In Vietnam, H is for…

Hanoi, Hue, Ho Chi Minh, Hoi An, humanity, horns, honking, hovering, hammering, haze, haunting…the soundtrack of traffic in Vietnam.

Toots and motorbikes surround us on a honking Hanoi street as we bravely contemplate stepping out into the oncoming traffic in Vietnam. We don’t look left or right but instead directly ahead and careful to not make any sudden movements, we steadily walk in a straight line as though we are being tested for drunken behaviour. Given our mad jaunt onto the road, doubting our sobriety would have been perfectly reasonable; if we had been anywhere else in the world other than Vietnam. The traffic parts like the Red Sea, and as quickly as it opens, the gap fills like water flowing rapidly into a jagged stream.

To think only 24 hours earlier as we descended, I had been so excited to see the crazy intersections with their weaving traffic in Vietnam. In a population of 84 million people, there are approximately 16 million motorbikes, and from the plane window, it looked as if there was a good portion of this number directly below.  I had naively thought how serene it looked. Like a ballet where the dancers have rehearsed their routines so well they could perform blindfolded, only here their masks are worn over their noses and mouths. Of course, the performance I saw from above was executed in silence, apart from the acoustics of the plane.

It’s like the city has given birth to a million horns and every newborn is crying at the same time to be fed.

Now out on the street and in the midst of all the action, the honking is relentless day and night overpowering the sounds of humanity, traffic, jackhammers and sirens.  Honks compete to be heard above each other. I don’t mind the one echoing until its tone softens into silence but there’s one that sounds like a trumpet, another has a jazzy tune similar to the Pink Panther theme, and there’s the truck horn which unnerves even the most stoic of people, especially when they discover the bellowing is not coming from a huge vehicle but from a motorbike.  Of course, there’s also the driver who has his hand permanently on the horn. I wonder how anyone knows who the horns are meant for.

Perhaps part of the problem is our timing. We are still under the graceful spell of Hoi An in central Vietnam, a magical place lit by lanterns and ladies on bicycles. During our visit, the river burst its banks, turning the streets into canals, and as the water-lined streets flickered with candlelight, the sunset bathed us in a rose-coloured glow. But here the only thing the streets in Hanoi are streaming with is motorbikes, taxis and cyclo-drivers. The pavements are full of merchants, eateries and more motorbikes using the sidewalk for parking. The streets are lined with Vespa boutiques and vehicle repair shops and even the ground floors of many of the buildings are used for parking.

In Hanoi, a blanket hangs over the city, but it’s not there to snuggle up to; it’s more like something to throw off in a fit of restless sleep. Motor vehicles emit a toxic stew, and I later learned the city smog in Vietnam’s major cities can be as thick as a mile. And given that we can’t see one block away from our apartment on the 18th floor, I can believe this.

The sound of yelping dogs joins in with the cacophony below. We guess they are also victims of the traffic and the yelps abruptly cease as the poor creatures are put out of their misery.  Our hotel sits on the site of Hoa Lo Prison, also known as the Hanoi Hilton. Much of the original structure was demolished, as though removing most of the prison would eradicate those crimes of war committed on the very spot we rest our heads. What remains of the prison is full of propaganda and includes images of American soldiers having a fabulous time laughing and playing cards.  Now, the citizens of Hanoi have been condemned to a lifetime of imprisonment in pollution.

Vietnam is an intriguing and complex country, and I’m sure I will visit again, especially to the tranquil centre. For how long these heavenly places will exist is worrying, which gives me a sense of urgency to return. On first impression much of the country’s beauty is hidden, just out of reach to the tourist on a fleeting visit. Yet, it is as seductive as a Vietnamese woman, with her haunting eyes peaking out above a protective face mask. She is barely saved from the hovering haze, much as tourists are merciless under the spell of her mysterious charm.

For another perspective of Vietnam, you can read all about what cruising the Mekong is really like when taking a boutique cruise with CF Mekong Cruises or if you’re wondering how to get to Vietnam, check out my review of VietJet Air. And for more information about travel in Vietnam, go to Visit Vietnam.

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