Cycling Around Hanoi

by aengelson | January 14th, 2010

First of all, please take a moment to make a donation to earthquake relief in Haiti. Partners in Health, Oxfam, Mercy Corps, and Medecins San Frontiers are among the NGOs coordinating medical and other relief efforts in Port au Prince. Here’s a list of effective organizations with a presence already on the ground in Haiti.

In more cheerful news, I’ve been back on my bicycle in Hanoi. Partly inspired by reading David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries, and partly because my polluting Minsk motorbike ran out of gas and I haven’t bothered to fill it up.

Hanoi is pretty well suited to cycling, actually. It’s almost completely flat–I generally never need to change gears. Cycling is about the fastest way to get around town–you can squeeze where cars and some motorcycles can’t. Sure, traffic is zany, but once you get a knack for how it flows, you move along quite well. Just always keep alert, slow down in the intersections and be ready to stop! And when making those left turns, get over to the left and go quickly before the oncoming mass of traffic beats you to the middle of the intersection. Simple!

Scooting around Hanoi.

There are still quite a few bikes in the city–for instance, it’s how most middle school and high school kids get to and from school. And bikes are an integral and expected part of traffic–unlike in the U.S., where traffic moves much faster and bikes are invisible or consigned to bike lanes. And then there are all those bikes weighed down with goods: vegetables, plastic buckets, huge collections of pottery and china, crates filled with hundreds of eggs, and my favorite: the huge rainbow bundles of flowers.

I sometimes get a few odd looks at my purple mountain bike with its Obama sticker and the child-carrier seat on the back (several Vietnamese women have asked me where I bought it–apparently good ones are hard to find here). I always wear my helmet, which is another novelty–although they’re mandatory for motorbikes no one except expats wear helmets while riding bicycles.

Practicing sans training wheels near our house in Hanoi.

The bike is a great way to get around, get a bit of exercise, and immerse yourself in the sights, sounds and smells of life on the street in Hanoi.

In other bicycle related news, for Christmas, Fiona received a new bike without training wheels and has been practicing! Our quiet little street and badminton court are great places to ride around.

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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.


But a gift makes a connection. To take the simplest of examples, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss tells of a seemingly trivial ceremony he has often seen accompany a meal in cheap restaurants in the South of France. The patrons sit at a long, communal table, and each finds before his plate a modest bottle of wine. Before the meal begins, a man will pour his wine not into his own glass but into his neighbor’s. And his neighbor will return the gesture, filling the first man’s empty glass. In an economic sense nothing has happened. No one has any more wine than he did to begin with. But society has appeared where there was none before. The French customarily tend to ignore people whom they do not know, but in these little restaurants, strangers find themselves placed in close relationship for an hour or more. “A conflict exists, says Lévi-Strauss, “not very keen to be sure, but real enough and sufficient to create a state of tension between the norm of privacy and the fact of community. . . . This is the fleeting but difficult situation resolved by the exchange of wine. It is an assertion of good grace which does away with the mutual uncertainty.” Spacial proximity becomes social life through an exchange of gifts. Further, the pouring of the wine sanctions another exchange—conversation—and a whole series of trivial social ties unfolds. — Lewis Hyde, The Gift


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