HANOI – It was just past 7 a.m. but already the streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter were clogged with thousands of noisy little motor scooters, the transportation of choice for the six million citizens of this lovely capital, also known as the City of Lakes. Every traffic light here looks like the starting line of a Grand Prix motorcycle race as scooter drivers line up across wide French-designed boulevards and rev their engines in anticipation of the next green light. There are an estimated five million scooters in Hanoi and about 20 million in all of Vietnam, making this country of 83 million people the motor scooter capital of the world. In a city practically void of public transportation – no subway and only Soviet-era buses to get millions of commuters around – the motorized bikes make perfect sense, unless, of course, you’re a pedestrian trying to make your way across the network of narrow streets that make up the working class Old Quarter.
Left: Hanoi's old imperial palace where foreign leaders are greets. Right: The younger face of Vietnam.
“Just walk slowly,” Doan Cong Dinh, my guide, advised as we started across an intersection known as Hang Bac. “The scooters will make their way around you, no problem. Just don’t run or they will not be able to anticipate your moves.”
We made it safely across but others are not so lucky. Dinh told me over 12,000 people are killed each year here in motor scooter accidents.
That’s when I declined his offer to show me the city from the back of his scooter.
“Okay, we will see Hanoi on foot – it’s very walkable,” said Dinh as we started out on our tour of this city that has served as the capital of a unified Vietnam since the early 1980s, but whose roots go back nearly a millennium.
The Vietnamese are of Chinese decent and for over 1,000 years China ruled this country that had long periods of conflict with its neighbours and foreign occupiers.
Above: Women do a lot of the manual tasks in Vietnam.
The French colonized Vietnam in 1887 and made Hanoi the capital of their Indochina Empire which also included Cambodia and Laos.
During World War II, Japan occupied Vietnam, a terrifying period when 10 per cent of the population starved to death.
Then came the Vietnam War with the United States which changed the history of this lovely country forever. After the Americans abandoned South Vietnam in 1975, Ho Chi Minh unified the country under the communist banner. Since the mid-1980s, Vietnam has lived in peace -- one of the longest periods without conflict in this country’s history.
Above: Hanoi is the scooter capital of the world and the little machines make a lot of noise.
“We will walk through the Old Quarter to get to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum,” said Dinh as we headed for Independence Square and the granite tribute to Ho Chi Minh, the little man who made such a big impact on the world during his lifetime.