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The Hoi Polloi in Hanoi

Me on a rented bike

The Vietnamese capital skates on two wheels. The traffic swirls – quite gracefully, if terrifyingly – around each other. Thousands of motorbikes face each other at the traffic lights like opposing armies at battle and at the merest hint of the lights turning green, they plough into each other in every direction. Unlike a battle however, the bikes manage to avoid each other and pirouhette around pedestrians, street vendors, cars and other bikes as if this was a rehearsed dance sequence. It’s mesmerising!

The old quarter of Hanoi reminds me of Pahar Ganj in Old Delhi. Narrow winding streets. Tiny specialist shops, each selling just one product – zips, pineapples, flip flops, hats. Street vendors fanning their wares and asking every passerby whether they want to buy a rolex, a doughnut, a lighter, a handkerchief. Rickshaws milling around. Pavements reserved for parked motorbikes. Cauldrons of food or drink boiling away on the street corner with tiny plastic stools around for passersby to sit down and enjoy a bowl of soup.

The first few hours in Hanoi can be jittery:

1. How do you cross a street where lights never allow for pedestrians to cross?

2. How do you navigate the pavements, every inch of which is covered with parked motorbikes?

3. How do you tell whether the meat floating in your soup is not dog?

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A hat seller

1a. If you close your eyes and crossed the busiest street, you are still likely to be ok because vehicles are always snaking around every obstacle. The Vietnamese must be the most alert drivers. As a pedestrian, you need nerves of steel and courage to just wade into the traffic fearlessly and without dithering.

2a. You don’t walk on the pavements – these are reserved for parking, vendors, street families eating bowls of noodles etc. You walk on the side of the road and observe the same rules as 1a.

3a. You don’t know and you don’t ask.

 

Seeing us on the streets, the locals must have thought “What a load of Hoi Polloi farangs!”.

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