A girl on a Bike in Hanoi

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.

A girl on a Bike in Hanoi
Greener times cycling in my hometown of Cambridge, England

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!

Greener

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?

A Girl on a Bike in Hanoi

Healthier

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?

A girl on a Bike in Hanoi

Cheaper

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.

A Girl on a Bike in Hanoi

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!

A girl on a Bike in Hanoi

A girl on a Bike in Hanoi

A girl on a Bike in Hanoi

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.

A girl on a Bike in Hanoi

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.

Want to know how the Veggie Vagabonds survived a year in Hanoi as vegans? Click here to find out how!

30 Responses

    • Hi Shellie, thanks for your feedback! Yes we agree that greener options are the way forward. If you want to help on tips and hacks you can incorporate in to your daily life, check out our “Save your Pennies, Save Your Planet” monthly posts.

  • Thanks for sharing your blog. I couldn’t agree with you more. The more I travel, the more concerned I grow for the environment and our sustainability. Smog, plastics ad non-biodegradables impact everyone, and we’re not doing enough to slow their use. Well presented and timely narrative.

    • We feel the same, which is why we’re hoping to promote sustainable travel to enable people to see this beautiful planet and preserve it for the sake of the environment. What places have you traveled to where the environment has been damaged?

    • Years ago people did used to cycle but as wealth came to the city people wanted to upgrade their vehicles. With such a dense population and a lack of proper infrastructure the affect on the city has been damaging.

  • I love riding bikes while travelling in other cities. I agree that is healthier and better overall for you and the environment. Plus from a traveler perspective you get access to so many places and sights up close and personal. We rode bikes all around Berlin and loved how we just cruised up close to major sights while bus tourist watched from a distance.
    How did yo lock your bike in Hanoi? That would be my only concern is leaving it while stopping to see the sights or eating or whatever!
    Eric Gamble recently posted…Making An Adventurer’s InvestmentMy Profile

    • Hi Eric 🙂 Cycling in Berlin must’ve been beautiful! I completely agree that it’s the better way to see a city, you get so much access and can follow your senses!
      In Hanoi I had a bike lock, not a very secure one but I would use that when nipping in to a shop or something. At home we have a bike park, that only residents have access to. Many workplaces have designated parking areas, some of which are proper bike parks, others which are sectioned off areas of the pavement. Similarly people will do this around the city, you pay to park (about 16p for the day) and someone will hover around the parking area for the day. In my year in Hanoi I had fewer bike related incidents compared to a year back home in Cambridge, England.

    • Hi Lionel, at first it can be a little daunting as there’s so many of them but if you go with confidence and use your initiative then it’s easy. In Hanoi it’s just key to remember that larger vehicles have priority…unless you can quickly nip around them and cycle off in to the distance.

  • Good for you. Your choice to help the environment anyway you can is appreciated. I have seen the crazy video of traffic in Hanoi and been amazed that anyone could navigate the chaos. And you have done it for a year! So sad to hear that pollution is so bad that it is difficult to see structures from a short distance. Here’s to making our world a better and greener place.

    • It looks pretty chaotic from a spectators point of view and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t chaotic when you’re involved. But there is a method to the madness and as long as you use your initiative it’s easy enough to navigate yourself through the swarm.
      Yes all the pollution being so visible makes you even more driven to chose the greener option.

  • I love this! Way to stick to your values 🙂 I’m not a very confident cyclist myself (I was even too scared in Cambridge to ride), but it seems like a great mode of transportation for someplace so congested. Pollution is SUCH a big issue in so many places. We’re lucky to be able to generally forget about it in the west, but we should be making more eco-friendly choices.

    • Hello Grace 🙂 Thanks for your feedback! Cycling can be a bit nerve-racking at first but I think with most things through time and practice comes confidence.
      Yes in the West the affects of our choices aren’t as visible and unfortunately it’s other parts of the globe that suffer.

  • We just moved to Orlando and have a similar dilemma. It’s only about 8km to work but some of the interchanges are just plain scary. Plus, there is the daily rain showers I always hear about and no showers at work. I really think I’m going to bite the bullet and start biking once my bike arrives but I’m not 100% sure.

    When we lived in San Diego I felt the same way. Everyday I biked under I-5 I felt a little uneasy (and I was actually hit by a truck once, but only the mirror). In the end, I biked almost everyday and found safe routes. I say, if there is a will there is a way.
    Jenn and Ed Coleman recently posted…Chill at the Queen MaryMy Profile

    • Wow you really were determined! It’s great that you didn’t let that accident deter you from choosing the greener option of cycling. I completely agree that if you want something enough you will do all you can to make it happen.
      Yes rain showers can be a bit of a put-off for cyclists but I find a waterproof jacket and trousers are my best friends during these times!

  • You are so right, cycling is a fantastic way to get around plus environmentally sound. I think I would be nervous though since it is a little crazy around there. I would make sure to be extra careful and aware of my surroundings like you.

    • Although it is a little crazy it’s not so bad! Once you get used to it and use your initiative, it’s pretty easy to cycle around safely.

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  • What a great idea to use cycling as a means of getting around the city! You’re right..its cheaper, greener, healthier and more convenient. Best of all, you’re on your own and can even squeeze into tiny spaces, where a car can’t.

    • Hi Punita 🙂 Yes for all these reasons I think cycling is the best option for Hanoi, or any other place in the world. I think we can all make changed to be a bit greener and cycling around where possible is a great start!

  • I can’t bike let alone cycle through a super congested street so props to you for that! I’m originally from Taiwan and honestly it’s the exact same thing. Streets are filled with motorcycles and the air pollution is just terrible. If only people paid more attention to all the green benefits of cycling!!

    • Hi Jas 🙂 thanks for your comment! It’s so unfortunate that it’s a problem at all let alone in so many cities across the globe! I believe in the power of the individual and hope that even if one person changes there way it can have such a knock-on affect.
      Where do you live now Jas?
      I’m currently based in Cambridge, England where cycling is a lot easier compared to the streets of Hanoi. Cycling is actually enjoyable here!

  • i was in hanoi during christmas 2 years ago, and i’ve never seen such a terrible traffic like what i saw there in hanoi with the bikes, cars, pedestrian and all that! i thought it would get better overtime, but no.. not really the next day. so hat’s off for you!

    • You’re right Marya, the traffic is unbelievable and it never seems to stop! How did you find Vietnam in general?

  • In winter 18-19 I plan to visit Vietnam on bike. For me it was a logical way to use a bicycle as it allows me to see a lot more of the country. I will cycle from Hanoi to HCMC (with a jump to the North like Sapa of course) and the passat in the back. 🙂
    It was nice reading your blog, gave me definitely the feeling that my assumption is right. Any suggestion where to buy a reasonable used bike?
    Hans van Dam recently posted…Zephyr Renovation ProjectMy Profile

    • Wow your trip sounds amazing Hans van Dam 🙂 There are lots of facebook forums such as “Hanoi Massive”, and “Hanoi Used Bikes” that would be a good place to look. They connect tourists, expats and locals and if you post something you need to know someone is bound to know the answer and will give you all the info you need to know. I would suggest asking the masses on there. Good luck with your trip! Cycling in the North I’m sure will be incredible!! Peace & love, V V xxx

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