The North is an industrial wasteland which was bombed to smithereens, if not into submission, by the Americans during the war (more tonnage than WWII, 700 times the kilotonnage of Hiroshima). The war ended in 1975, and Nixon's last act before signing the Paris Peace Accord in 1973 was to throw in 2-3 weeks of intensive bombing just for good measure. Improve the negotiating stance and all that. The industrial base in the traditional sense was thus more or less destroyed. To keep on going, production had to be decentralised. Thus the normal things you would expect to see (factories near the port in industrial zones, infrastructure geared towards commerce, heavy goods vehicles and roads purpose built for them) are not there in size. (I say this, but you could see massive factories for Canon, and more to the point, for Yamaha and Suzuki.)This lack of infrastructure, along with the fact that after the Americans left in 1975 the Vietnamese embarked upon another ten year military adventure from 1979-1989 in Cambodia (you can see posters for the "brotherhood" between the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea) took a lot out of the country. The good news is that the Vietnamese booted out the Khmer Rouge, #1 on the hit list of the world's most brutal and disastrous regimes ever.
After ten years of their own imperialist venture, the Vietnamese left. What was important, however, is that all of these distractions: wars, reunification with the South, being a pariah state with limited trade with the some of the West, reliance on the Soviet Union as a pal and mentor, the exodus of the boat people, the imposition of a communist overlay on the capitalist and corrupt South--all of these diverted investment away from development and meant that the Vietnamese gave themselves quite a mountain to climb when the rest of the region-Korea, China et al. were going nuts on development. Everyone, it seems, had a head start on Vietnam.So there is a very good reason why Hanoi is like it is, a slightly behind the times city en voie du developpement. So was this any reason not to like the place? Hell no, is the answer I came up with after three days there. And why? Because of the people, and that's why. And I don't mean the people we met, although there were a few worth mentioning. I mean the general attitude of how they seemed to make the place work. Let us start with the traffic, which is mind blowing. We had one taxi driver (of only a few, since we walked most places) but really the only one who had enough of a command of English to answer questions. He said that there are about 7 million people in Hanoi, and that there are 4 million motorcycles. You read that right: 4 million. This helps explain the aforementioned Yamaha and Suzuki factories. What you can't probably imagine, however, is how that translates into reality. At certain times of the day, I am willing to be, all 4 million are on the road. And the streets are not that wide. Some wisacre should do a time and motion study of this daily choreography, because somehow there seemed to be relatively few traffic jams, and at least as far as we could see in the limited time there, not too many accidents given the circumstances. The first question upon witnessing this daily moving mob scene is How?
Let's go back to the people. In stark contrast to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon, or HCMC for short), there seemed to be very few hotrodders, and no hotheads. Everyone was willing to roll along at a modest speed to keep the whole thing turning over. Stoplights were only a general guide, not a steadfast rule. The same could be said for the little green men lights at pedestrian crossings. I don't know what the admonition is that Hanoi mothers give their children before crossing the road, but I am willing to bet it is NOT: Look Both Ways. Looking both ways while crossing the street in Hanoi will most likely get you run over, if not killed only because the motos are going 10mph. It is more likely to be: Look all around...Start...No hasty movements...Keep dodging. If the Spanish were to look outside their country for potential bullfighters, Hanoi is not a bad place to start. Your typical Hanoi resident is adept at the sidestep-before-disaster manoeuvre almost everytime he/she crosses the street. The only thing missing is the cape, the flourish, and the Ole! Steens cottoned on to the technique almost immediately, and I invariable saw her already on the other side of the road while I was still crabwalking across. It took me a while to be able to go with the flow, and not to tense up like a deer caught in the headlights. The motorcycle and the bicycle in Hanoi are the equivalent of a Wild West cowboy's trusty steed. In other words, they are indispensable. I saw innumerable examples of documentary proof, but unfortunately was not quick enough on the trigger to get them captured on film. One fellow had two very large bundles of plastic pipes (20 feet long) balanced on either side of his cycle. I thought of a knight in a jousting tournament, and what effect these poles might have on pedestrians (or cars or other motos) should things get out of hand. OSHA? You must be joking. I saw several examples of women riding side saddle, legs crossed and high heeled shoes protruding. No points for safety or originality, but plenty of points for style. A duo in Hanoi (two women) won the style points with both driver and passenger dressed to the nines amidst the mist and the mud. They were both smiling. A girl in Saigon behind her boyfriend (see picture) did not look too happy about the whole thing, but it was eight in the morning. In Ho Chi Minh City I also saw a gentleman taking his afternoon siesta, perched on his bike with his head hanging off the back against a wall. We also saw a girl doing her homework as her father ferried her to school. Riding double, triple, or even quadruple was not such a strange sight either. Whole families, with baby on the front, was also the norm. Why buy a pram when you can use your moto? Anyway, strolling along the sidewalks is not really any easier with broken pavements or people littered about. Ah the sidewalks (or pavements or trottoirs, if you wish). In the West, these are places for people to promenade, do a bit of window shopping, or more likely , just to get from A to B. In Hanoi, the pavement is a combination salon, workshop, parking lot, kitchen and dining room, and junkyard. Shops do not stop at their front door; they continue anon and spill out into the street. Walking along you constantly have to be on the lookout for bodies, objects, broken paving stones, mud, impromptu meals. The street food is prepared in front of your eyes. The vendor sets up a little mobile kitchen (I watched a woman preparing an omelette at the behest of a shopgirl). There are also little mini moving restaurants, with four or five people squatting on their haunches or perched , at Steens said, on Mrs. Gales's nursery chairs (Mrs. Gales was our son's nursery teacher.) Even if we felt like it, which given the fact that it was wet and muddy and generally did not smell too fragrant or look too hygenic, we would have a hell of a time eating at one of those portable restaurants. On a sunny day, perhaps, or if we knew where there was a good chiropractor. As street theatre, however, walking around the pavements of the Old Quarter is extremely interesting, if not relaxing. Xin Chao, Vietnam. Can't wait to get stuck in. Go to Chapter 5 Click to return to Table of Contents