underwear, it makes life so much more exciting)

So now you are practically free from your phDeee

May you be led by your heart and do all that you please

I know you’re about to embark on a wild ride

Loaded up with fancy gadgets and a sparkle in your eyes

Remember we’re all with you, in our hearts and minds

There’s no reason to feel lonely or freak out and cry

You cannot go wrong with a smile on your face

A song in your heart and eyes full of grace

But just in case you are ever in doubt

Please know that orange undies have special powers

Let them secretly work their magic

And guide you safely through all sorts of traffic

And in any event that the undies aren’t with you

Take hold of the stone and absorb its hue

and ask yourself what would Yo do?

(She’d probably give  you a hug or help you laugh

it off with a shrug to maybe

recommend a crazy hairstyle a la grug)

Many happy travels to you, may you open hearts along the way

and meet people without fear and play

This poem has a friend poem which I wrote and I will dig it up and put it here sometime…

A bientot newcastle x

it starts rolling… with a stop in Singapore

Today I spent extra time on transport.  The superficial reason was that my head wasn’t functioning properly and I’m all excited about this trip, but I think the real reason is deeper.  It goes beyond my apparent urges to understand transport, beyond my love of people watching on public transport, it is all about my body trying to stay cool and comfortable in air conditioned trains and buses in this heated city of Singapore.

Singapore seems to have a well polished transport system where you can’t eat or drink to ensure it stays that way.  So what do people do … there are a lot of screens around me and no one seems to notice anyone else.  I feel like doing something crazy to see if anyone notices, but I know these screens usually have inbuilt cameras so I just stand there in a sea of people and screens bobbing around against the movements of the train.  There are announcements to promote being obedient and orderly – moving away from the doors, not littering etc and there’s an entertaining film about how to notice if there might be a bomb on the train and what to do.  I also saw some cool little adverts for the MRT (train).  I have photos of these I’ll put up.

Out on the streets I have seen all sorts of transport.  There are some really cute old bikes (some with cargo carrying devices) and I’ve been tempted to have a little ride on an unlocked one.  Motor bikes and little trucks carrying passengers share the road with some very fancy cars.   There doesn’t seem to be too many facilities for bike riders but nonetheless there are a range of people riding them with grace.  I don’t know how anyone can manage to be graceful in this humidity.  I think it’s about to storm so I should get out there…