The West

Buzzing through Hanoi on a Vespa tour. Picture: Ian Neubauer

Allow me to introduce an extreme form of motorcycle sport. It takes place not at a racetrack on superbikes with lashings of horsepower but on restored vintage Vespas at speeds averaging 30km/h.

What makes riding these antiquated milkshake makers so extreme is the setting: the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, a churning, vibrant, fast-paced, mega-city in the country's north, home to seven million people and an estimated three million scooters.

My guide meets me outside my hotel in Hanoi's Old Quarter - a maze-like warren of dingy alleyways and side streets lined with yellow stucco buildings, restaurants, bars, galleries, boutiques and craft stores of all kinds. Linh, a courteous and well-spoken Hanoian, spends most of his time taking tourists on off-road adventure tours into the mountainous region north of the city but is just as happy showing off his home town.

Our first stop is West Lake, a large body of water with a 17km shoreline said to contain wreckage of downed B-52s from the American War - what the Vietnam War is called over here. The lake is only a 3km ride from the Old Quarter. But first I'll need to get used to my, ahem, "restored" Vespa, though I'm not sure what parts of this machine have been restored or if it's even been serviced in the half-century that's elapsed since its manufacture.

Starting the engine with the kickstart is no easy task. Fixed on the left-hand side of the handlebar, the twist-grip gear has plenty of twist but not much grip. What's more, the bike has no indicators to speak of and the speedometer died eons ago, as did the headlight.

But these are all small idiosyncrasies that add to the charm of what is an exciting way not only to see Hanoi's many fascinating sights but to feel its very pulse. Then there's the traffic: thick as a hornet's nest, it comprises not only scooters but also incalculable numbers of rickshaws, bicycles, taxis, big belching buses that take up entire streets, army jeeps and the odd luxury SUV.

Adding fuel to the fire are petrified tourists trying to cross roads, street hawkers selling everything from fresh fruit to T-shirts to computer parts, stray dogs, wandering blind men and the odd police checkpoint. Traffic lights, stop signs, road markings and even one-way zones are purely suggestive, with the rule of thumb being that if your scooter fits, take it there, pavements included.

But there's method in the madness and the traffic in Hanoi seems to flow in rhythmic, concentric streams without the road rage that's commonplace in the West. In no time at all, I'm buzzing around like a native Hanoian, hooting the Vespa's little horn, the cool spring wind rushing through my hair.

After reaching West Lake, we park our Vespas on a road bridge and wander into the Tran Quoc Pagoda - the city's oldest temple, built in the sixth century. Originally set on Hanoi's Red River, the pagoda was dismantled brick by brick and reassembled on a small island on West Lake in 1615. Its centrepiece is a bodhi tree grown from a cutting of the original tree under which Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment.

After paying our respects, Linh and I hop across the road to visit the 800-year-old Quan Thanh Temple. Built in four directions to protect the city from evil, it features an impressive four-tonne statue of the sitting Buddha considered one of the world's greatest examples of bronze casting and sculpture.

Back on our little Vespas, we whiz down a wide leafy boulevard lined with chateaux built during Vietnam's French colonial era. It leads to Ba Dinh Square, a massive park and walkway fronting the Pantheon-style Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, burial place of the founding president of the modern state of Vietnam. For a non-party member like myself, the sight of his stuffed corpse is nothing to write home about, though the Ho Chi Minh Museum certainly is. Among thousands of pieces of memorabilia, photographs and writings, I take special interest in the old red bicycle the 60-year-old Ho Chi Minh used to pedal 1782km from Hanoi to Saigon - a city later renamed in his honour.

Our next point of call is the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. A carbon copy of the Forbidden City in Beijing, this is one of the world's richest archaeological sites - more than one million artefacts have been unearthed here. I get a gander at a few of them - stone dragons, monster masks and vases - at a small on-site museum and examine a command bunker replete with Art Deco dial-up phones, period typewriters and glass-encased battlefield maps that served as military headquarters during the American War.

Before the tour wraps up, Linh takes me for a late lunch at Cha Ca Thang La Vong, Hanoi's most famous restaurant. There's only one dish on the menu - tender chunks of catfish marinated with turmeric and fried with spring onions by waiters on hotplates at your table and served with noodles, coriander, fresh mint, basil, toasted peanuts and a secret shrimp sauce.

"We concentrate on only one dish," manager Trinh Thu Huong says, "because we want to get it perfect every time." And they do.


A Hanoi day tour by vintage Vespa with Dirtbike Travel costs $US72 ($76.50) per person for groups of two or $US59 per person for groups of four.

The West Australian

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