We’d stayed in Hanoi for two nights and were about to leave the Moevenpick Hotel (see separate review) to stay overnight on a boat, before returning to the Moevenpick for a final night in Hanoi. We knew that we were in for a long drive to Halong bay from Hanoi but hoped it would be interesting and give us a fair glimpse of the Vietnamese countryside.
Although we made good progress for the first part of the journey we were to discover that the majority of the journey would be on narrower roads that were extremely bumpy. So much so that we all felt physically assaulted by the time we arrived at Halong Bay.
We fought through the waves of motorbikes that dominate the roads in Hanoi and that challenge all the rules of driving etiquette. Cyclists would drive the wrong way down the one-way streets, cut right across the route of traffic, disregard traffic lights and surround cars almost to the point of intimidation. We even saw them driving the wrong on dual carriageways.
Foolhardy? Well they didn’t seem to think so and we didn’t see a single accident nor any evidence of bumps and dents to cars. Perhaps this apparent chaotic style of driving actually has rules that aren’t immediately evident.
After the chaos of the city we were soon in to the countryside and enjoying the sight of workers in the Paddy fields completing the second rice harvest of the year. We saw Water Buffalo pulling carts and a couple of people riding buffalo across the field. The scene was certainly evocative of what we had stereo-typicalised life in Vietnam. There were women carrying baskets on yokes slung over their shoulders.
On the dual carriageways alongside large new factory developments we saw women selling bread at the side of the road, groups of youngsters who’ve decided to park up their motorcycles and have a chat with their mates. It wasn’t unusual to see rice drying on the road side (or even on the road) with tyre marks through the rice. At one point the rice had a water buffalo trampling over it and it takes no imagination to know what happened next! But as our guide explained where else could they dry the rice!
We saw countless weddings being held in makeshift marquees in small villages and were able to enjoy mile after mile of authentic Vietnamese life. At one place our guide stopped so that we could take photos of the rice pickers in the paddy fields.
We were surprised at the range of different businesses that sat cheek by jowl with one another. There could be a food shop next to a small welding business, a motorbike spares shop next to an open air butchers. They seem to sit comfortably next to each other, but our western expectation would be that food shops are separate to industrialised units. For several miles the railway line ran alongside the main road almost touching distance from houses and when we had to stop at the crossing we were amazed at how the oncoming traffic formed a phalanx in front of us. As soon as the train had passed and the gate manually opened by the railway employee the revving traffic edged to each other with "nerve" being the only reason to give way. What a bizarre process.
One feature of travelling by road is the "stack ‘m high" principle that motorbikes, vans and lorries seem to adopt. We narrowly missed a shower of bricks from a lorry, saw a motorbike swerve to avoid a bombardment of melons that had spilled out of a large pannier on another bike and narrowly missed the wreckage of the "coming together" of a motorcyclist and a cyclist. The riders had "escaped" but the carnage had been left behind.
However, incidents as these do not phase the intrepid drivers as they continue to recklessly overtake, and lean on their horns to give themselves protection (in their own mind) from the oncoming traffic.
We saw motorcycles laden up with hundreds of cartons of eggs (and make no mistake I am not exaggerating), mattresses, wardrobes, baskets of live animals (including ducks, dogs, chickens) all heading for market and slaughter. There were bikes pulling trailers of pigs and cows and of course some were loaded with up to four riders. The sight of the vehicles on the road is indeed truly remarkable.
You need to be made of stern stuff to survive the rigours of the Vietnamese roads, the severe breaking, the last minute "body swerves" and the incessant horn pipping.
We have lived to tell the tale and fight another day.