travelers-tales

By Emma Morrell 

Eighteenth Annual Solas Awards Gold Winner in the Family Travel category

The complete bedlam in Hanoi’s old quarter sent thrills through me, but only from the safety at the edge of the road. Hundreds of motos – bicycles, motorbikes and scooters – dodged around each other on the street in front of my children and me, as if they were weaving an intricate braid. Cheerful tooting and honking intermingled with invisible clouds of exhaust fumes and fragrances of phô broth and fried spring rolls. I couldn’t help but catch my breath and smile. The hum of the city’s motos buzzed through our bodies and fizzed as far as our skin and eyes, making Hanoi everything I had never dared hope it would be. As long as I didn’t have to cross that road.

Several of the bicycles were overloaded with a rainbow of flowers so thick that their owners wheeled them instead of riding. Some riders squinted at the road ahead, trying to predict the gaps. Others reached their destinations and parked right next to us on the already scooter-crowded pavement. Above us, fairy lights that we wouldn’t notice until we returned after nightfall hung from the branches of the banyan trees. My children didn’t look up, though; they looked ahead at the motos.

“I want to ride on a motorbike, mummy!” shrieked Isla Grace, my seven-year-old.

Her big blue eyes flashed at the mere notion, and her springy blonde ringlets bounced along with her enthusiasm. Aged nine, her brother Dylan was more cautious and, frankly, more jaded from two more years of mummy saying “no.” It felt like I was saying that word more and more these days. No to candy, no to the constant demands for extra screen time, and no to seeking independence by taking public transport alone.

Maybe it was me. Maybe I was getting indoctrinated to Singapore, where we had moved three years earlier for my husband, Stephen’s, job. In Singapore, there were more “no’s”. No to selling chewing gum and no to taking your mask off in public, long after most of the rest of the world had moved on. No to travelling in a pandemic for almost two years, marooning us on the island and making us realise just how small it was.  Yes only to things like order, and cleanliness, and obedience. The contrast of Hanoi was exhilarating. Dylan turned his pale face to me, his eyebrows raised hopefully but his shoulders already tensing against my usual response.

“As it happens,” I said, inwardly smug to be able to tell them yes for a change, “I’ve booked a motorbike food tour for next week.”

There were two sharp intakes of breath, then four arms clutched themselves tightly around my waist, and several thank you’s gasped their way to my ears from two pairs of little lungs. My heart stretched with pride and, in doing so, squashed the niggling voice that questioned what people might say, or how I would feel if something went wrong. I hugged them back.

For now, on our first day in the city, crossing the street through the maze of motos was far more concerning to me than riding one, and I needed to do it alone. Stephen was at a tailor shop four blocks away ordering custom-made suits, his location meticulously noted on Google maps and screenshotted for good measure, while I took the kids for ice cream.

~~~

Earlier, on the way to the tailor shop, Stephen had instructed us on how to cross the road, according to a briefing from his colleague who had worked in Hanoi for years.

“Apparently you just walk out,” he’d told us. “Don’t stop, they’ll all go around you. Ready?”

Two motos had whizzed past us, so close I could feel the breeze in their wake, and I stepped backwards rather than forwards. Stephen had taken Dylan’s arm and prepared to march into the traffic-laden street. I grasped Isla Grace’s hand.

“No mama!” She had snatched it back. “I don’t want to hold your hand.”

“But look!” I’d gestured to all the traffic. “I can’t let you walk into that alone!”

“No.”

“Do it for me?” I’d pleaded. “I’m too scared to do it by myself.”

Hands on her slender hips, she’d scowled at me from under long, dark eyelashes. Dylan and Stephen returned.

“I’ll hold your hand,” my son had said, extending his other arm. Grateful for both the moral support and the sibling goading I knew the gesture also was, I stole a glance at Isla Grace. Would she take the bait?

“Oh fine,” she grumbled.

“Ready?” Stephen had said, and the four of us had all stepped out into the road.

It turns out, there’s an art to crossing the street in Hanoi, or in any part of Vietnam for that matter, and it’s more like meticulous choreography than the chaos it seems to outsiders. Most Vietnamese, if they come from one of the major cities, are practically born knowing how to do it. For the rest of us, a quick search on the internet and social media produces an abundance of instructional articles and videos. Not all are accurate, but the general consensus is to wait for a gap in traffic, then walk with purpose in a straight line to the other side. Go too quickly and the motos might not see you in time. Change direction and the very vehicles you’re trying to avoid can’t predict what you’ll do next. The motos twist and twirl around the pedestrians rather than the other way around. We are the obstacles, not them.

Everywhere we had lived and travelled with the kids, there had been proper crosswalks, places where the vehicles stopped and we had the right of way. In London, we waited patiently for  a neon green man to appear before we marched across the road. “Green man” become a war cry so familiar I even said it alone my commute to work in the City before looking around to see if anyone else had noticed my slip-up. In Doha, where local men wore outfits of long white shirts called thobes, the red triangled crossing signs were clearly marked with a black-thobed silhouette on a white background. The cars would sometimes, usually, stop. In Singapore, jay-walking is punishable with a fine, and the cars always stop at crossings.

Now, having left Stephen in the tailor shop, I stared at the chaos of the street in front of us. We’d done it with him once, we could do it again on our own, couldn’t we? This time the rule was clear and each kid took a hand. I looked at my son and daughter.

“Are we ready?” They nodded, grinning at each other, then up at me. I took a deep breath and waited for the gap in the traffic.

“Let’s go!” I cried. We walked deliberately out into the road.

“Ohmygosh! Ohmygosh! Ohmygosh!” I squealed the entire way, doing it only half for their benefit. Before we got to the middle of the street, the children were laughing at me. By the time we reached the other side they were almost bent double. I pretended to be angry with them for laughing at me, then guided them around the corner to the ice cream store I had found on the shores of Hoan Kiem Lake. The flavours were seriously limited (the kids’ words, not mine), and the ice cream melted all over their clothes, but I focussed on the positives: just metres away from those busy roads, we had made it to a shop that overlooked the red bridge leading to the temple in the middle of the lake. I smiled at everyone and everything. It felt like a triumph just to have got here.

After reuniting with Stephen at the tailors, and to avoid more complaints about tired feet, we hailed two moto-powered rickshaws. I spent most of the ride with my hands over my eyes trying to unsee all the traffic that zig-zagged around us at each junction we crossed.

What was it about the traffic that electrified and terrified me in equal measure? Was it the danger? Or the responsibility of keeping everyone safe? I hated my doubt and hesitation. I wanted to inspire intrepidness and daring in my fast-growing babies, not fear and uncertainty. Suddenly crossing the roads were being added to the catalogue of “no’s” they saw in me. It included everything from avoiding fast foods and too much sugar, to terror of whooshing roller-coasters, towering water slides, and busy Hanoian roads. They couldn’t see the conflicts inside me while I tried to balance fostering their independence with protecting them, all the while wondering what other parents were doing, not to mention thinking. Why that mattered, why I cared, I didn’t know, but the niggling voice in the back of my head remained. I was doing a good enough job… Wasn’t I?

As the days passed, I became more confident crossing the road, but continued to shriek my way across each one. The children rewarded me with delighted giggles as they dutifully held my hands each time.

Now that the motorbike tour was closer, I was beginning to question my decision to book it.

“You’re going to let your kids ride on motorbikes?” a friend had asked when I revealed our itinerary.

“It’s not like they’re driving the bikes.” I felt a defensive tightness spread across my chest. Was that doubt creeping in when I’d only just booked the tour? Or just fear of someone else’s judgement? My shoulders stiffened, just a little more than I wanted.

“We’ll have helmets.” I said, and changed the subject.

On the day of the moto tour, we got up early and trekked around the city, ticking off the places we’d wanted to see. At Bún Chả Hương Liên, where Barack Obama and Anthony Bourdain famously had a $6 meal, Stephen and I slurped pho while the children (previously not averse to the meal), turned their noses up at the mention of fish sauce on the plastic menus stuck to the walls. They brightened up when we got to Maison Marou, a chocolaterie where we devoured éclairs: fingers of choux pastry filled with crème pâtissière and drizzled with shiny brown ganache.

“We’ve got time to go to Train Street before our moto tour,” I commented when the children announced for at least the seventeenth time that they were bored.

I was talking about one of Hanoi’s main attractions. Train tracks pass by many of the city’s dwellings, but Train Street refers to the narrowest section. It’s a 100-metre long passage, edged with two-storied cafés offering almost touching-distance views of the now-famous trains that pass through several times a day. The yellow line, just 20cm from the houses, marks the safety area, beyond which you shouldn’t go when the train is passing.

I wanted front row seats.

We checked the schedule and arrived well in advance. We sat on the ground floor of a yellow café with paper lanterns hung from the balcony roof above us. Lagers appeared in tall, handled glasses dripping with condensation. The kids drank thick smoothies and we all snacked on heavily salted peanuts.

“How will we know when the train is coming?” I wondered aloud to Stephen. The children were off playing with others in the gravel around the train tracks. When a pre-schooler started piling rocks on top of each other, a shopkeeper rushed out and told him to stop. The train would need a clear path through.

Stephen shrugged. “I’m pretty sure they’ll know,” was his answer. The kids moved onto playing balancing games on the rails. I wanted to call them back to the safety of the café but no one else seemed concerned about the imminent arrival of a two-storey high train. I sipped on my beer to distract myself. Still, I kept my eye on the tracks until they turned out of sight.

It turns out people did know when the train was coming. Just before it arrived, only a few minutes behind schedule, a flurry of activity began. Above the chatter of tourists, it was hard to hear the signals ringing from other stations, or the train tooting in the distance but the shopkeepers hurriedly drawing in awnings and pulling chairs back to well behind the yellow lines was an unmistakable sign. The children ran back to us, the excited apprehension on their faces mirroring mine. The red-fronted train had a white “V” painted across its veneer, dazzled us with the light on its front, and honked its horn as it puffed exhaust clouds from its smoke stack. When it went by, we could feel the draught of its passing on our cheeks, and the heat spilling out from its undercarriage. I wondered what it would feel like to stick out my hand and let it brush against the red stripe on the white- and blue-painted carriages.

Dylan and Isla Grace’s eyes were wide but they were laughing and pointing. Their reaction was better than I could have hoped and I felt as if the smile on my face would stay there forever.

“Can you believe how close it was?” I asked them, when the train had passed, heading on to its destination. They shook their heads, still laughing, and we made our way off the tracks and back towards our hotel.

Dzung, one of our four moto tour drivers, was waiting for us outside. Her “English name,” I’d been told when I booked the tour, was Elle, but I wanted to use the real one.

“Zoom,” she said, when I asked how to pronounce it. “Like the motos.” she laughed and handed us our headgear.  She introduced the tour, which was to encompass a variety of Hanoi’s highlights and end at Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. We’d arrive at 9pm to see the ceremonial changing of the guard in front of the building that houses the embalmed body of the late president of Vietnam. My stomach had tightened just ever so slightly we met the group, but it unclenched when I looked over at my children. They skipped up and down the pavement, comparing helmets and trying them on.

Dzung told us the logistics, but not how egg coffee in a backstreet café tastes (ultra-sweet and frothy) or how crossing the bridge over the Red River feels during rush hour (chaotically exhilarating). She couldn’t tell us that the hollow donuts called bánh tiêu, served with sugar cane juice in the middle of a roundabout, would be our most memorable meal for the setting rather than the flavour, or that we would be instantly subdued by the vision of a sunken B52 bomber in Huu Tiep, one of Hanoi’s many tiny lakes. There was no way she could describe the impossibly slow ceremonial march of the white-suited changing of the guards outside the mausoleum. And she couldn’t possibly know that Dylan and Isla Grace would talk for years afterwards about taking selfies by the dragons statues on West Lake, purely because of how she and the other drivers taught them that pinching your thumb and forefinger into a “v” signifies a heart.

“Hold on tight!” Dzung said, handing me a helmet.

She drove slowly at first, and we let the others go ahead. I held on to the back of her bike and we giggled as the children’s delighted exclamations found their way back to us like tiny firework explosions of sound over the constant hum of traffic.

Dzung accelerated through the wide streets, with buildings piled up on top of each other like a precarious game of Jenga. While she got used to my weight on the back of her moto, I tried to adjust to the dizzying feeling of lacing our way through the tangle of traffic that was as interwoven as the electrical wires strung above us. She carefully skirted around the pedestrian obstacles just as the motos had done to us crossing the street. From this vantage it was easier to see who was calling the dance.

We turned off busy main streets into smaller alleys. The white bulbs in the trees were now illuminated and glowing among the leaves. Always a sucker for fairy lights, I looked up. A smile expanded across my face and a contented feeling settled in my chest. So much for my catalogue of “no’s”.

After a few minutes, we pulled level to my little ones, each with their arms wrapped tightly around their driver’s waist. They looked so grown up suddenly, smiles stretching their little faces. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen them so happy. How could I have ever doubted this? How much slower would our experience have felt without it?

Dzung and I overtook the children’s motos, laughing at their cries of outrage. They immediately stuck their tongues out at me and demanded to go faster.

~ ~ ~

 

Emma Morrell is a multi-award-winning British travel writer, researcher, and blogger. She has spent more than a third of her life outside of the UK in 11 cities on 5 continents and has moved house more than 30 times. She’s more than used to super slow travel because she spends most of her time living in the places she visits. Some of her best travel stories include almost getting stuck in a Bolivian prison, almost getting washed out to sea in Malaysia and almost getting divorced twice on her honeymoon in South Africa (ok, not quite divorced but they’re good stories). Emma writes mainly about travel from an expat and a family angle. She has written for publications in the UK, US, Middle East, and Southeast Asia and has won a handful of Solas awards.