Upon arriving in Vietnam and discovering that there were no tuk tuks I genuinely felt a bit baffled as to how to get around the place. I’d become so used to them in Cambodia that I just assumed they would be here too. Alas no, in fact unless they are replicas from the war they are not allowed to be here at all (or so I’ve been told).
So whilst here I’ve been exploring a multitude of different ways to get around Hanoi. Most travel guides tend to explain how to get around the country as a whole but learning to get around the city itself took a great deal of luck, some advice from helpful expat and visiting friends and a whole host of bad mistakes.
Crossing the street is a major challenge within Vietnam and you have to be in the right mind set to do it. I often stand at the side of the street with my mind full of zoo tasks I need to complete, without concentrating fully, expecting a gap in the traffic to open up. It never does. And so you have to take a deep breath, look for an opportunity that is mainly motorbikes (they can swerve around you) and go. The key here is to not hesitate. I sometimes wonder whether it’s actually safer to close your eyes and cross because it takes an awful lot of effort to keep ploughing through the traffic in the vain hope that they see you and will make attempts to avoid you. Developing a kind of determined shuffle helps. It ensures that your movement through the chaos of traffic is predictable rather than erratic and therefore you are less likely to be run over. Also never ever assume that a one way system of traffic will actually be one way. Crossings are just markings on a road and traffic lights are often ignored. I may not be surrounded by forest but it’s still a jungle out here!
Because I tend to cross the street in the same place at the same time every day and stick out like a sore thumb then I sometimes get help. Every now and again someone (usually an older lady) will walk up alongside me, tap me on the shoulder and encourage me to walk with her. There was one particular old woman that practically adopted me for this task. She was always completely silent and didn’t have much of a sense of personal space. As I stood observing the traffic she would appear, most stealthy, her bowed frame just inches from my shoulder, staring intently at my tay face. I would turn around, get the fright of my life, and then we would both cross the road together. It became a strange ritual for a while. I found it wonderfully ironic that in my home country the young generally help the old cross the street and now it was the other way round.
I walk almost everywhere in Hanoi. It’s free, it’s easy (when there’s not many streets to cross) and you get a much better sense of where you are too. In Cambodia the lack of quality pavements made it quite difficult to walk around but here I was surprised and impressed by what I was finding.
Rickshaws are another great way to see the city but i have never used one. They do tend to be mainly a tourist attraction but I would not feel comfortable asking an elderly man to cycle me around the city in the baking heat whilst I sat back and soaked in the fumes.
Motorbikes are the obvious way of getting around this place and the city is designed for them. Pavements are often dipped for them, shops and houses all have motorbike ramps and we’ve even seen what looked like a motorbike drive through bank! If you want to get around the city without getting your own then “Grab” bikes or “Uber” bikes are easily accessible. However i have heard a statistic that there are around 30 deaths a day on the roads here and this does not surprise me. The roads are insane and a hideous reminder to many of my daemons. Every day I hope and pray that people get home to their loved ones safely but in such a chaotic myriad of traffic which ignores the rules and makes up their own I am aware of the odds. I have met many expats on a “Motorcycle Diaries” type pilgrimage across the whole of the country which, I admit, does sound rather epic but, again my hope for them is that they take it steady. Personally, if I have to travel by road I always go on 4 wheels.
Taxis are abundant in Hanoi, so how to choose one that will not scam you is problematic. My general rule for hailing a taxi from the street is that I always have a Vietnamese person with me, otherwise the price is generally doubled. Because that is often not an option then I use apps. “Grab” and “Uber” are very popular here and I use Uber a lot. After you order it the car will generally come within mere minutes so there is one problem with Uber in that I live in an alleyway.
Because ordering a taxi requires internet connection I generally have to order one right outside my house (assuming the wifi stretches that far) and then leg it through my maze of alleyways with an angry and confused Vietnamese Uber driver calling me on the phone wondering where I am. It’s quite an experience! However it does work and the key thing is that you pay in advance at a set price. The price does move up and down dependant on traffic and road conditions (if you want an Uber in a flood be prepared to pay a lot more!) but I have found it reliable. There’s even been a few (rare) incidents when the drivers actually speak English. I’ve had a rave to hardcore Vietnamese trance music with one driver and encouraged another one to pursue his travel dreams via the Workaway website. He was very excited!
Uber cars are actually not marked but the site often tells you what car to look out for which is helpful. I also always check before I get in that this is, in fact an Uber car, just in case.
Another method of transport which an expat friend of my swears by is the bus system. She will tell everyone that will listen about her bus adventures and assures me they are actually on time and, better yet, air conditioned! The way to figure out the routes is to use google maps and do a few test runs so that you know the timing of the routes. However once you’ve got that mastered it is an easy and certainly cheap way of getting around and my friend really enjoys viewing the city from this vantage point.
I cannot comment on trains in the slightest but to get around Vietnam as a whole is certainly quickest (and sometimes cheapest) by plane. In fact, domestic arrivals and departures are so frequent that you rarely seem to find your flight on the board before check-in is about to close. Delays are frequent, I will admit and you don’t get the chance to enjoy the scenery once you’re above the cloud line but it still works out faster in the long run.
Hanoi is an interesting place to figure out. It is not laid out in a particular way and each section of it has it’s own little segregations but crossing those thresholds opens up a host of new experiences to explore. As long as you can get there and find your way back again the city is full of potential. What I love about it is that the journey is often as eventful and challenging as the experience of the destination.