According to the Happy Planet Index report, we have a lot to learn from Vietnam. Not only does the South East Asian country have great food and warm weather, it is the fifth happiest place in the world. The report is based on how well nations are doing at achieving long, happy and sustainable lives. So, it should come as no surprise that Vietnam is also a place where life’s best lessons can be learned.
One of those is that taking a leap of faith is better than taking leap of doubt. This philosophy by Zimbabwean-born Matshona Dhliwayo could not be more apt than for anyone attempting a leap of faith. If this is you, and you are wondering if you are ready to take a leap of faith, I suggest crossing a street in Hanoi as a spirit-building appetiser first.
There is one simple reason why this is an act of courage in itself: swarming scooters. My eye-popping introduction to Hanoi scooter traffic came during a cab ride from Hanoi international airport to the city. While my travel buddy Hosnieh and I shared the severity of our coffee cravings after the 15-hour flight from London, our chatter was interrupted by the sound of hundreds of scooters swarming passed our taxi, beating their horns to alert cars and trucks. The swarm grew thicker as we got closer to the city and the deafening honking turned into a symphonic mash up, making any conversation almost impossible.
About five million scooters transport entire livelihoods into the city every day, from large wicker baskets of fruit and vegetables, to families of four on a single scooter. For most Vietnamese people, whose average wage is 3.2 million dong (US$150) per month not only are scooters ideal for getting around, they’re also small businesses on wheels.
However, their loud cacophony and street cred were no match for our caffeine cravings. So on the recommendation of the friendly hotel staff we set out in search of Coffee Street. We walked passed open shop fronts, where small coal fires on the pavement grilled meat, seafood and vegetables. We continued to wander down the street, passing by eateries with tiny plastic stools outside for diners, until we got to our first main intersection.
With hundreds of moving scooters filling the street, we surveyed our chances of crossing in the absence of any traffic lights. If we stayed on the corner waiting for the mayhem to die down, we would have never got to the other side. If we took another route we would have probably gotten lost. However, crossing the street in Vietnam for the first time is scary which is why you need a friendly arm to guide you through.
With this local philosophy we took a leap of faith. Thankfully we also remembered a Tripadvisor review with some tips for crossing the streets of Hanoi: as there are no pedestrianised traffic lights to cross the street you need to step forward into the traffic and it will go around you. Whatever happens, do not step back.
So with arms linked we began to move forward into the middle of the road and froze with fear as the scooters came hurtling towards us. We moved forward slowly and then, as if by a miraculous force field, they rode around us. We moved forward again and paused, before finding the right moment to step forward again. This took a few moments and then, screeching with excitement, we leaped to the other side of the road.
With this new found confidence, we comfortably navigated our next intersection and finally found what we were looking for. An ally way leading off Coffee Street led us to an open door which gave off the comforting aroma of caffeine. Cheerful waiters led us inside the humble brick dwelling, making us feel at home. In the café, locals sat on low plastic chairs, sipping on egg coffee, while checking their Instagram feeds. At last we were in a secluded sanctuary, away from the noise of the scooters and comforted by the happy smiles of the waiters.
On the surface it would appear that the locals have little to smile about. Dilapidated buildings, crumbling roads and poor amenities are part of daily life in Hanoi. The electricity supply is also a sight to behold, with live wires hanging across the streets and collecting on the corners in a medusa-like mess. Despite appearances Vietnam seems to be doing well. The number of people living in poverty fell from 58% in 1993 to 10.7% in 2010 and it’s GDP of 6.98% between January and September 2018 tells a good story. And the warmth and mutual respect of the locals were reminders that it’s not about what you have but who you are because of it that defines you.
From lively street markets selling local delicacies to hidden coffee shops, Hanoi offered a range of pleasant experiences. We just needed to take a leap of faith in order to explore them.