A city called Hanoise, pt 1. Days 1-3

Hanoi assaults the senses like no other city I’ve ever been to in Asia. It is anything but a quiet city; and yet, it is an orderly chaos that rules the streets. If you’ve been in one, you know exactly what I mean. If you haven’t, well…you’ll need to experience it first hand to appreciate the fear that freezes you to a spot in the middle of the street, not daring to cross because the stream of motorcycles, cars, trucks and cyclos just never seem to end.

So how does one cross a typically busy Vietnamese street?

You just do it. You would also need to ditch your mother’s advice about first looking left and right. You then step away from the pavement and onto the road — and the traffic simply avoids you as you make your way across. That’s all there is to it. I’ve tried it on foot and on my bike and its quite a thrill the first few times you do it. After that, and after riding WITH the traffic, I decided to try what every sensible Vietnamese does.

I rode INTO the traffic. The result is not pretty; with the instant chorus of a thousand horns erupting into your ear.

This is actually a less busy street...

Mind you; you only do this very, very briefly to get to the other side. Actually, I had no choice – I’m a right-hand drive Malaysian road-user. I lost track of the number of times I slowly but surely drifted to the wrong side of the right side of the road. But the beautiful thing with Hanoians is that nobody ever loses their temper. They just honk at you and they carry on with their lives.

How can anyone not love the energy of this city? The people are so animated in whatever they do. I love the colour on the streets, I love the even more vibrant colours that clothed some of the Vietnamese women — fashion faux pas be damned.

Matching pants and seat? She probably has a wardrobe of scooter seat-covers.

Hoan Kiem, Lake of the Restored Sword, adjacent to the Old Quarter, and a popular hangout for locals.

There weren't tourists. They were a group of all-female professional photographers who would capture your digital image for a price if you didn't have a camera handy.

The living takes great pains to ensure that the dead are well-remembered.

Ladders made from one of nature's most versatile materials.

Even weighing machines come to you. You'd always know when one was coming your way -- they all have built-in speakers that only played Mozart.

And this was only my first day in Hanoi. At the airport, I had acted the dutiful tourist, paying USD15 for me, my bike and my panniers to be transported by a cramped-to-the-brim mini-van that dropped me off at a USD10 hotel room (which I thought was cheap, from what I saw of the photographs) that I booked from an agent of sorts in the airport’s arrival hall. It was raining and I had no wish to ride 45 km to the city, then start looking for the Old Quarter (where I intended to stay), and then look for a hotel.

It was hard to believe a room this nice was only going for USD10...untill the jackhammer next door started its jarring song

It's hard to believe a room this nice was only going for USD10...until the jackhammer next door started its jarring song

I realised why USD10 got me such a newish, nice and clean air-conditioned room complete with cable TV and free Internet downstairs. It was 4 flights of stairs up and … next door was a 4-storey buildiing under construction. Welcome to make-a-fast-dong-when-you-can-Hanoi.

The next day, I checked out when i found new digs smack in the heart of the action in the Old Quarter. It was a small hotel; the room was clean, old, but not run-down. Even the taps looked like they had been used since French colonial days. It looked liked how a room in the Old Quarter should look like. Charming.

Next: The mystery of the skinny Vietnamese…

A city called Hanoise pt 2 – The skinny Vietnamese. Days 1-3

In the short time that I spent in Vietnam, I observed that there wasn’t a single fat Vietnamese to be found. Well, the Viets are, after all, quite an industrious lot — a mostly agrarian society that gleans a hard life out of its fertile ground. Generally, the people that I’ve seen are lean and scraggy but, I was more intrigued by another equally emaciated icon — Vietnamese buildings.

Quirky by most Asian standards, Vietnamese buildings tend to compensate for their constricted girths by going deep and tall instead. So what kept them from going wide? A little research yielded some very interesting facts.

Back in the old days, the original buildings were little more than hovels and makeshift stalls. Once they laid claim to the piece of land, they just stayed put…and so did everyone else. And as they prospered, and families grew bigger, the only way to house them all was simply to build up and in.

I suspect it became part of the Vietnames culture after a while. Thin is in. But then, so were the gaudy, heady colours that they were sometimes swathed in. They’ve learnt how make kitsch kitsch-ier still … like this one here, with its purple eyesore of a paintwork complemented by Roman columns (you would almost expect to see a statue of a cherubim peeing into a pond inside). But … who am I to judge another’s taste?

Next: The delicious streets of Hanoi…

New fork, new tyres…

Yesterday, after literally weighing my options, I decided to change the fork to a rigid aluminum one. On a whim, I also decided to change the All-terrain tyres to a pair of 1.5 Kenda touring slicks since KSH had a new shipment that just came in a couple of weeks ago. They’re really fresh off the line; shiny, black and soft. Ok, I admit I am guilty of being a weight weenie, in spite of my skinny label.

Oh yea … the bike now sports an ugly new kickstand as well – just so I don’t always have to find a wall for the bike to lean against; it is, after all fully-laden with 2 rear panniers and a front handlebar-bag.

The shiny new fork complements very well the shiny new slicks. Nice.

Vietnam-Laos. Planning and preparation…

When Ramadhan ends, my Vietnam/Laos adventure will roll off – on the eve of Aidilfitri, to be exact.

My trusty old Giant is ready. My spanking new Ortlieb panniers arrived from US some weeks ago, complete with handlebar-bag. My legs are ready (I hope), although I could do with a bit more training. I’d also just recently bought a new Casio Protrek on eBay to replace my leaky, 5-yr old Suunto Vector. Ah, the joys of retail therapy.

Hanoi is the first on the itinerary. I will spend 3 days soaking in everything Vietnamese. I will be fascinated for sure. I will be ripped off for sure, too. These Viets are as enterprising as they come. Apparently, everyone has an ulterior motive when they come into contact with you – usually to make a fast Dong. I shall be sparing even with my smiles – who knows, the person behind a reciprocating smile might just charge me for it.

The itinerary:

Hanoi to Sapa – by train (after which the biking proper starts)

Sapa to Dien Bien Phu on the Vietnam/Laos border

Cross the border into Laos, head to Luang Prabang

Vang Vieng , then Vientiane, then home.

1,000 km. 21 days. But in all honesty, I have only just roughly mapped out my route. I have not made a single booking for accomodation of any sort. After all, that’s part of the fun in travelling alone – check out a place; don’t like it?… hey, I’m on wheels, remember? — no heavy backpack on my back. I can roll hither and thither as I please.