SE Asia #01 Hanoi

August 28, 2018  •  5 Comments

MARCH 2018

SE Asia #01 – Hanoi

This is part 1 of our tour of 3 South East Asian locations.  On this trip we visited sections of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

02 Map SE Asia02 Map SE Asia


Getting There

After over an hour delay at the San Francisco Airport we finally took off just before 1:00 in the morning.  Fortunately our layover in Hong Kong had been planned with enough of a gap that we did not miss our connection to Hanoi.  The travel industry really needs to get their act together in terms of “standard layover” times when they book multi leg flights.  It seems the standard gap their “smart” programs use is between 20 and 40 minutes.  Did you ever try to get from one gate to another at O’Hare in Chicago inside of 20 minutes?  If you’re at the back of the plane you can’t even get to the door in 20 minutes even assuming the plane arrives on time.  When booking, you really have to go out of your way to get enough time between flights to account for the inevitable delays and congestion not to mention having enough time to grab a bite of food and a drink.  Okay Dan, get a grip (or is that a gripe?).  After only one real sentence about the trip and I already have a full paragraph of digression. 

Anyway, after a lengthy conversation with the agent when booking, we finally convinced him that 20 minutes in Hong Kong was insufficient so wound up with a scheduled 2:40 layover which was great.  We didn’t sweat the 1+ hour delay in SFO, and still had time for some breakfast before boarding the next leg to Hanoi.  The entire flight, not including layover time, from SFO to Hanoi is just under 18 hours.  So, we were quite tired when we arrived at 10 in the morning.  But, being the seasoned travelers we are (yeah right) we knew we would not be on the top of our game upon arrival so we pre-booked a ride from the airport to the hotel from the hotel itself in a private car.  No waiting for other passengers, no chance of the driver not being able to find the right hotel, no haggling over the cost (flat rate booked to the room).  Nice and simple.

Hanoi History

03 Map Hanoi 103 Map Hanoi 1

Hanoi is not what I’d call a “modern” city.  There are a few high rise modern hotels scattered around but for the most part the city is around 4 stories high and mostly built prior to WWII.  It is the capital of Vietnam although Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City) is much more “capital” like.  In fact Saigon is larger than Hanoi, more modern and better run.  The population in Hanoi in 2015 was estimated at 7.7 million people which is a bit more than Hong Kong but less than Chicago. The city sits on the Red River, but really only on one side as when Hanoi was growing bridges were not real practical due to annual flooding so the city pretty much stayed on one side.  Of course now the suburbs sprawl on both sides.  It is also interesting that the “Red” in Red River has nothing to do with communism as the river was named centuries ago.  There is also the Black River and probably a few other colors as well.

From 1010 until 1802, Hanoi was the center of action for what became Vietnam but in the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945) the city of Huế took over as the imperial capital. Then in 1873 Hanoi was conquered by the French and from 1883 to 1945 it was the administrative center of the colony of French Indochina.  When they took over the French went on a building frenzy so much of the city architecture is modeled after what was being built in France at that time.  Among other things the French built an administrative city south of Old Hanoi with broad perpendicular tree-lined avenues an opera house, churches, public buildings, and luxury villas, but they also destroyed large parts of the city, including the removal or shrinking of lakes and canals and clearing out various imperial palaces and citadels.

From 1940 to 1945 most of French Indochina and Southeast Asia, including Hanoi, was occupied by the Japanese who had kicked out the French.  But in 1945 when Japan was busy dealing with a small dispute with the United States, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.  From 1954 to 1976, it was the capital of (North) Vietnam, and it became the capital of a reunified Vietnam in 1976 after the North's victory in what we call the Vietnam War.


Getting Around in Hanoi

Where we went in Hanoi

01 Map Hanoi 201 Map Hanoi 2

One does not drive in Hanoi.  There are no traffic rules.  It’s as simple as that.  Our guide described the situation like this.  “Most people who live in Hanoi do not have a lot to show for it.  And, for the most part they blame the government for the lousy standard of living in the country.  But, one only voices protest of such things at personal risk so they find other ways to show contempt for the government.  In Hanoi one of the favorite ways to ‘stick it to the government’ is by ignoring all traffic rules.”  They have honed this to a fine art.  It seems that very few, if any, traffic tickets are issued as the cops share those feelings as well – and are just as guilty off duty.

First, most of the traffic in Hanoi is made up of scooters (think lower powered motorcycles) with the odd car (taxi) mixed in.  There are literally hundreds of thousands of these scooters plying the streets.  You know all those old photos of Asian cities with hordes of bicycles filling the streets?  Well, all those bicycles are now scooters.  Some have been converted to tiny trucks by fitting two back wheels but for the most part we’re talking two wheeled vehicles. 

So, why so many scooters?  It seems that in Vietnam, as in most places, taxes are an issue.  Let’s say you want to buy a Toyota car for the family.  The list price is, say, $30,000.  The sales tax rate on a car is 100% so now you’re up to $60,000.  But, a car is considered a luxury item so there’s a 100% luxury tax bringing it up to $90,000.  On the other hand, a scooter is not a luxury item so that tax is zero and the sales tax on such things is 10 or 15% (I didn’t get the exact number).  And, the starting point is well below $30 grand.  So, almost no non-commercial cars are on the road, just scooters.  Typically there is one scooter per family.  But a family sharing a dwelling will typically consist of 8 to 12 people (parents, kids, grandparents, in laws, cousins up from the country, etc.).  And, the adults all work at different times of the day so the scooter is out on the road pretty much around the clock. 

But back to traffic.  These scooters form more or less a river that flows down the streets and boulevards.  Even though there may be a double yellow line down the middle of the street, if more traffic is heading west then who cares about a yellow line, we’ll just use the eastbound lanes as well.  There are times that you can’t even determine if it’s a one way street or not just by looking at the traffic.  And the poor guy trying to go east is dodging wrong way traffic coming at him many times forcing him to use the side walk.  In our time there we rarely saw a sign designating a street as one way.  Some are just known to be one way and which way depends on the time of day.  However, even though it is not a modern city in many regards, they do have traffic lights.  But, once again, it doesn’t seem to matter much as about as many people stop at red lights as just go through them.  Most of the red light runners tend to stay to the right as they go through but not always.

You’ll notice everyone on the left of guy in green is on the sidewalk.
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In the photo below, the woman pointed out is just about at the double yellow center line of the street so all the scooters to the right of her in the photo are on the wrong side of the street.  She just entered this street, against a red light from a side street and is going the opposite direction of everyone else on the road.

Wrong way woman.
20 Snap1020 Snap10

Then we have parking.  Hanoi was not built with parking in mind.  For centuries (remember it’s been there 1000 years) when there were no motorized vehicles the city built up without the need for parking lots.  And as such there are none.  But, the people are quite enterprising.  As we walked around we kept seeing people sitting in old chairs with an umbrella on the sidewalk.  They didn’t look like they were doing anything other than just sitting there and there was one every 15 to 20 feet as we walked along in between parked scooters.  We just couldn’t figure out what these people were doing other than just goofing off.  Well, we found out later that sidewalk enterprise has long been a Vietnam tradition.  If you can find a patch of sidewalk that is not being used you can set up a business on it – and they do.  Sidewalk enterprise is an actual thing that is measured and it seems to account for around 30% of the GDP of the country.  So, if you have a shop or business, you just hire an attendant to collect fees for scooter parking on the sidewalk in front of your shop.  This is a great way to get a bit of income but not as good for pedestrians who must navigate around all these parked scooters.  Many times the only place to walk is in the street itself.

One of the more “organized” sidewalk parking lots
Motor Scooters galore.  HanoiMotor Scooters galore. Hanoi

Sidewalk Parking with Attendant
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Now we get to walking.  Well, since driving is out of the question and hopping on the back of a taxi scooter is a bit too much for our American taste, we did most of our sightseeing on foot while not in the bus on the tour proper.  As we talked about before, walking is a bit of a misnomer as you are mostly weaving around scooters parked on the sidewalk.  But that’s not the only challenge.  At one time in the past, the city government decided to make the city more tourist friendly through a series of civic projects.  One of these was sidewalk improvement.  Throughout the main section of town they replaced whatever had been there before with interlocking pavers.  These are quite nice.  Or at least they used to be.  However they just set them on a sand base and didn’t really pay much attention to what the sand was on top of.  Well, over the years they have buckled and shifted into a rugged terrain.  It also seems that they can be used to make bookshelves and many of the loose ones have walked off so to speak.  When someone needs to lay a pipe out to the street, they rip up the pavers and just sort of dump them back when they are done.

On our first day, after seeing the city for a few hours on foot, we could not recall anything we saw as our eyes were glued to where to put our next footstep.  But we soon got the hang of it and were able to actually look up as we roamed around without tripping on the tipped up or missing pavers.

Now we come to the interesting part – crossing the street.  By the way, I should point out that most of the main intersections in tourist areas have pedestrian crossing lights.  I should also point out that absolutely none of them were functional. 

We were coached on how to cross the street before our trip but didn’t really get it till we were there.  Crossing the street, even with a green light is a miracle of fluid dynamics.  All those scooters tend to behave like a river flowing down the street.  And, like a river, if there is a rock in the stream, the river just flows around it.  So, as you cross a street, you are like a moving rock in the river and the traffic just flows around you.  Sometimes very close around you, but around you nonetheless.  So, here’s the method. Wait for a little gap (there are no big gaps) in the closest lane then just start walking.  Don’t look left, don’t look right and don’t mind that there is an oncoming vehicle 5 feet from you when you step off the curb, just go.  Once you go, be predictable.  Don’t speed up, don’t slow down, don’t change direction.  Just go straight across the street at a steady pace.  All the scooters will just flow around you like water as you move across the street.  If you’re unpredictable you’ll get hit.  Based on your current path and speed, the drivers can easily calculate where you will be when they get to you and work out how to flow around you.  But, if you slow down, speed up, or turn you will not be where they assumed you’d be at that moment and all bets are off.  It really works and once you’ve done it a few times it is actually quite a marvel and a bit fun.

Of course there are still a few bicycles intermingled with the motor vehicles and it’s not uncommon to see both scooters, bicycles and small converted scooters carrying all sorts of things.  For example we saw a scooter with a dozen air conditioners precariously balanced on the back all tied down with what looked like kite string.  Then there was the scooter with a potted plant that must have been 10 feet tall on the back. How about racks of live chickens, tanks of compressed oxygen, balloons, stacks of folding chairs, and one with a somewhat unhappy live goat tied to the back seat?

Balloons on a bike
Baloons on bicycle, HanoiBaloons on bicycle, Hanoi

Tie it all down after a morning shopping
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Boxes of goods for the store (crab soup is one of them)
Boxes of Vermicelli crab headed into townBoxes of Vermicelli crab headed into town

Chickens on the road
Chickens on scooterChickens on scooter

Family on their way

Family on Bike Phuong Tri, Viet NamFamily on Bike Phuong Tri, Viet Nam

Street Commerce

Several factors have influenced the rise of street commerce in Vietnam.  One is that the cities have experienced a massive increase in population recently.  For one thing a crisis in the agriculture sector has forced a large number of farmers and laborers to seek livelihoods in cities. 

Around 1.2 million people migrate to Vietnam's cities every year making up 20 percent of the country’s urban population.  This fast-paced urbanization is making it difficult for big cities to provide jobs for these people. For those who have never gone to college or hardly even grade school, and have no expertise it’s nearly impossible to find a formal job. They have no choice other than selling on the streets.

In the midst of the rapid development and expansion of the main cities, many city-dwellers find they do not have the time to go browsing in supermarkets, and find it easier to grab the food they want from the vendors that roam the streets.  As such, informal workers in Vietnam form a large portion of the urban workforce, accounting for a quarter of all jobs and half of non-agricultural jobs.  So, street vending has become inherit to the Vietnamese culture and the life style of the country. People say every house in Hanoi is also a business and this extends to areas not frequented by tourists as well. 

There seems to be two distinct groups of street venders in Hanoi.  One group extends their living quarters out onto the sidewalk to sell items to people passing by.  The other group is more mobile; plying their goods from bicycles or baskets they suspend from poles on their shoulders.

The mobile group are many times folks from the country who come into the city each day but also include people who live in small units with no access to the sidewalk.  As you walk around it’s not difficult to spot women wearing iconic conical hats pushing bikes filled with fruit, vegetables, flowers and kitchen utensils at all times of the day and night.  Originally the goods were grown by the vendors on their own farm or items hand made by them, but more and more the vendors buy their goods from wholesale markets as they come into town each day.

Selling fruit from a bicycle
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On the other hand those who have some access from their dwelling to the street often times set up a street food shop or goods store on the sidewalk in front of their building.  Unless the family has an actual store that they extend onto the sidewalk, most of these enterprises are food venders cooking on propane stoves in front of their building.  Some, who have a bit more room, will even set up a seating area consisting of tiny plastic stools.

Alley restaurant (red and blue stools are about 12” high)
Alley restaurant, HanoiAlley restaurant, Hanoi

Side walk Chef
Fish Fry sidewalk restaurant, HanoiFish Fry sidewalk restaurant, Hanoi

Technically, street vending not attached to a real store is not legal.  So the venders are always wary of the police.  Whereas the mobile vendors on bikes can make a quick escape if they see police coming, those on foot or the ones attached to their dwelling are said to be more vulnerable.  However, even though the government says it is cracking down on street vending, the police seem to have little interest in pursuing that policy.  Perhaps some money passes from the vendors to the cops to maintain the status quo.  Or, more likely than not, most of their family members are street venders as are they when not in uniform.

But however you slice it, Street vendors are everywhere around the city.  They really don't know how many there are because they're constantly moving. and with their mistrust of the government go out of their way to not be counted when research efforts try to determine how many there are.  Rough estimates for Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City suggest that street vendors form around 11 percent of total non-agricultural informal employment. But there is a good chance that those numbers significantly underestimate the actual number.

According to some estimates and calculations, the vast majority of street vendors earn less than VND 3 million ($132) per month, compared to the national income average of $180.


As it turns out, the suspicion of the government extends to financial institutions as well.  There are banks in Vietnam but apparently they are for tourists and major corporations and are not used by everyday families.  In fact, very few working class people have any sort of bank account at all.  Everything is done in cash.  But this poses some interesting problems. 

As the entire life savings of families is not in bank accounts where is it?  Well, it is kept at home.  Sometimes, literally under the mattress but more often hidden behind a wall or under some loose floorboards and every once in a while in a safe kept in a closet.  This is quite a risky state of affairs though as the physical security of houses and apartments is nonexistent.  The only thing protecting ones living quarters is a door latch/lock which can be rendered useless with just a mild amount of force.  So, to protect the family nest egg, a family member must be in the house and awake at all times.  There is never a time when everyone is out or everyone is asleep.  They work alternate shifts and sleep at different times so that there is always someone on guard.

Another interesting issue with money is inflation.  Vietnam has had so much inflation that its currency (the Dong English) is quite devalued.  One US Dollar (USD) is worth 23,294 Dong (VND).  Coins are nonexistent as there is nothing that cheap.  For example, a 1 VND coin (like our silver dollar) is worth less than 1/1,000 of a penny ($0.00004293).  The smallest paper bill commonly used is a $10,000 note which is a bit under 50 cents.  1 Million VND is around $43.  I converted $250 dollars to VND and walked away as a millionaire with over 58 million VND. 

This has led to a problem.  Not so much with everyday commerce as the paper money just has a lot of zeroes but with large purchases such as a house or car, all of which are transacted in cash (no mortgages, no installment payments).  It would take several large trucks to carry enough cash to buy a car or house, let alone trying to count it all out.

To deal with this there are several different currency systems in Vietnam.  The first is the currency system for everyday life.  This consists of paper bills typically starting at 10,000 VND.  But, when it comes to your savings at home there just isn’t enough room in these small units to store the life savings for a family with this paper money.  So, they convert the paper bills to gold.  These are small gold cubes, about the size of a sugar cube and stamped with a value.  One buys these gold cubes at jewelry stores.  So, if one wishes to buy something big, one uses these gold cubes which are also considered legal tender.  They also tend to be more inflation resistant than the paper money.

Ever hear the phrase “money to burn”?  Well, these Asian cultures may be where that came from.  It’s hard to tell where the custom originated but in China they burn (fake) money at the grave sites of their ancestors as a way to honor their ancestors.  Many other Asian cultures also burn money for that or different reasons.  In Vietnam money burning as an offering to the gods, ancestors and ghosts and is done in a ritual, either in a temple or at home.  The belief is that money is as important for the dead as it is for the living

This money for burning is the 3rd currency.  This is more or less fake money which is even more worthless than the regular currency. For a few cents you can buy millions worth of this currency.  It has no real buying power but is great for offerings to the gods.

Ritual burning of money
Ritual burning of money in Viet NamRitual burning of money in Viet Nam

Sights around town

On a small pedestrian only street lined with bookstores and paper based art craft we found these gorgeous cherry blossoms and Chinese lanterns adorning the front of one of the shops.  I neglected to jot down the name of the street hoping to use Google Street View to find it later but it must be newer than the last time Google came through as no street in the area looked like it in Google Street view and my GPS was not functioning at the time, so for now it remains unnamed.

Chinese Lanterns and Cherry Blossoms
Lanterns and Cherry Blossoms, HanoiLanterns and Cherry Blossoms, Hanoi

Like most emerging or third world environments, regulations are nonexistent and even where there are some the graft and corruption renders them quite useless.  Wiring the cities is no exception.  It’s hard to tell how many of these wires were “officially” installed by the appropriate entity and how many just by people “borrowing” electricity or phone service from a neighbor or relative down the block.  In the photo below, you’ll notice the loudspeaker.  Some say these are left over from the war and were part of the civil air raid warning system while others say they were used to broadcast government propaganda messages throughout the day.  I suspect it was both.  Whatever they are, or were, they don’t seem to be in use anymore

City Wiring (and loudspeakers)

Utility wires, Phan Botchua St, HanoiUtility wires, Phan Botchua St, Hanoi

Dragon head Van Mieu Academy, Hanoi
Dragon head Van Mieu acadamy, HanoiDragon head Van Mieu acadamy, Hanoi

Back in ancient times, a tribal family would build what is called a long house.  This is a home that is one room wide but several rooms long and is usually built on stilts to raise it 8 to 10 feet off the ground.  The first room was usually a combination of kitchen, living room and bedroom.  Eventually, they’d add another room to the end of the house for the parents and babies to sleep in.  When one of the kids grew up and got married, they’d just add another room to the end of the house for the new couple who would continue adding more rooms as needed.  Some of these long houses were 10 or more rooms long.

Long House, Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
Long House, Vietnam Museum of EthnologyLong House, Vietnam Museum of Ethnology


I hope you enjoyed reading about our SE Asia trip to North Vietnam and will come back for the rest of this journey.


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Thanks for reading – Dan

(All images by Dan Hartford.  Not all images from 2017 trip, some from prior trips.  Info from Wikipedia and pamphlets gathered at various sites along the way along with attraction websites)



Dan Hartford Photo
Hi Foo,

Thank you for your comments and additional information. When one is only in a city or country for a few days or a week, obviously the amount of information one can gather is somewhat limited compared to a resident of the area. My information about banking came from our Vietnamese tour guide who has lived in Saigon, Hanoi, and various smaller towns in both the North and South parts of the country. Most of his commentary was from his personal experience growing up in a rural area and later migrating to the cities where he had several jobs including that of a police officer. In his dialog, he explained how his family and the people in his social circles never use banks, even to this day, and keep their money at home, usually in the form of gold cubes. He also explained the reason behind this was a general distrust of the banks as evidently many had lost most or all of their savings due to banks failing or corruption. It is good to hear that this may not be the only experience of the Vietnamese.

We did travel outside of the city of Hanoi (and also visited Ho Chi Minh City, albeit I did not talk about Ho Chi Minh City in my blog). In Hanoi, we did see many high rise buildings which seemed to be more on the outskirts of town and mostly used for housing. We also saw some high rise and very modern hotels and office buildings, even near the old district, but not that many. Perhaps there is another commercial section of town we did not see that was more similar to downtown areas in other countries with mostly high rise buildings and a more modern infrastructure.

As a contrast, Ho Chi Minh City was very consistent with any modern city with a bustling, well kept - at least in comparison to Hanoi, downtown of a mix of older classic buildings along with modern skyscrapers. The drivers though were pretty much the same.

I do thank you for comment and observations.

Nice to see how well the Hanoi government maintains the old quarter such that an American tourist equates that area with the whole city and think the city is so underdeveloped as regular workers haven't used things like a bank account. In fact, Hanoi has a bunch of high-rise buildings and skyscrapers. The point is none of them is allowed to be built in the old districts. These old districts are in turn the tourist part of Hanoi, therefore many tourists think Hanoi is just a small and low-rise town. They miss the other side of the city where there are literally thousands of high-rises and skyscrapers.

And the long house is the traditional house of a minority down in the southern part of the country. The Vietnamese (the Kinh people) have nothing to do with those long houses.

Just some corrections. Anyway, awesome post from you.
Great images and very interesting description. We have not been to Hanoi but when
we visited Saigon twenty years ago the bicycle was the mode of transportation.
Carol Steiner LaMothe(non-registered)
Thank you Dan. I enjoyed reliving our trip to Vietnam through your photos and commentary
Bruce McGurk(non-registered)
Hi Dan -
Your first installment in SE Asia was a lot of fun - thanks! I'm not planning on visiting, so this was a great opportunity to get a bit of the flavor.

Best to you and Ellen!
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