Chaos & Communist Flags On The Hanoi Autobahn

Knackered, hanging and lacking patience I landed in Hanoi. But it didn't take me long to fall in love with the madness...
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Knackered, hanging and lacking patience I landed in Hanoi. But it didn't take me long to fall in love with the madness...

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Chaos is a friend of mine.

Bob Dylan.

I was tired and hung-over.

I had reached the extremities of patience dealing with over-officious customs officers and fending off bullshitters as I walked through the terminal out into the busy car park.

We had flown into Hanoi from Bangkok on Air France. I thought it was a fitting nod to the new Vietnam that we arrived on the national carrier of a country they had fought so hard to remove half a century ago.

We were met by constellations of humanity intent on multiplying and changing shape before me, like cells morphing into ever greater numbers. If I described the noise as the sound of a thousand people talking at once that would only be because that was what was actually happening.

The French Jesuit Priest Alexandre de Rhodes transcribed the ancient Vietnamese language into the Roman alphabet in the 17th century because he wanted to preach to and convert a far larger audience. It was also, he said, because the harsh glottal stops and singing vowels sounded like ‘twittering birds’ that needed to be tamed.

His lack of success in retuning the sound of the tonal jolts was confirmed by a US journalist in the 1960s who complained dismissively that listening to the Vietnamese language at its harshest was like listening to ‘ducks fucking’.

A lemon sun gently fell prey to a blue night, half a clock away from its violent midday self that stabs such harsh light and debilitating heat into this corner of the world. The contrast between such untroubled finesse and the violent noise and activity in front of me was disconcerting.

The hubbub encircled and I did what I normally do when faced with a crowd of taxi drivers demanding my attention: I approached a man on the fringes too timid or disinterested to join the melee.

He looked fifty but could have been seventy or forty in a country that has been an ideological battlefield for decades, and where the generations that have survived faced depravations that would weary the strongest.

His face was a general ledger of triumph and disappointment, the trench- like wrinkles a concatenation of experience that suggested there had been far more of the latter than the former in his life.

He wore a misshapen collar that was twice that was twice as big as his neck, as if he had borrowed the shirt from a far taller friend. My instinctive appraisal told me he looked slightly deranged, yet sensing my discomfort at the crowd he said: ‘Vietnam is a safe country today…’ before tailing off.

He then smiled with a rueful grin revealing brown rusty coloured teeth like weathered railings and added in a voice heavy with irony: ‘Traffic is the only enemy we have now’, before re-adjusting his worn tie as if to ward off any further comment.

The statement appeared truthful.

We jumped in with a couple of German travellers passing polite conversation about the difference between North Face and Berghaus as if it actually meant something. As our cramped minivan careered along the along the dusty stretch of patchwork concrete that passed as a motorway in Hanoi, a discord of caterwauling beeps blasted from the majority of road users.

It forced our man to drive his small vehicle with all the bullying glee of a large one, verbalising his anger in a small bout of clandestine but no doubt X-rated Vietnamese curses.

Engines revved and bickered at unwanted red lights, as the squabble ripened into a full blown argument at the sight of a green one. I was quickly learning that the soundtrack of Hanoi is noise as the production of motion.

He gave me a look and another rueful grin that, in my agitation I took to be a lazy calm. Of course, as his smile tightened, and he pressed the accelerator deeper, it could just have easily been one of casual disinterest. I looked closely at our driver. His red lidded eyes fixed into the middle distance.

He was tired, that much I could tell.

His lids were ready to swoop shut like a curtain falling suddenly on an encore. Thankfully his stamina prevented the hydraulics from undertaking such an event.

I saw trucks with Red Communist Flags carrying soldiers in smart Green coats and bright Red epaulettes. In their rush to be somewhere else their driver busied himself with honking slower moving traffic. Sleek German motors driven by mysterious businessmen behind tinted windows hounded packed buses by using short aggressive toots on their horns. Other buses, complete with rust and missing wheels arches carried their loads of humanity and thick cigarette smoke with the jarring functionality of tired suspensions.

A preponderance of motorbike drivers – with or without helmets – sliced past us, ferrying what could only be described as the proceeds of random looting. I watched with a barely credible belief as I witnessed everything from 6ft foam mattresses’ (complete with unidentifiable dark patches), suitcases so stuffed with clothes that elastic wires were wrapped around the faded leather to secure the contents.

Bundles of coriander so thick they looked like fresh green kindling, wicker baskets stacked 10 foot high balanced on the lap of one motorcyclist, (who chose to angle his head to the right of the pile to see oncoming traffic at a crossroads), televisions, crockery, wardrobes, a bookcase, mirrors, cd racks, flapping chickens – there was nothing that could not be conveyed to another location via that most unlikely medium of two wheels, that was treated more like a delivery van.

My own eyes substantiated lampshades and radiators, dishwashers and washing machines, upturned tables and a confident and unyielding upright piano, all being shifted.

I watched fascinated as two motorbikes driving parallel engaged in a shouted but engaged conversation, their eyes facing each other rather than the vehicle in front.

Bad driving and noise abounded.

Every petrol powered apparatus appeared to break some law of the road, whether it be by tailgating, overtaking on the inside, cutting others up, breaking the speed limit or driving with a heavy or unbalanced and illegal load.

All I could think was that it must take a high degree of skill to become such a poor motorist, in a place where every third mechanism carried children – with or without helmets.

The children were normally too young to walk, or not old enough to drive, which wasn’t that old considering I saw at least three cyclos – essentially motorised bikes - farting their way through Hanoi - piloted by boys not old enough to shave.

Many motorbikes were ridden by boy racer types complete with slicked black hair and real or fake designer sunglasses. Yet even this denomination had a load, in some lucky cases an elegant young woman, both legs placed to one side dressed in an enchanting and delicate embroidered silk tunic or Ao Dai, the traditional and ancient female dress of Vietnam.

In one chaotic transportation, a motorcyclist with a chicken on his lap and a box of woks on the back swerved precariously across a junction. The living poultry was either a family friend, or its placid nature a key to the resignation it held, regarding ending up in the latter product his owner was migrating.

My attention was drawn to stacks of conical hats, rolled up rice mats, squealing and distressed fat pink pigs trussed in baskets, their human like eyes fearing the worst, as their distracted drivers carved their furlough through spaces where no spaces existed.

I watched intrigued, as a battered car pulled its exhaust along the uneven tarmac like a recalcitrant child, sparks flying. Eventually like most recalcitrant children, the exhaust pulled itself free, the wretched vehicle puffing out smoke from its overworked engine like a pulmonary beat.

I still recall the moment when I stopped studying with wonderment what was being moved across the city. It was when I saw an empty coffin (at least I presumed it was empty, the thought that it may have been full had never actually occurred to me until I wrote this sentence) that was placed upright on the back of a scooter and a giggle rose in me at the absurdity of the scene. I giggled again, because I didn’t expect the sight of traffic to ever raise a smile.

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In another tableau, a pack of riders – with or without helmets - covered their mouths with scarves, protection from the ever darkening mist and pollution of the early evening. All appeared to have mobile phones clamped to their ears that made them steer awkwardly and beep other road users as if it was their fault.

Passing through the fringes of outer Hanoi the first widespread housing became stouter, more rectangular and European in design than Asian, with balconies, tenement-like low trajectory roofing and a concrete solidity that was lacking in many parts of Lao and Cambodia that completed France’s Indochinese triumvirate.

Periodically I looked into windows where children studied by the irregular light of a flickering television, as elder men smoked and women prepared dinner. Runny-nosed, shirt-out, belly-button-showing, barrels of energy ran around unchecked. I watched a roadside barber studiously clipping his customers hair, a bare light-bulb illuminating the pair hung from an adjacent tree, while not a metre from the non-existent kerb, heavy traffic swiped past unforgivingly.

As we drew nearer to centre of Hanoi the spaces between vehicles became smaller and road space became invisible. The arms of drivers were tethered to steering wheels of tired vehicles mired in an increasing stodge of traffic.

Aggression was inevitable. I watched as a driver cut up a bicycle. The sheer intensity and fervour of his scowl was reason enough for him to believe he could dissolve traffic.

Bicycles suddenly appeared everywhere. Hundreds if not thousands of the leg powered machines threatened to envelope our minivan, their bells trilling in a sinister symphony. Where there was no distinction between the probable, the possible and the downright ridiculous in terms of the highway code.

A few brave, foolhardy or just plain crazy riders counter-intuitively cycled against the flow, fish swimming against the current – yet just like fish swimming against the current , no matter how packed the stream was and how random and disjointed everyone’s movements were, I saw no collisions.

We slowed to the historic centre of old Hanoi – charming and discomforting Hanoi. The city on the South West bank of the red River so called because of the clay that lies under the surface.

It may have been that my disorientated state failed to spot any red hues, or it may have been a side effect of Doi Moi, unchecked pollution from unchecked economic growth.

We passed lakes and the yellow pastel hues attributed to the classical and colonial French architecture sans glass and steel, a preponderance of elegant two story buildings reflecting the dichotomy of the expatriate existence: purposefulness and indifference.

As we edged ever nearer the old centre I became aware of crowded restaurants that were prefaced by long chains of parked bikes that formed a stationary metal centipede. It was about the only element that seemed to be stationary in Hanoi.

We parked in a busy street that had no kerb, with pitted and pockmarked tarmac, near yet another busy intersection that had no kerb or traffic lights with pitted and pockmarked tarmac. Undersized thoroughfares abounded, all replete with noise, motion and commercial activity; un-regarded alleys around the centre, whose names I would never fully grasp.

Sensing my wide eyed wonderment at what we had just witnessed the driver looked at me and the two Germans: ‘Well,’ said one of them with a long pause, ‘it wasn’t the Autobahn’, with the ironic understatement that attracts me to the German sense of humour.

‘No, it wasn’t the autobahn’ said his friend in clipped tones:

‘It was the Hanoi Autobahn’.

This is an edited chapter taken from Layth’s book on his time in Vietnam entitled ‘Hanoi Autobahn’.

Follow Layth on twitter @laythy29