Back on the Bike

by aengelson | September 21st, 2009

I’ve been an obsessive bike-commuter for years.

Our first biking destination as a family: lunch with the girls. On the menu: crab and snail soup and sweet potato-and-shrimp fritters. Yum!

Our first biking destination as a family: lunch with the girls. On the menu: crab and snail soup and sweet potato-and-shrimp fritters. Yum!

I first started biking to work in Seattle in the mid-1990s, when I worked at a dodgy little vanity press hidden away in the industrial wasteland of the Duwamish River valley. Later, I biked daily to the Washington Trails Association in downtown Seattle for over six years, rain or shine. And I’d become fanatical about biking around the city, too.  I would bike my two daughters to preschool and day care every day using a trailer and bike seat. I quickly found the the “least-steep” routes up Seattle’s many hills.

So needless to say, I’ve been itching to get back on my bike ever since moving to Hanoi.

The hesitation? I would refer you to this previous post, which includes video of traffic in Hanoi. Though there’s an insane order to traffic here–it just flows–it was a bit daunting to hop on a bike and become part of the cascade of motorbikes, taxis,  trucks, and other bicycles.

But I finally got up the courage, and it was a liberating experience. For our first month in Hanoi, we’ve been limited to paying taxis and xe om motorbikes to get us where we want to go (or walking on the muddy, dusty edges of roads).

You have to trust the system, insane as it is. And it does work. To turn left, for instance, you slowly inch your way left into oncoming traffic. Slowly (but without stopping) you make your turn and everyone will swerve around you. It takes a pretty solid set of cojones (or ovaries) to do this, but once you’ve mastered it, it works.

The difficulty is when something unexpected happens. If you need to swerve, you’re kind of at the mercy of those behind you. The whole system is based on no sudden moves. So I just biked conservatively and stayed as far right as possible. The “Three Feet of Room” sticker on the child seat on my bike is now a wry joke here in Hanoi. I’ll take three inches, thanks!

Biking presents more freedom for discoveries. On a quiet back street I pedaled past an old temple filled with the sounds of musical chanting. Curious, I parked the bike, mounted the steps, and took off my sandals. Inside, the warm floral smoke of incense hovered as older women and men sat cross-legged, all facing the gilded altar. To the left was a gallery of at least a thousand snapshots of deceased ancestors. The worshippers sang from hymnal-like books. Every now and then the clang of a bell rang out and the chant ceased. Fans spun and hummed in the silence.

Not something I’d have seen zipping by in a taxi.

fiona biking

Biking's just another word for freedom. Fiona takes her first trail-a-bike ride on a quiet back street in Hanoi.

Then it was time  to take the girls out for a ride. Wanting to avoid the busy streets for now at least, we’re fortunate to have a lakeside drive under perpetual construction (and thus empty of  traffic) near our house. We hooked up Fiona’s trail-a-bike for the first time, and Matilda rode in her trusty seat on the back of my bike. It was a hot day, so the cycling breeze felt great. We received plenty of curious looks (the trail-a-bike is definitely a novelty in Vietnam). We stopped at another temple, in Tay Ho (West Lake) where worshippers put their bundled offerings on the altar. Neat packages of fruit, eggs, fake money, tiny bottles of whiskey and packs of cigarettes seemed like practical care packages for loved ones now in the afterlife.

Afterwards, we stopped for a bite to eat at a street food stand. Joanie and I ate Bun rieu oc–noodles in a tomato-and-crab-based broth with snail meat. Noodles and tofu for the girls. And some delicious fried sweet potato and shrimp fritters. Cold sodas for the three girls and a  Bia Ha Noi for me.

Did I mention I love this city?

7 Responses to “Back on the Bike”

  1. Hi Andy — I’m the other Hanoi-based American blogger/journalist. Looks like I live within a kilometer of your house; I’m in Lang Nghi Tam. We should get together for bun cha sometime up on Xuan Dieu.

    best
    Matt Steinglass

  2. well done, Andy! those left turns sound treacherous, even to me, and i RACE bikes ;)

    i am curious about your bike stop at that old temple. did you lock your bike? with so many bikes in hanoi, is theft an issue? i know it is in amsterdam, though you’d think everyone already has a bike, so why steal one??

    take care,
    brenda

  3. Matt, That would be great…I’ve been missing the community of colleagues back home! Saw your blog and noticed you work for Global Post, which is a great online magazine, I just discovered it about four months ago and really like it.
    I’ll send an email your way.
    Andy

  4. I didn’t lock my bike, but that’s because there was someone sitting outside watching the bikes & motorbikes. Often, many places have an attendant whose job it is to watch over the various vehicles. Other places, I have been locking up my bike…a mountain bike (even if it is over 15 years old) is a bit of a novelty (most bikes are old cruisers here) so I’d hate to give anyone the temptation to snatch it.
    Used to be that everyone here had a bike…that’s probably worth a post of its own…now the city is ruled by the motor scooter.

  5. Sus cojones son más grandes que las mías.

    So umm, how’s the snail meat? I love escargot…are the snails there farm-raised and free-range, or plucked of whatever, wherever? Taste comparison?

    Fifi on her trail-a-bike looks like she’s going to burst with happiness!

    Great post :)

  6. The snail meat is a bit rubbery, but it tastes good. I don’t know where they’re raised but you can usually see a huge bucket of live ones awaiting the pot…
    That pic of Fiona was taken by iPhone while riding my bike…don’t try that at home.

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About This Site

Andy Engelson is a writer and editor who lives in Hanoi, Vietnam. He's currently working on a historical novel set in the Northwest United States during World War II. He's also a freelance writer, essayist and member of the Hanoi Writer's Collective. In a former life, he edited Washington Trails magazine for six years and before that was freelance journalist. He likes to hike, travel, and play with his family.

Quotable

It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers. The more solitary I am the more affection I have for them. Solitude and silence teach me to love my brothers for what they are, not for what they say. — Thomas Merton

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