Step by step

Hanoi footpath

Walking in Hanoi is rarely a stroll in the park. Footpaths are uneven and crowded with shops’ wares, food stalls surrounded by patrons sitting on small plastic stools, residents who treat the pavement as an extension of their cramped homes, tradesmen who treat it as extensions of their workshops, and of course rows of parked bikes. Pedestrians alternate between patches of clear footpath and the road, where they stick as close to the kerb as possible in order to avoid the traffic.

I have found one spot in Hanoi where the footpaths are clear. It’s on the perimeter of the Citadel, the military area north east of the city centre. The streets of the Citadel itself are closed to the public and the streets along its borders are open, but clear of parked bikes and street stalls. Around here I can manage a 15 or 20 minute walk without once needing to look down at my feet to check for obstacles. Bliss.

Most other walkers I see in Hanoi are foreigners like me trying to cling to their western habit of a daily constitutional, come what may. Either that or they are local people who must walk in order to make a living, such as fruit sellers and the women who go door to door buying household rubbish to resell to recycling businesses. It seems that most Vietnamese people who have a choice stick to motorbikes for even short trips.
 
 However some Vietnamese people do walk for exercise, even though the locations where they can do so easily are relatively few. Walkers step out in the early morning around the city’s many lakes, or stop on the lake shore for stationary exercises. There are also the parks, although these seem to be more popular with badminton players, who set up nets all over the place in the hour or so after the working day has ended. 
 
 I also saw, early one evening, people using the lawn in front of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum for exercise. This area is called Ba Dinh Square, and it’s where, in 1945, Ho Chi Minh delivered the speech in which he declared the independence of Vietnam. 

The lawn is beautifully maintained by a team of gardeners in conical straw hats and signs in English and Vietnamese warn passers-by not to walk on it. However it is criss-crossed by a grid of footpaths, along which strode dozens of serious walkers charging up and down, like swimmers doing laps.

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