Posted by: Tom Lancaster | September 3, 2010

I love the smell of impending death in the morning

Episode 25: Hanoi/Halong Bay/Sapa, Vietnam

Skin colour (Tom): George Hamilton
Skin colour (Jane): Christine Hamilton
Location: Hanoi, Vietnam

Date: 03rd September 2010.

What has 1376 wheels, all pointing in different directions and moving at different speeds at a single crossroads? That’s right, the traffic in Hanoi. Beep-beep, honk-honk, all aboard the crazy bike.

We thought the traffic was bad elsewhere, but Hanoi is an entirely different animal. As I type this I hear evidence of the two-wheeled disorder and carnage on the street below me – incessant honking of motorcycle horns. Rather like the boy who cried wolf, this means ABSOLUTELY NOTHING because everyone’s doing it all the time.

Impending death on two wheels

There are literally no road rules here. None. You want to drive on the wrong side of the road – go for it; speed through a red light – crack on (just beep more frequently if you’d be so kind); carry four full-sized humans, plus luggage, on a single motorbike – be my guest; ride your motorcycle on a crowded pavement – of course, just remember not to reduce your speed too much.

The most commonly observed unwritten rule seems to be that when doing any of the above, you should only concentrate about 15% on riding.

Secondly, you should also be holding a conversation, either with one of the many members of your extended family on the back of your 50cc machine, or on your mobile.

Ideally you should also be carrying something large and unwieldy – something entirely unsuited to your mode of transport: some 15 foot long bamboo poles perhaps; or a industrial-size stainless steel sink; or, memorably, a fully-grown pig oinking in a metal basket (I promise this is true).

Finally, you should, under no circumstances look where you’re going.

Ready......... aim..............

It’s amazing I’m alive to write this. Every time we’ve stepped out into the Hanoi streets our adrenalin has started flowing, knowing that within minutes we’ll have to cross a road. Making it to the other side is always a thrill.

We started off crossing tentatively, wearing expressions of surprise and minor amazement, like those of someone who has just met an interesting white South African.

Amazingly, though, the key is just to get involved: saunter across with nary a care in the world and let the metal flow past you; which it mostly does. Exceptions to this usually come when one of the motorcycle mentalists is eying up a hot pair of legs/tasty food item, in which case you better move like greased lightning or you’re an ex-tourist. So far so good.

Traffic mayhem aside, Hanoi has been an excellent city – its streets are vibrant and chaotic, everyone seems to live outside and the sights we’ve seen have been interesting, and in some cases downright weird.

Temporary tranquility

We were here for two full days before heading to Halong Bay and then Sapa, and we’re back here for another night before journeying south.

Our first night here was memorable only for the heavy rain and the alfresco cook-it-yourself barbecue we had in a dripping alleyway with motorbikes weaving within inches of our chopsticks. It was actually better than it sounds, though not by much.

When the rain abated (but not the drips – all SE Asian cities are drippy) the following morning, we went a-wanderin’ through the old quarter, taking in the cacophony and getting used to the frenetic pace.

We also saw a good old-fashioned tear-up between two chunky schoolboys. It was all we could do to maturely keep our distance and gape, rather than surrounding them with chants of “FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT”.

Bia hoi - cheap

We introduced ourselves to bia hoi – the beverage of choice in these parts – an unpreserved lager which can be served for but a few days and costs about 12p per half-pint glass. It’s good stuff, better than any of the bottled beers we’ve tried here.

The following day was an eye-opener. I don’t think we’ll ever, how ever far and wide we travel, come up with a morning/afternoon sightseeing combo as random as: dead body viewing followed by water puppet theatre.

We need to start saving to get Maggie Thatcher one of these

We left ourselves plenty of time to get to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, but only just made the 10.15 am cut-off time for viewing the embalmed former leader. This was partially due to inadequate map-reading (on my part admittedly), but mainly due to the fact that it takes so bloody long to walk anywhere.

It’s a bit of a catch 22 you see, the pedestrian lark round here (with apologies for banging on about the traffic).

You want to walk on the pavement (where they exist), but you generally can’t because they have motorbikes parked on them (along with cafes (not the bright and breezy type you find in Paris) and people sat on their haunches playing chequers – people in SE Asia sit on their haunches a lot for some reason).

A typical Hanoi pavement (and atypical road - no maniacal drivers)

So, you take to the road, where the remaining 4.5 million motorbikes in Hanoi attempt to plough you down in cold blood. I swear I’ve seen some of them take aim. It’s probably only their relatively low-speed which has saved us.

Anyway, I digress. The mausoleum was an unsurprisingly odd place: no traffic nearby for starters; no cameras allowed inside of course (that really would be weird); dress code and behaviour rules strictly enforced; and a huge, austere concrete cube to house the corpse.

It really was a sombre affair – a huge line snaked its way (mercifully quickly) to the mausoleum entrance, where the schoolgirls who were slapping Jane on the back in a friendly fashion (we think) and giggling, were told to wind their necks in by one of the many immaculately dressed and tooled-up guards, and then we filed in in twos.

Ho Chi Minh mausoleum

I’ve never seen a dead body before (thankfully), but it’s not too bad. Uncle Ho just looked like he was having a nice kip. He looked very serene, but then he’s sent to Russia for 3 months each year for “work” to be done, so for all we know he could be made entirely of wax, cotton wool and wood chippings.

He’s revered here though (obviously), as shown by the hundreds in the queue and the people doing their hair prior to entry – “I’m almost certain he can’t see you……….. can he?”.

I suspect that had we so much as sniggered nervously, we’d have been run through by a bayonet before we could say “Why’ve they positioned his hands so he looks like he’s holding his co…”.

Temple of Literature

We saw a couple of nearby sights prior to lunch: the disappointing one pillar pagoda, which (like so many things in Hanoi/Vietnam) is a replica of the original (almost continual war is a terrible thing for tourism) and the one pillar is now in concrete, which takes away the charm; and the Temple of Literature, which was nice enough, but I’m afraid one temple merges into the next these days to us heathens.

We lunched at KOTO (Know One, Teach One), a not-for-profit organisation helping to train underprivileged kids and producing some fantastic food (yet another thing that the fat-tongued bundle of bollocks that is Jamie Oliver didn’t think of first) – my belly pork was up there with anything I’ve had on the whole trip.

One Pillar Pagoda

Our surreal day then picked up a notch with a visit to a water puppet show in a Hanoi theatre. I know it sounds rubbish, but it was superb and well worth the £1.50 entrance fee for the hour-long show.

The puppeteers stand waist deep in a pool of water behind a screen and the show takes place on the water, telling traditional Vietnamese stories and accompanied by excellent Vietnamese musicians (although you wouldn’t want to buy the soundtrack). We were enthralled, certainly more so than the woman behind us who spent half the performance talking on her phone.

Water puppetry - better than it sounds (and looks)

Not only do the puppets weight up to 15 kilos, but they’re operated on the end of bamboo poles with incredible dexterity, and, even though the narrative is in Vietnamese, you can follow the stories easily and even get most of the jokes! We’d recommend the show to anyone.

We then took a trip to Halong Bay from Hanoi, having been told by almost everyone we’ve met who has been here that it’s THE must-see sight. It was certainly a fantastic place, but the cruise we were on rather let it down.

Halong Bay "cruise"

We’d booked on a 2 day/1 night cruise having seen the route map (large circle through various sets of islands), itinerary (large cave, kayaking through another cave, cooking demonstration with the chef, a few different stops)  and boat pictures (built in 2008, air-con etc.). You can guess the rest.

You can read my full review here if you see fit, but in a nutshell:

  • We were moored up in one place for 18 of our 24 hours onboard.
  • The cooking demo was how to roll a spring roll (Jane’s was unparalleled, but then she’s done it many times before).
  • The air-con was not available until after dinner and was turned off before 7am.
  • The route was two straight lines – one to the large cave where we moored up, then one back to the port (we didn’t do any “cruising” as such). The stated reasons for the change of route were many and varied in a way which we’re learning to appreciate in SE Asia.

Halong Bay karsts and junk

This is not to take away from the beauty of the bay, the islands springing from the water in strange formations everywhere you looked (over 3000 of them apparently). In addition, the cave we visited was huge and impressive and even had an amusingly shaped rock to feed our puerile sensibilities.

Sung Sot cave (Penis Rock)

Another strange SE Asian set-up occurred for the umpteenth time as we were leaving the port car park, when the driver bought a ticket from a lady, drove 15 feet and gave the ticket to another lady before exiting the car park.

This has happened more often than you imagine (especially the ticket thing). It must keep unemployment figures low, especially as almost every other business seems to be overstaffed by about 200%. This results in places of work always having at least a few staff members just sat around open-mouthed, doing nothing, often having a snooze (you still can’t get wait staff’s attention for the bill if you’re in a rush though).

Anyway, we’ve just returned from a trip to Sapa, in the north of the country. In hindsight, we shouldn’t have bothered with the two 10-hour sleeper train journeys with very little sleep.

The view from our balcony - Sapa

The reason being that Sapa, set in a beautiful valley surrounded by mountains and agricultural terraces, is really a place to go for trekking, and it’s a bit wet for trekking right now. We probably should have thought about that before we went.

It didn’t matter though. We had a nice guest house with very friendly staff, and Sapa itself is a lovely place to spend a couple of days just relaxing and wandering around.

The wandering around bit becomes a little uncomfortable when you start to get followed, as every westerner does, by the indigenous village women and children.

You don't see this every day, the poor sod

They approach you with “Buy something from me?” and finally stop following you when your spirit is broken and, weeping quietly, you open your wallet to allow them to help themselves.

The old ladies had a particularly effective tactic as we saw many toothless crones standing with their noses pressed up against windows as their marks tried to enjoy a coffee.

We were lucky: we were tailed on our first day by a couple of button-nosed girls with excellent English and lower demands. This prompted us to call out to other Westerners, with more hardcore entourages, “Ours are cuter than yours, ner ner ner ner ner”.


We certainly didn’t begrudge these women and children their earnings from selling their wares, but the tailing you (presumably until you drop dead of exhaustion) if you said no, was at best uncomfortable and at worst slightly sinister.

We paid our youngsters for a photo when we found them waiting for us outside a cafe we’d entered about 45 minutes earlier. They deserved it. They didn’t look that thrilled though when Jane gave them the equivalent of 30 pence each, but at least they buggered off and left us in peace.

The misleadingly named sleeper train

We returned to our Hanoi guest house this morning, after another sleepless night on the train, to find all the staff asleep in the foyer (well, it was 4.30am). They couldn’t have been nicer (unless they’d found a room for us before 9am), although another strange SE Asian phenomenon reared its head: men listening to ladies’ music.

Many a bus driver, hotel receptionist or labourer has put on Lionel Ritchie, Westlife, Take That or Celine Dion. It’s freaking me out a bit.

Oh, in case you’re wondering, drivers in Hanoi still knock spots of those idiots in New Zealand.

Until the next time…………

Any comments or questions are very welcome. However, bear in mind that we’re travelling around the world for 11 months, with varying standards of internet access, so won’t always be able to respond quickly!


  1. Ha! You are sooo going to love the traffic in Ho Chi Minh! Hanoi is so organised (most of the cars/bikes in your pictures are going in the same direction and have stopped at a sign too!)compared to that, crossing the road involves picking a spot on the other side, staring at it and just walking – kind of like the last challenge in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, only much more dangerous!

    • We’re thinking eyes closed is the way forward! The pictures I took were posed deliberately, we rounded up 300 sensible Vietnamese, so that our mothers wouldn’t worry too much! How’s the honeymoon hangover?

    • I concur. Dogged determination and not looking at the truck hurtling towards you is the only way! Good luck! 🙂

  2. Hahahahahahahahahahahhahhahahahahahahaha!

    I nearly peed on the line “wearing expressions of surprise and minor amazement, like those of someone who has just met an interesting white South African.”

    • Come on – how many interesting white South Africans did you meet while you were out there? I bet you could count them on one hand (if you were Muhammad Hamza).

  3. You’d know if it was me, I only write of beard appreciation. Unless there’s a competition. Love competitions.

  4. Traffic? You ain’t seen nothing yet – wait ’til you get to Cairo (if you’re going there, which you should). And surely that one-pillar pagoda actually has two? Or do my rheumy eyes deceive me? Have fun!!

    • Cairo not in our plans for this trip, but I’m sure we’ll get there one day and will be well prepared after Hanoi (and judging by David’s comments, HCMC). The second pillar in the picture may have been the steps, or maybe you’d had an extra large sherry?

  5. Good to see you guys last week. Tom could have combed his hair properly first though.

    • Simon, you don’t need to comment under the identity of a man made of sawdust and packing tape. Surely missing two penalty corners in a hockey final will have taught you to hold your head up high?

      Reveal yourself and take pleasure in commenting, rather than hiding behind Uncle Ho’s name!

  6. Good tip and report for me. Thanks alot.

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