By Navroze Contractor
Tuk-tuks, two-wheelers, bicycles and buses… Vietnam is a nation on the move, peopled by the most polite earthlings to be found on this planet, discovers Navroze Contractor.
After my ride through North Thailand I was having a quiet dinner with my friend and film maker Roshan Dhanjibhoy. With glasses of good red wine gone by and a superb Thai meal at her house in Chiangmai, I asked her about Vietnam. She was there with her husband Reggie, a superb cinematographer, when the American Air Force was pouring bombs on Hanoi! I have been trying to understand, what kind of people the Vietnamese could be when they had gone through a hundred years of war! Her reply still rings in my ear. She said: “Yes, bombs were falling all around us. America was enemy number one but no one, even at that time said; ‘We are not fighting the American people, we are only fighting the American government!’” This is such a profound statement which our country and neighbours need to learn from.
Roshan has filmed Nasser in Egypt, Gaddafi in Libya, Castro in Cuba, Mao in China and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam! All, when they were fighting for their freedom from the colonists. If this doesn’t make her a legend, I wonder what could! I was sad to leave her, Chiangmai and North Thailand.
At the Bangkok International Airport I walked to the designated gate for my departure to Hanoi. I was overwhelmed when I saw the brand new Airbus 320 with Vietnam Airlines written on its body. It had taken me many years; in my book on my visit to China, I had written in 1997, that I would want to go to Vietnam and now it was January 2004! Vietnam Airlines had recently been changing its ailing fleet of Russian aircraft to contemporary French Airbus and American Boeing planes. Hearing from other ‘free-country’ travellers that things would be tough in a communist country I was prepared but found absolutely no difference in the procedures and manners of the Vietnam Airlines staff. In fact, I was a bit surprised that there could be people more polite than the Thais!
The flight took off on the dot and landed at Hanoi International Airport exactly on time. I had taken a seat to the right of the aircraft as I was flying north and hoped to see whatever of Laos and then of Hanoi but was afforded no such luck. North Vietnam was under a cloud and Hanoi seemed buried even further under! Immigration and customs was a breeze, but a bit slow. I walked out of the airport to see not only a dull gray afternoon but rain lashing down in sheets! My hotel had sent a taxi with a smart young driver, whom I found without much trouble. He asked me to wait, in perfect English, till he got the car round, a new Toyota Corolla. The drive to the city was slow as visibility was poor and through the wiper revolutions I could see that the roads were covered with two-wheelers, bicycles and buses. Rain didn’t seem to stop anyone. By the time we crossed the monstrous Red river the rains stopped and I could see much better. My hotel was in a small, small, small street of Hanoi and the Toyota created chaos by driving right to the door! In the old quarter of Hanoi the streets are small and even a Corolla seemed gigantic. Many people had to shift their bikes, adjust bicycles, pull food trolleys, shove back clothes hanging and adjust general street life to make way for the taxi!
My intention of coming to Vietnam was to discover the country and to ride a motorcycle through as much of it as possible. I had made contact with bike riders two years ago but could not make it as the Gujarat earthquake had summoned me to Ahmedabad.
The very next morning, I was awakened from my comfortable bed with furious sounds of motorcycles! I got up and looked down from my window and could hardly see anything, as it was only 5am! Then I saw headlights streaking like fireflies gone mad. About six or seven bikes zoomed through the street below and in a few minutes the same thing happened! I ran down with my camera, still in darkness and at one end of the street I met a few young boys and girls cheering the ‘racers’. Slowly, I came to know that racing round city blocks early mornings is really the only motorsport in Vietnam. The bikes were small, 100 to 125cc, step through mopeds, highly tuned with screaming exhausts. All one could see were the headlights and sparks coming out of footrests scraping the tarmac. Every corner had a small crowd of young people. One corner was the start- stop and a makeshift pit area. The racing went on till dawn. People started emerging, vendors opened their stalls, vegetable markets bloomed out of nowhere but the racing went on. Finally it stopped as the traffic became too heavy and all the kids dispersed to drink the Vietnamese strong aromatic coffee. I am still amazed that no one was hurt and nothing was damaged! What an introduction to bikes!
I had set up an appointment with Fredo Binh and his partner Christian who have a small tourist company that provide bike rides. I had been in touch with them since two years and when I eventually met them in their little first floor office it seemed as if we were old friends. Fredo is half Vietnamese and half French, tall, handsome with film star drop-dead looks. His first love is motorcycles. He had returned to Vietnam as a young man and exploring his roots had roamed the rural areas of North Vietnam on a bike. Being of extremely amicable nature he made friends wherever he went and decided that he must show all this to others who would have the desire to explore the country beyond the tourist spots. He made good friends with villagers living in remote places, high up in the cold and wet mountains and eventually made a circuit out of it. He would take riders, who could dare to ride to such places and give them a real taste of rural Vietnam, stay, food, culture, everything.
Christian, taller than Fredo travelled to Vietnam for the reasons only he knows. He is well versed in the colonial history of Vietnam. He too fell in love with the country and also with a lovely woman who accompanied us during the ride. Christian and Fredo met up, became friends and are running the business together. It is not a hugely paying business because for a pittance they pull out all the stops. Basically they are fond of bikes and they love riding and both ride extremely well.
Their first floor office is small and compact with maps and riding gear strewn all around. This time along both Christian and Fredo were going to be on the ride. Normally they have rider/mechanic/guides who take you out. The spring festival of Tet, the single biggest festival of Vietnam was coming up and the gang was going to celebrate it up in the mountains. Our route was marked going straight north from Hanoi, then north west up to Lao Cai, touch Sa Pa the well known hill town go further west and then return after seven days. Most of the riding would be done on unpaved roads and each night we would be stopping at some village. I agreed to everything, had two strong cups of coffee and left them very impressed.
Vietnam is choc a bloc with small bikes. Every Japanese make, plus Korean plus Chinese make is available. The most expensive bikes are original Japanese makes. Then the Piaggio Vespa model, then Korean and the last Chinese imitations. The bikes range, in Indian rupees from 50K to Rs 1.25 lakh but all are under 125cc. One of my friends there had a Hongda! It was a 125cc four-stroke four-speed bike, just like our CBZ but made in China. It ran well and felt comfortable and if one didn’t look close one couldn’t make out the difference! There were hundreds of thousands of step throughs besides the bikes I am talking about. Most taxis are bike taxis known as xe om! Sounds more like a Zen mantra! You flag one down, discuss the price, sit as a pillion and he takes you where you want. Every tourist in Vietnam, no matter how poor or wealthy has to get on to a Xe Om, there is no choice!
But with all this abundance of bikes around the ones that are used for the long tours by Fredo Binh’s company The Free Wheeling Tours, are the Russian Minsk! Most people round the world haven’t even heard the name. I have two encyclopedias of motorcycles and they do not even list them. I am surprised! The Minsk is named after the Russian town it is made in. It is a simple 125cc two-stroke, four-speed machine that ended manufacture as late as 2000. It reminded me of the Rajdoot, or even the Jawa. A simple strong machine that can be used every day for anything. It is the cheapest bike available in Vietnam. The legend goes that Russia had a deal that the machine would be imported into Vietnam as a farm implement, and not a motorcycle!
When all of us assembled at the Free Wheeling office we looked like we could take on the world. All in proper riding gear with saddlebags packed to capacity as many of us had to even take mosquito nets along. The near fatal mistake I had made was not to take my riding gloves from India. I have a variety of them but I had thought that since I would first be in Thailand I would buy a pair from there, but I didn’t! So I had picked up a pair of ordinary leather gloves off the streets of Hanoi. Mind you, all these days the temperature was around 12 to 16 degrees and drizzling! One of the guides, Thom had kept eyeing my new Nike shoes and I couldn’t but give them to him. In return he gave me his old gumboots. It was the best deal I ever made in my whole journey. Thom was wiser than I thought. He wrapped the new Nikes in a plastic bag and shoved them in his saddlebag. Then put on his gumboots!
Riding the small light bike with skinny tyres in the wet and with abominable traffic was baptism by fire for all of us! The front felt light and wobbly at times but once we were out of Hanoi city the rhythm of riding settled down. The first stop was at a gas station and the next 60km away for a hot cup of coffee and some biscuits. The first hour was, dull, cloudy, cold and wet.
Vietnam is about 1,700 kilometres from north to south. At the narrowest, in the middle, it is 50 kilometres wide. It is flanked on the west by Cambodia and Laos, and on the north by China.
Mesolithic and Neolithic culture existed in northern Vietnam almost 10,000 years ago and the people had engaged in primitive agriculture as early as 7000 BC. Traces of the sophisticated Bronze Age Dong Song emerging around the 3rd century BC have been found.
The Chinese ruled Vietnam for almost a 1,000 years and a strong Confucian society was established. The system of kings, landlords and taxation was introduced by the Chinese rulers, which plagued Vietnam till the modern age.
The French war ships first landed on the shores of Vietnam in 1885. The French colonised the entire country within two years and since then the struggle for liberation has been waged.
The French established industries that would help only themselves. They introduced rubber plantations with slave labour. One of the biggest and the most notorious one was Michelin. The working conditions were horrendous. It is on record, between 1927 and 1945 Michelin plantations employed 45,000 workers. In the same period 12,000 workers lost their lives producing rubber for the emerging motor car industry of the West.
Hanoi is the second largest city in Vietnam and also the capital. It was established in 1010BC and by 1428 was made the regional capital. The population of Hanoi is about 3 million and there are around 2 million bikes under 125cc. Petrol is of just one kind and Rs 15 per litre.
Hanoi is a cool mix of the old and the new. The old quarter is where all the action is. Eating places, shops, restaurants, flea markets, flower markets and museums, pagodas and temples. One of the rare ones to see is the Temple of Learning! No other country I have been to has a temple dedicated to education. There is good jazz in Hanoi for those who like the music.
Early morning women come out selling bagets, a crisp crusted bread the French have, and left behind as a colonial legacy. Or else there are hundreds of noodle shops that serve delicious local food almost all day long. Around the many lakes of Hanoi hundreds of old and young people come out early mornings and practice Tai Chi and other eastern martial arts.
There are plenty of war museums to check out, where stuff from both the French and the American war are at display. You can see from the smallest knives to the biggest aircraft used during the war plus how the Vietnamese fought the two giant nations, and defeated them.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is a must for every traveller. The Vietnamese people till date revere him. His body is well embalmed and kept in a humble place. Next to it is the place Ho Chi Minh stayed and worked which is even more humble. It reminded me of the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad. Photography is prohibited inside but if you are lucky you can catch the changing of the guards, which I did.
At one point in the middle of the city lies a wreck of an American bomber, the B52! It is strange to see an aircraft tail jutting out from a city square tank. It is one of the 3500 aircraft the US lost during its ten-year war.)