When we got to know ‘Vietnam’, we encountered her long and elegant physique, but found her somewhat overworked and under resourced. She is fiercely individual and moves through the landscape in all means available to her – roads, trains, bikes, boats and mopeds. She speaks in a language that is a fusion of French and Chinese. Although she was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1975, following the reunification, she has never been fully accepted it, and continues to refer to herself as ‘Saigon’.
Vietnam is an individual and uses every method available to express her uniqueness. From commencing the day with an individual coffee filter over her cup, every home expresses itself differently within the confines of the 4 metre wide plots. Curved balconies, bright colours, overhangs, different size windows within one façade, the expression is only limited by the amount of money you can inject and this can be done continually on a whim as there are little planning regulations. Given the prevalence of motorbikes, the accessories for these are highly customised, with helmets decorated in faux Burberry motif, pink with flowers and some mimicking a sun hat with a gap in the back for a ponytail. The face masks are equally as expressive, with patterns, faces and football team emblems (usually Manchester United). The moped seat also receives individual tagging, with shops offering every kind of fake leather fabric imaginable, tiger, crocodile and zebra skin. Although Vietnam has limited means, she finds every opportunity to express how she’s different and this in not just restricted to the women.
What’s interesting about the streets in Vietnam is how they have been modified to accommodate the habits of the people. All the curbs are sloped out to the street to allow easy access to ramp the curbs on your motorbike to avoid traffic (because everyone is in a hurry) and park bikes. Management of parking is also organised, for a small fee they’re packed like sardines and fished out when required. Given the more recent introduction of the luxury car, infrastructure has not caught up yet to provide parking, so in the evening as drivers curb crawl looking for an elusive opening, men will offer spaces in illegal positions (on footpaths, in front of fire hydrants, on the corner of streets etc.), of course there is a another fee and it will be ‘minded’ for the evening. My Vietnamese friends informed me that it’s not only the tourists that get ripped off in these agreements.
During my time studying in Denmark, I took a course by Jan Gehl on ‘Life between buildings’. It attempted to give us a tool kit to understand how people interact in public space, but more importantly with each other. After experiencing these ‘un-designed’ spaces in Hanoi and other Vietnamese cities, with the alley way been the butcher shop, the market, the cobblers and romantic outdoor restaurant, I wondered could streets really be designed for the life that will occupy them or is the life created by society, political and economic factors?
There is also so much that design of public spaces can do to uplift its citizens and I wondered as I passed through congested Saigon, when the authorities would have the means and foresight to invest in these projects. During Tet, one of the main streets in Saigon is closed to traffic and is beautifully decorated with flower arrangements, creating a tranquil space to enjoy the commencement of the spring festival. This main street leads down to the river, which I expected to make a big gesture to address the water and history of boats and trade. But unfortunately there is a barrier of a four lane road to the river, which when you do manage to cross, with your heart in your mouth, is designated for car parking, a couple of pavilions and a broken and uneven footpath. Shanghai had a similar challenge along the famous waterfront ‘Bund’ but overcame this with good urban design that addresses the individual’s desire for relaxation beside water.
Learning to cross the road in Vietnam can be quite the challenge
It needs also to be mentioned that owing to the length of the country at approx. 1600km, we experienced distinctly different climates, landscapes and people with over fifty-four different ethnic minority groups. With so much diversity, the climate has a huge bearing on the traditions and customs. After leaving the relatively cold temperatures of the north, where the earth is not as fruitful, we arrived into the port town of Hoi An. It’s streets were painted a crimson yellow that have a fusion of influences from both their Chinese and French history. A 5km bike ride from the town, we encountered the most beautiful sandy beaches, with golden sand, lined with palm trees for shade. With the hot sunshine, cool breeze and humidity, we really felt we had arrived somewhere special. I took the cue from the poet Prufrock and rolled the bottoms of my trousers and dared to eat a peach (a mango in my case) and felt the refreshing ocean and the golden sand between my toes, the temperature not too much of a shock either. The beach Prufrock place of pleasure for the tourists only; you will rarely ever see Vietnamese sunbathing. To have tanned skin suggests that you of lower status in society and all attempts are made to keep the sunlight away. With so much time spent outdoors, women will wear long white gloves, toed socks with their flip-flops, hats, scarfs and glasses. This was an extraordinary sight to see as I was catching my breath and wiping my brow in 33 degrees humid heat.
The sun setting on majestic Halong Bay
On our journey through Vietnam, we have managed to experience almost every type of transportation, from trains, rip-off taxi’s, bikes, mopeds, buses, cruise boats, kayak, tuk tuk’s, cars, plane and one of the most dangerous of all, on foot.
The symbol of the road for me is represented by the overloaded telegraph poles with hundreds of cable, leaning to support the strain in the capital Hanoi. On arrival, our first challenge came with crossing the road, a simple task you would think, but with no requirements to stop at the pedestrian crossings or traffic lights, I felt I was embarking on a game of chicken. I had read in the guide-book not to make any sudden movements, as the moped drivers have trained themselves to swerve past pedestrians, so I learned to cross slowly, with purpose and determination and copied the locals with a hand gesture to slow them down. By the third day, I had built up a trust with the chaos of the road, to remain calm, as a river of noise beeps; engines, passengers, chickens and baskets passed me by.
Traveling along the roads in Vietnam, you will see an intoxicating mix of life been played out like a film real. In the south, roadside cafes have rows of hammocks like Starbucks has sofas, to get out of the scorching afternoon heat.
Kilns for baking bricks line the road, like ancient tombs, smouldering smoke for some sacred rite. A few moments later I saw a little boy peeing through a fence, just because he can. After the New Year’s celebrations have come and gone, fallen yellow petals of the Tet tree lie nostalgically like pine needles on the ground.
Everything gets transported on the moped, even the ‘Tet’ cumquat tree
At another moment, an unnaturally blonde haired boy is drinking a can like a king on a bare construction site, while next to him, the women are braced in un-lady like postures getting on with the heavy work of carrying loads of bricks on their backs. Cockerels are kept as pets and stand under circular bamboo cages, while another man is pets his prize-fighter affectionately. Shops are emblazoned with colour with glitzy yellow and pink gowns in the middle of a dishevelled street, people always need hope I guess for that special occasion. Women in the south tend to wear matching patterned trousers and tops that look like silk pyjamas to stay cool and covered. A man clutches a machete and slams down chopping coconut from the squatting position. Along the Mekong Delta, where the legs of the houses stand in the water, a shoal of eels are being fed at doorstep, they’re frenetic like piranhas. Two young men wrestle bare-chested at the heat of the day beside cartoon like propaganda on how to be a better citizen.
Street chef with her loyal customers
The roadside kitchens have all kinds of food laid out drying on the ground, while the cook chats on the phone with a bunch of noodles in the other hand. A toddler girl gives a hand in the street restaurant, sweeping the floor like her granny has shown her. The grandparents rare the children, like their parents reared their own. An outdoor church is created with public benches, adorned by ‘Mary the virgin, next to it, the secondary school has hundreds of bikes outside, waiting for the bell to toil. The barber is located on the street next to the coffee terrace, easy access for people to pull up on their mopeds without delay. Such a variety of shops along the road: electric fans, motorcycles and all their accessories, building materials, tiles pipes, recycled gates, toilets, cars driven into the tiled floors of reception lobby’s, bike repairs, large karaoke signs, while a coffin passes by on the back of a three-wheeled bicycle.
I have to keep reminding myself that I am in a tiny corner of the world, 14,000km from home. I can’t imagine how long that would take after experiencing an eight-hour trip by bus that only covered 300km. In the USA we were able to cover an enormous distance of 10,500km, owing to the excellent roads, navigation and the ease of stopping anywhere along route, with motels and diners of sorts.
The experience of flying- leaving Danang in the central Vietnam and within three minutes we were looking town at Hoi An, the small town that we had left, looking back at the little bridge and imagining all the women speeding over it with their food for Tet, trees been transported, hawkers, the pile of rubbish at the edge of the market, the cages of chickens who would meet their end within hours, their legs strapped to the back of the moped and there wings giving one last attempt to break free, all these images come to mind as we fly over in the context less sky.
With almost everyone riding motorbikes it’s extraordinary to see people’s lives whizzing by. Observing what their wearing, how many children they have, if the lady decides to sit side saddle, the intimacy of the relationship between the driver and the passenger, does the girl hold on tightly or passively watch the world go by. These are all details that a car conceals behind fastened seat belts and makes other cities blander and more generic.
The slower pace of the Mekong Delta where life is connected by water ways and flooded forests
Nobody cycles for pleasure in Vietnam. All the more evident by the fact that after our 10km up and down hill cycle to the Langbian Mountain, ours were the only two bicycles in a sea of mopeds in the parking lot. We decided to make this journey as our friend’s father had kindly drawn a map to this destination and recommended bikes would be a nice way to experience the countryside. In my mind without asking too many questions, I thought I was going to Lac village, home to the ethnic minorities of the mountains. For me this sounded rather mystical and romantic, to observe another way of life, but sometimes it’s only a matter of opening your eyes a little wider to observe the differences and feel how different you are in this strange place.
The journey would have been more pleasant if the rented bikes were up to it, but as we really struggled up the hills, people smiled at us with both amusement and surprise. So many people calling out the ubiquitous ‘Hello! Where are you from?’ People’s friendliness is welcoming and warm, travelling through this landscape, I feel extremely special and honoured to be a visitor.
The unusual bicycle journey to Langbian Mountain
When we finally arrived at our destination, we weren’t sure what we were supposed to do next. There were buses, Vietnamese signs, and cowboys walking by with horse painted as zebras, markets and the roar of jeeps tearing down the hill. We recalled from our conversation the previous night that one could get a jeep to the top. Crowds huddle around a ticket booth. I looked up lost at the Vietnamese signs, my situation must have been written all over my face, as it got redder in the sunshine, after our exerting cycle. Straight away people tried to help me buy tickets and listen for our number to be called, as it would obviously be announced in Vietnamese.
We hoped into the back seat of the jeep as it charged up the mountain, the air blew in mixed with exhaust fumes and for a few minutes it felt very calming to be whisked up the hill. The journey ended at the top along with all the other local tourists and we were told we had one hour to take in the view and possible sample the BBQ that served ostrich, snake, crocodile, beef and chicken wings.
Most people were not dressed to be at the top of a mountain, sporting high heels flip flops and dinner jackets. As the majority of Vietnamese cower from the sun, we lashed on the sun cream and hoped that our skin would take on a golden brown colour. People associate darker skin with the life of the peasant farmer working outside. White skin is desired which indicates your all-important status in society.
The journey back to Dalat was just as difficult as the outward one, having to dismount from the bikes and pull the hunk of metal up the hill, this is the reason why people were looking at us so amused. With our exposed skin and our peasant’s form of transport, onlookers must have wondered why someone would make that journey for pleasure?