Vietnam is a fascinating country full of flavor, culture and motorcycles. There are 40 million of them, making street walking hazardous
Colourful and boisterous, Vietnam is a country constantly on the move, and mostly by motorbike. Visiting this Southeast Asian nation for the first time can be something of a sensory overload, but the cacophony of sights and smells and experiences will leave you forever changed.
Vietnam’s spectacular scenery and architecture, unique culture and a menu so delectable aside, what will undoubtedly leave the biggest impression on any visitor is the overwhelming number of motorcycles on the roads. Consider that there are 95.4 million people in the country, and more than 39 million registered motorbikes (compared to the two million cars). That means that besides the very young and very old, every person owns a motorbike – and rides it loaded to the hiIt on roads thick with the blaring of hooters.
For visitors to Vietnam, crossing a road becomes a challenge, a rite of passage ‘and an art form that requires bravery, stamina and fancy footwork. Your speed in crossing is crucial, as is the wave of your hand signaling that you are, in fact, crossing and for motorists to please avoid flattening you. Once you set foot off the curb, do not stop. Just keep going as bikers weave and dance around you with their horns blaring. Arriving alive here is a close shave.
I found that the best way to acclimatize to this mad dervish of traffic was to become part of it. I hired a capable driver with a reliable bike through Hello Vietnam Travel, donned my hard hat and took to the streets – at a maximum of 40 km/h through the narrow streets of Hanoi, and a lightening fast 60 km/h outside the city bounds. Riding pillion I caught glimpses of life in Vietnam’s northern capital: the warren of cramped streets in the old quarter, street vendors selling tasty morsels with unpronounceable names, conical hats bobbing through outdoor markets, stalls brimming with fresh flowers, vegetables, live poultry, fish and the odd frog.
Vegetables and fruits of every shade and shape are sold on the street by vendors straddling bicycles or by women precariously balancing baskets of produce on a pole over their shoulders. Rice, the staple diet, is served boiled, as paper wraps, buns, noodles and even cakes, flour and wine (beware: it has a kick).
Vietnam’s street food is world famous. Noodles in broth with beef, chicken or fish and vegetables is the local favourite, and is eaten at any time of the day. Other delights include fried or fresh spring rolls, marinated meat on bamboo sticks barbecued on small braziers, corn on the cob, fish, crab, prawns or duck… the offerings are endless and the aromas always tantalising. To quench your thirst drink herbal tea or sugarcane juice, fresh coconut water, freshly squeezed lemonade or, simply, the local beer.
An important tradition and export is coffee. Robusta and arabica beans are grown extensively throughout the country, making Vietnam the runner up to Brazil in exports. Coffee, then, is an essential part of the day.