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Oi Gio Oi!

Oi Gio Oi!

I WOKE up on the first morning of the tour having arrived in Hanoi just yesterday following a sleepless overnight flight from Brisbane. I had met the tour group I will be travelling with last night, so thankfully I will be in familiar company now. Thankfully our tour leader Danh would look after us now, and fortunately he was a local from Hanoi, so he had the local knowledge that I was most lacking in.

A bike load of ducks
A bike load of ducks

By mid-morning we had checked out of the hotel and in the minibus heading out of Hanoi towards Halong Bay. Danh stood up from his seat behind and opposite the driver, who was painstakingly negotiating the swarms of motorbikes that festered the city.

Danh decided to start the tour by teaching us some Vietnamese, but he was way too fast – or perhaps I’m just a slow learner in my old age. He taught us using the scenario of buying something at the market. The vendors always price things high, so we need to negotiate the price down to an acceptable level.

To start with, we should say “Oh my goodness, that’s so expensive.” Then proceed with the negotiation, telling us what to say in Vietnamese to bargain the price down. Unfortunately the only bit we could remember was “Oi gio oi!” which was “Oh my goodness”, and we all used that term liberally during the trip. The rest of the Vietnamese he taught us was promptly forgotten.

Oi gio oi did stick in my mind s I looked out the van windows at this most unusual cityscape.

Dangerous motorbike
Dangerous motorbike

Firstly there was the proliferation of impossibly loaded motorbikes:

Motorbikes in the Western world are rather few and far between. They are considered to be a novelty item. Any motorbikes you would see would have one rider, and anything they were carrying with them would be inside a small daypack the rider would be wearing. If the load was any more than a daypack, then they would be driving a car.

Travelling by motorbike was very different here. Most motorbikes were carrying two or more people on the seat. In many cases they were carrying entire families of four, five, or even six people. They would have one parent sitting at the front, another at the back, and the children sitting side saddle across the middle somehow. Until now I had always assumed these vehicles were for one person only, and if you wanted to carry a second person, you attach a side car. There were no side cars here in Vietnam. Everyone just rode on the driver’s seat.

Many riders were wearing masks over their noses and mouths. It was as if they were trying to prevent catching diseases. It was more likely they were filtering out the pollution from the vehicles in front of them.

Poultry on a motorbike
Poultry on a motorbike

The motorbikes that weren’t carrying groups of people carried large baskets full of produce or other things. They had baskets tied onto the front, back or sides. There was every conceivable thing that I couldn’t have imagined would have been transported by motorbike. This included crates of ducks, chickens, or even bags of live fish in water. If they weren’t carrying animals, they were often carrying all sorts of vegetable produce. One motorbike even had a cow tightly strapped to the back. That was insane. I’m sure the cow wouldn’t have liked being transported in that manner.

Helmets were now compulsory in Vietnam. The government had only recently decided they were necessary to reduce the road toll. Sadly though, most helmets were just bicycle helmets providing minimal protection for the head, and no protection for the face. The death toll from motorbike accidents in Vietnam was about thirty thousand people per year. Putting that into perspective, there is a one in thirteen hundred chance of dying in a motorbike accident this year. No doubt the probability of getting injured was a lot higher. I was thankful that we were travelling by van protected from the chaotic sea of motorbikes outside.

Heavily laden barge
Heavily laden barge

Secondly the laden barges that travelled on the rivers looked like they were about to sink.

Coming out of Hanoi we crossed the Red River, which drains much of the top end of Vietnam into the Bay of Tonkin. The concrete bridge traversing the Red River was very long and raised very high to let ships pass underneath. There were barges crossing underneath. They were all laden - some with gravel, some with timber, and others with farm produce. One thing all the barges had in common was they were all sitting extremely low in the water. The sides of their decks stood just inches above the water. Luckily there were no waves on the water otherwise the boats would very quickly fill and sink into the murky depths of the river.

Heavily laden barge
Heavily laden barge

It was called the Red River due to the red soil of the local area, but honestly the colour was more greyish brown, perhaps because it was the middle of the rainy season. The sky was still very hazy so I couldn’t see the mountains that

I had expected to see behind the city channelling the river towards the sea. Looking at the size of the placid river we were crossing though, and the number of large barges all looking like they could sink, I now imagined the mountains to be quite some distance away.

Thirdly there were the graveyards in paddy fields:

Once we had crossed the river, the chaotic city activity suddenly subsided into serene countryside. Here we passed numerous rice paddy fields with the occasional field growing other vegetables. To date I had only ever seen paddy fields in Hokkaido when I travelled through there a few years ago. The paddy fields in Hokkaido were very compact due to the high population combined with the shortage of flat land. Here in Vietnam the fields were a lot larger each covering tens of hectares.

Now some of the rice paddy fields we passed contained graveyards on small mounds. Each grave had a brightly coloured blue and white headstone at the end of a small fenced or concreted enclosure. No doubt the small parcels of land had been owned by families for many generations. I guessed they would bury their dead in the same area, so after many generations the graveyard would get quite substantial. That is one sure way to reduce burial costs. One thing bothered me though. These graveyards were small raised plots in the middle of rice paddy fields, containing the decomposing remains of the people who had been buried there. Fluids from their remains would leach into the water of the paddy fields to be absorbed by the rice plants just metres away. Was this rice exported? If it was exported was there any chance that I would eat it? If so then would that make me an unintentional cannibal?

Very tall and narrow buildings
Very tall and narrow buildings

Having grown lived on a farm at one stage and having had garden vegetables for many years, I was very familiar where most food came from. I had never before seen rice paddies though so I had not given much thought as to what could possibly be in the rice. Seeing these raised graveyards in the middle of some of the rice paddy fields now had me a bit worried.

Fourthly were the tall narrow buildings:

The mist created an eerie juxtaposition with the towering chimneys and massive warehouses of the frequent industrial factories and power stations. Each factory was serviced by small towns which had no doubt been built to supply workers who would work long hours manufacturing goods for the Western world using very cheap labour.

We passed several large schools appearing in the middle of nowhere. You would expect these schools to be located inside towns, but they were way out in the country. Perhaps there were towns hidden from the road past the small rice fields we passed. I couldn’t tell. Groups of children wearing black and white uniform cycled along the side of the road appearing very respectable despite having travelled many kilometres to school. I’m sure they would all be children of farming families.

Very narrow building under construction
Very narrow building under construction

I noticed even out in the country the houses were the same incredibly narrow style I had now become used to in the city. Most were just four metres wide despite towering up to five stories high even if they were standing alone amongst the paddy fields, looking like they were the sole surviving buildings of a devastating bombing. Perhaps there was once a village here before the Vietnam War. These buildings always had doors and windows out the front, but the side walls were always solid brick with cement rendering as if another building was about to be erected right up against it on either side.

Danh explained that land taxes have until recently been calculated by the width of the block of land. Neither the area of the land nor the height of the building was taken into account. This is why houses are so long, high and narrow here. It’s amazing how the method of taxation influences the construction of houses. The rules have changed in recent years, but because the Vietnamese have been so used to constructing houses in this manner, they have continued to build them in this crazy style to this day.

I now realised I was in a very different place to anywhere that I had visited in the past. The motorbikes, barges, graveyards and houses were unlike anything I had ever seen before. Here on my first trip this really was a culture shock.

All I could say to all of this was “Oi gio oi!!!”!

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12 October 2009





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