Not so long ago Hanoi was a city of bicycles and cyclos, but now the motorbike rules.
Parked bikes cover many pavements, and shops and homes usually have small ramps to allow easy access. It’s common to see shoppers on motor bikes navigating the narrow aisles of open markets. During peak hour motorbike drivers take to the pavements where they can, to bypass roads crowded, gutter to gutter, with bikes and an increasing number of cars.
Motorbike taxis (xe om) are everywhere, and are the fastest way of getting around a city clogged with traffic. Xe om driver can be found on many street corners and usually identify themselves to potential foreign passengers by calling out “oto“. The other way to identify them yourself is by spotting the extra motorbike helmet they all carry. It’s illegal to be on a bike without a helmet, and that law is usually enforced. Negotiate a price before you get on so that there are no surprises at the other end, put on the helmet and you’re away.
Watching the world go by from the back of a motorbike is exhilarating. The bustling streets, where so much life is lived, are a kaleidoscope of images as you flash past – people working, chatting, cooking and eating on the pavements, in between all those parked motorbikes.
Then there are the other motorbike drivers to watch, and their passengers and cargo: women driver wearing regulation sky-high heels, children nestling on their father’s knees at the front of the bike or sandwiched between father and mother; pregnant passengers riding side saddle; delivery bikes carrying chairs, coat stands, mattresses, 20-litre water bottles, floral arrangements the size of wagon wheels; cages of chickens; full-length mirrors; potted plants a metre high.