When I told people in Hanoi that I cycled around the city, I would receive some very confused expressions. Many people thought it was crazy.
Hanoi is one of most congested cities in the world. The sheer amount of traffic and pollution can only be understood after seeing it firsthand. For the majority of the day the roads pulse with motorcycles, cars and buses all in a mad panic to get to their destination in the quickest means possible. This is a land where the highway-code is a mere suggestion. A place where when there is no room left to shove on the road, vehicles switch to the pavements instead. Often described as ‘organised chaos’, the sea of vehicles swerve, dodge, overtake and hand-break turn, with larger vehicles having priority.
What this means, particularly for smaller vehicles, is that a completed journey should be considered a miraculous achievement. At the bottom of the food-chain, bicycles are a rare sight on the streets. Navigating the roads would be difficult enough in an armoured vehicle. On a bicycle, you really are at the mercy of the thousands of people weaving around you. This is why people would think I’m mad, a foreign girl on a bike in Hanoi.
Cycling has always been my favourite mode of transport. It’s the quickest, greenest, healthiest and cheapest option (besides walking). Good for the mind, good for the soul, good for the world! I decided I wasn’t going to let a change of address stop me peddling from place to place. The locals cycled (sometimes) so why couldn’t I?
Shortly after arriving in Hanoi it became apparent I’d need something to get me from A to B for work. J had bought a motorcycle which we’d use when we were together, but I needed to travel up to 10 km journeys for my classes. Buses and taxis where incredibly slow because of the traffic, plus they could get costly so they weren’t an option. Despite the chaos I’d seen on the roads and the warnings from locals, I went with my gut and bought a second hand bike. It was in great condition and had a basket and lock with it. She was beautiful and I called her Blue Bell. I had everything I needed, off I went in to the world as a cyclist on the streets of Hanoi!
Fast forward, over a year, from the first day Blue Bell and myself hit the road to today, I’m still alive! The experience has been character building to say the least. I’m proud of sticking to my guns and taking the greener option. If a foreign girl can cycle the mean streets of Hanoi then there is nothing stopping YOU from taking the greener option too. No matter where you are, you’ve got no excuse. (If you live in arctic or mountainous regions we might let you off ;). Here are just some of the reasons why you need to ditch those petrol polluting vehicles and find yourself a Blue Bell!
Most importantly for me is the fact that cycling is the greener option. This applies wherever you are in the world but in Hanoi the negative effects we’re having on our planet are very visible. Whilst in Hanoi we used an app called Plume to show the pollution level in the city. To give you an idea of how bad the situation is, on the day of writing this the air pollution was at 18 on the plume scale for London, in Hanoi it was 166. 166! And unfortunately that’s not that bad for Hanoi, sometimes it exceeded 300! To be honest you didn’t need an app to tell you how bad the pollution was. Some days you would struggle to see buildings 100 metres away. People would almost live in pollution masks plus your face and clothes would be dirty and dusty after a 10 minute journey across town!
Although a lot of industrial areas of Western China impact the air quality in Hanoi, the main culprit is vehicle emissions. It was sad to discover, no matter the distance, the people of Hanoi would jump on their motorbikes to get around. Footpaths were just extensions of the road and sadly walking was not seen as an option.
In a city so consumed with pollution my desire to protect the planet was even stronger. With a population of 7.5 million inhabitants, if more people chose to cycle, pollution levels would decrease significantly. People would be able to go outside, without a mask, and breathe fresh air. Perhaps the wildlife would return to Hanoi, a city which is devoid of almost all life besides humans, rats and cockroaches.
Being outdoors is meant to be healthy but when you have to wear an anti-pollution gas mask wherever you go, the last thing you feel is healthy. We all need to take it upon ourselves and do something about this! When the air you’re breathing is toxic, the birds have fled and the lakes, once thriving fish, are now filled with floating corpses, is this not reason enough to ditch the moped and jump on a bike?
Cycling is great for you, particularly for your heart and circulation! Finding the time to exercise can be difficult so being able to combine commuting with some cardio is surely a winner? Each week we spend huge amounts of time travelling. If you ditch the bus or car for a bicycle your getting hours of exercise each week without even trying! All this extra activity means you won’t feel guilty about eating that extra helping of tofu (that I always seemed to indulge in). Even in polluted cities like Hanoi, why not make the best of a bad situation and burn a few calories during your morning commute?
Besides walking, cycling is the cheapest option – who doesn’t want to save a few pennies, ey? After the initial cost of the bike there is very little else you’ll be paying for. There may be a few maintenance costs such as needing your tyres pumped up but that usually costs about 5,000vnd. Thats 16p! You can, however, bypass these costs by buying a bike pump. The only other problem I faced was getting a screw stuck in my tyre when I was far from home and having to find a mechanic to fix it. Despite my lack of Vietnamese I managed to use hand gestures to explain the problem. 15 minutes and 70,000vnd later (£2.30) I was off again! This is significantly cheaper compared to the overall costs of mopeds, taxi’s or buses.
Not So Dangerous
Safety was the main cause for concern when I told people I cycled everywhere. I won’t sugar coat it, the roads in Hanoi are horrendous! During day time hours and even more so during rush hours the roads are an avalanche of vehicles emitting a constant stream of fumes into the atmosphere. All accompanied by a deafening amount of tooting and beeping. As mentioned before the highway-code isn’t much of a consideration and the police have a relaxed attitude towards the law (unless they can get a bribe out of it). For locals and tourists this means road traffic accidents are unfortunately common. There’s a long standing debate in Hanoi about who’s driving is worse, the locals or the expats. Regardless of where you stand on this debate there’s no denying the roads are a bloody dangerous place.
The only other people who seem to cycle in Hanoi are middle-aged to elderly men and women, selling fruit or flowers. They’d leisurely go about their day merging with the frenzy of traffic. As a newbie to the city, being exposed to the traffic on my bicycle was extremely nerve racking at first. It didn’t take long to get used to cycling on the other side of the road. It wasn’t long before I felt just as comfortable as the locals peddling away. I became accustomed to the organised chaos and began to fit in amongst the madness! This goes to show that although it may seem daunting, as long as you use your initiative, you can master the roads of Hanoi and remain in one piece!
Convenience and Independence
Growing up in Cambridge where bicycles have more authority than cars, my main mode of transport has always been a bike. Even living in the hilly peaks of Sheffield for three years I never resorted to public transport.
The terrible traffic in Hanoi can make travelling during peak hours almost impossible. People often have to leave twice as early to get to their destination. The independence you get from cycling means you are able to avoid major traffic jams and go wherever you want, whenever you want . The constraints of public transport can often limit your choices and independence. When driving a moped you’re (supposedly) restricted to the roads. There’s also limitations such as where and when you can park somewhere. Cycling allows you to come and go as you please giving you complete autonomy of where you roam. It also gives you a great chance to stop and take in your surroundings whenever something catches your eye.
The draw of owning a motorbike in Hanoi, being so much cheaper than the west, means a lot of expats and tourists don’t consider other options and just follow the locals. Just because the majority do one thing doesn’t make it right. Ditching the moped and jumping on your bicycle is the best option! There are many reasons why I chose to cycle in Hanoi. Cycling is cheaper, greener, keeps you fit and is better for the environment all at the same time! With pollution levels in Hanoi rising and the increasing side effects of climate change threatening our planet, it’s time to change our ways! Hop on your bike and experience the greener side of travel (then go home and try one of our delicious recipes ;).
Have you visited Hanoi? What was your preferred mode of transport? Let us know in the comments below.