Beep! Beep beep beep! This is the natural sound of the habitat that is downtown Hanoi. There is an endless cacophony of horns – sometimes short and squeaky, other times longer and more insistent. There is no aggression intended – the horn is to warn the pedestrian or cyclist ahead that their motorbike ( more of a scooter really ) or car is bearing down on you and that you should not pick this moment to change direction. Driving in Hanoi should be classified as an extreme sport. Insert small confession – I have actually ridden as a passenger on the back of a few motorbikes. An important motorbike wardrobe hint – trousers or long flowing skirts and dresses are the best attire for bikes. A slim fitting skirt that sits below the knee requires you to sit a dainty side-saddle, which reduces passenger confidence in direct proportion to skirt width! On any street corner you will see a local lying on his motorbike. As soon as a westerner materialises, he will arise from his slumber and shout “motorbike madam, motorbike madam”. The bargaining routine begins ( he says “30,000 Vietnamese Dong”; you say “too much, too much” ) and when agreement is reached you have secured yourself a cheap form of transport suitable for short distances when the sweltering humidity make walking a less palatable option.
Crossing the street in Hanoi could qualify as an Olympic sport as it takes skill, concentration and practice to master. First thing to know is that the few pedestrian crossings that do exist are laughably redundant so don’t even attempt to cross at them. You could grow old waiting for a suitable lull in traffic, so adopt a nonchalant manner, stare straight ahead and step into the ocean of motorbikes and bicycles and voila! It will be like Moses parting the red sea and the traffic will manoeuvre around you. Do not under any circumstances change course. This could tempt the natural traffic order to be thrown off its balance and who knows the consequences.
Food is to be found everywhere in Hanoi and there are people partaking all hours of the day, sitting on pavements on little plastic chairs eating a variety of noodles, vegetables and meats. One of my favourite parts of the day is lunchtime when I join my colleagues for lunch at their local haunts. Our office is a 15-20 minutes drive south of downtown and I am confident that our neighbourhood does not feature in The Lonely Planet. I love it as it is such an authentic experience. As my confidence grows I want to try the Vietnamese version of the local pub – they are called bia hois and consist of lots of little plastic chairs on the pavement or a large open space where lots of locals sit and drink lots of cheap beer. There seems to be a bia hoi on every street. One thing is for certain – whoever has shares in the local small plastic chair manufacturing company is getting a great return on investment!
The most unusual thing I have seen to date are actually dentists. Why dentists you ask? Because dentistry appears to be a spectator sport in Hanoi – they are all glass and big open spaces and from outside you look straight in and see the patient sitting in the dentist chair, mouth wide open with a white-coated person hanging out their mouth! My fancy is also tickled by the local barber shop – all you need is a spot on the pavement, an old mirror, nail with which to hang up on a nominated wall, a chair, scissors and presto – you are in business. The Vietnamese could start a business anywhere out of anything – they are the MacGyvers of entrepreneurism! It’s one of the reasons why I am so happy to be working for Kiva in Vietnam facilitating loans to people who have so much ingenuity and initiative.
To see loans for some entrepeneurial Vietnamese, click here http://www.kiva.org/app.php?page=businesses&partner_id=85&status=fundRaising&sortBy=New+to+Old&_tpg=fb/>