When I moved to Vietnam, everybody told me that I would need to get a motorbike. As I had never driven a motorbike – or, in fact, even sat on one! – I was extremely hesitant. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t have the necessary skill to ride in traffic with a nation of people who are practically born on Hondas.
I decided instead to catch the bus. Commuting by bus was a fantastic experience: it was extremely cheap, passengers were always very friendly, and from the bus window I was able to observe and familiarize myself with the Hanoi traffic.
After a couple of months of watching Hanoians on the road, I was resolved to try two-wheeled commuting. But not on a motorbike. I had been keenly observing the school children, the street vendors and the grandparents, and was inspired by them to get a bicycle.
It did not take long for cycling to become my favourite thing about living in Hanoi.
Unlike Sydney, where I’m from, Hanoi is perfectly designed for the cyclist. Sydney is geographically enormous, extremely hilly, and with fast-moving traffic. To cycle in Sydney you need to be really fit, and a bike with gears is almost essential to cope with the steep hills.
Most trips in Hanoi, by comparison, cover only short distances on flat ground. And while there is a lot of traffic here, at least it’s slower, which makes it much safer for a cyclist. Bicycles are cheap to buy and comfortable to ride, designed for city cruising, not tackling mountains.
With Hanoi offering conditions so favourable to cyclists, it’s surprising that there aren’t more bicycles on the roads.
My Vietnamese friends and colleagues express shock when I say that my partner and I travel everywhere by bicycle and don’t own a motorbike. I’m never sure if they are impressed or if they just think we’re crazy.
I know for certain that many Vietnamese people think I’m crazy for wearing a helmet on my bike, because they point and laugh, and tell me I don’t have to. I know it’s not legally required (like in Australia, where it is), but whether I’m on a motorbike or a bicycle, my head is just as valuable to me!
Cycling keeps me fit, saves me money, and whenever I think about how much I dislike the air and noise pollution in Hanoi caused by traffic, I can at least feel that I’m not contributing to the problem.
On the weekends, I enjoy a slow, peaceful cycle around West Lake or along the Red River, some of the most picturesque bike rides I’ve ever experienced, and they’re right here in the city. Every time I go, I’m amazed that the roads aren’t jam-packed with other cyclists.
While a motorbike is a much more convenient form of transport for most people, and an especially cherished one given that bicycles were so recently the only affordable transport, owning a motorbike doesn’t mean you have to forego cycling altogether.
Replacing some short motorbike trips with bicycle rides can help to improve the city’s air quality, and save considerable amounts of money spent on petrol. Cycling recreationally can keep you fit and allow you to experience some of Hanoi’s most beautiful places without the rumble of an engine.
I know I’ll dearly miss cycling when I leave Hanoi, and will always fondly remember riding alongside the school children, street vendors and the grandparents down the city’s tree-lined streets. At least I will know that I made the most of it while I was here.