Tourists riding in cyclos in the Old Quarter.
Ask my six-year-old son BBC what his favourite moment in Hanoi was and he will tell you it was riding in a cyclo, the pedal-powered pedicabs found everywhere in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
To him, the cyclo is a novelty on the scale of a carnival ride. My husband and I saw it as a tourist gimmick, but one with one major difference – the journey provides a constant near-death experience.
On a cyclo, you, the passenger, sit up front in the bucket seat with nothing coming between you and the madness that is Hanoi’s traffic. Meanwhile, the cyclo driver is sitting snugly behind you, secure in the knowledge that he has you acting as an airbag should anything happen.
Things get especially hairy when the cyclo driver rides headlong into a throng of motorcycles, some of which are not travelling in your direction.
BBC? He was thrilled. His first words after we alighted, my husband and I dazed and dusty, yet blazing with gratitude for the gift of life, was: “Can we ride again?”
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THE OLD QUARTER
This is Hanoi’s heart of commerce dating back to the 13th century, its streets named after the trades that set up shop there. Hang Bac, which means Silver Street, for example, was and still is a street lined with silversmiths. Other streets, however, now feature trades other than what they were named for.
So in the tree-lined, motorcycle- clogged lanes, you can find streets selling musical instruments, festive decorations, or even gravestones. Other sights include street hawkers cooking on tiny stoves and women selling pyramids of oranges, strawberries and fresh flowers from baskets or the back of bicycles.
In our cyclo, we glided past tourists sitting on little stools at corner coffee shops and overtook women selling gigantic bunches of Minion and Hello Kitty helium balloons. (Which BBC clamoured to buy, but by the time he made his plea, we had already left the balloon sellers behind. Tough.)
To get a closer, less death-defying look at the Old Quarter, the three of us took a walking tour of the area with Hidden Hanoi (www.hiddenhanoi.com.vn), whose guide gave us a primer on the history and architectural style of the Old Quarter.
The area is filled with old buildings nicknamed tube houses because their profiles are long and narrow, up to 70m long but only 2m wide. Some tube houses have been converted into shops, but others remain for residential use.
The guide took us to a very old and gloomy tube house, into which eight families were crammed, each occupying a room smaller than a bedroom in an HDB flat. All the families shared a tiny common kitchen and an even tinier bathroom and wash area.
It was getting a little grim, so the guide added, perhaps from personal experience: “You get used to living with so many people. Everyone knows everyone’s business. And when you move out, you actually miss your neighbours.”
And then, just as my group was filing out of the house through its narrow corridor, a motorcycle inexplicably appeared and cut through the house to get to the other side, forcing us to scramble onto tiny ledges on the walls to avoid getting our toes run over.
After leaving the house, we went to a street-side market, where something caught my son’s eye. He squatted by a styrofoam box on a kerb containing squirming worms in shades of beige and pink, each as thick as a finger.
Thinking that maybe the Vietnamese were really big on fish pets and bought these worms as fish food, I asked the guide about them.
“For eating,” said the guide. “Stir-fried with egg.”
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