On Travel writing

Compared to other forms of writing, travel writing has less inherent value. The internet is redundant with travel content and one can easily find 100 articles or more about the same destination. It just does not root from necessity or a call to tell stories. Travel writing can inform and evoke sensations but normally does not go any further than that. In modern time, travel writing can be grouped in the same category with content marketing, sustained by good cashflow of tourism. And don’t talk about SEO writing. It’s just the worst.

Nevertheless, there are many levels of travel writing. At its worst, it’s full of cliches. At it best, it will be a delicate and in-depth look to a certain destination, done by savvy professionals. It will blend some cinematic elements with personal experiences and succinct analysis. This is a small, niche market, employed by high-end hotels/ resorts, travel column of big magazines and travel guidebooks.

There’s also another type – travel operators who write about their own products in a personal, authentic tone. Currently I see this rising in Instagram cause this platform allows people to tell instant stories in a personal way. Travel bloggers like Nomandic Matt is also shifting his focus more to Instagram than this website.

Despite all of its lures and problems, travel writing is ultimately a skill. It’s a sustainable skill to build cause there’s always a market to use and implore. Travel writing is also an excellent excuse to polish descriptive craft that I wanna dive in a bit deeper.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The best route for cycling in Mekong Delta

Sorry but…cycling mood. I just wanna scream out loud and cycle straight for hours. I miss the feeling when I used to work for Grasshopper Adventures ^^

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This is a charity bridge in Tien Giang, one of the most scenic provinces in Mekong Delta for cycling. The feeling is still very vivid , something I can recall anytime. Embraced by water coconut sprouting from gentle system of rivers in the Delta, it is the route leading to sensation. Something, of course, I did take for granted while I was doing it. Feel like missing an ex lover.

When u cycle your calf is gonna be big as mine. Just kidding, my calves are always big, cycling will make it toned and leaner and maybe a bit longer cause u need to stretch.

Motorbiking is another experience. You will need a badass bike with great mountain/ coastal route. Cycling somehow is less demanding.

A friend of mine said “I would rather spend time doing exercises than playing music”, but I disagree. If possible, a human should strive to do both. If you can be creative and active at the same time, u have the power to change your inner world in an immense way and even feeling a sense of bliss without much twist from external environment.

Next, if u can dance…ok I shall stop here.

So, happy cycling/ exercising friends !

The frame

14597295_1065065116946468_3141465433937281024_n1Saymon took me to his farmstay in Luang Prabang . We sit on a chair sipping water while his carpenter was singing loudly and terribly after a Thai song (Thai and Laos languages are similar).

What kind of music do you like?”, I ask.

Ah, Laos people often listen to…”

I smiled. This is a tour guide being considerate, thinking I am just exploring Laos culture.

No, I mean, what kind of music do YOU personally like?”

Ah, I like countryside music. I like to stay in a farm when I don’t work. See that mountain top over there? There is trekking route leading to the top, and this area has no traffic noise“.

This reminds me of Mai Châu of Northwest Vietnam or even my home in the central. The window opens up a landscape that looks like a painting, absolutely lovely in a poetic way. Everything is so far yet so close, so strange yet so familiar.

“Do you want to come to a waterfall today?
Waterfall? I have been to another waterfall the other day.

This one is different.

But…

It is okay, I am free today anyway”

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Kuang Xi waterfall

When we reached Kuang Xi, standing at the foot of that roaming current of water, a grandiosely refreshing feeling overwhelmed me. I closed my eyes, absorbing millions pieces of water dust soaking my face and shirt, totally let it dominate.

At that moment of being 100% loose, I smiled when I remembered a short conversation we had at lunch with a random person when he commented

You are lucky to be with him and experience local things in a different way

To which I did not answer. I feel the same level of luck at that moment as if I were riding in Saigon rain or when I am typing words in the cafe of the low end hostel I stay. But one thing I know for sure is that I want to talk with that random person again.

“I used to be a tour guide too”, he said.

“What made you stop?”

“Because it limits my creativity”

“What are you doing at the moment?”

“I am a chef”

I stopped eating right at the same time he was about to leave.

“You are leaving now?”, I ask.

“Yes”

“Do you come back here?”

“No, I stay in Luang Prabang town”.

“I want to talk with you more. I think you are interesting. Where do you live in Luang Prabang?”

“Blue Lagoon”

“I will come there to find you”

“Okay”

So I gotta write the last words of this weird post to come to that Blue Lagoon and talk to the chef and finish our abruptly cut conversation, while thinking this must be one of the most incoherent thing I have ever written. A post that makes no sense because the writer never has the intention to.

Blue Lagoon. I will parkour over there in imagination ha ha.

Lust

That feeling surged again. In Kuang Xi- a waterfall full of people in Laos, I soak myself in cold running water and after around 20 minutes, I stared at him.

Him here is a random person standing around 10 meters away from me. Muscular, tanned, tall and tattooed, with a small beard and looking at me almost at the same time. My heart started to beat fast.

Almost immediately my head is vividly filled with the image of that stranger pulling me closer and us making out under water, behind and in front of arrays of wild trees in the area while resisting the strong water current flowing towards. In public and passionately.

We will breath hard, tongues twisted, excited by the overwhelming chemistry and an immense guilty inappropriate feeling when all other swimmers stopped to point and gossip at the wild scene in front of them just to be turned on at the same time. In seconds, every freaking one of them will be itchy and about to turn into vampire.

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The thing is…it did not happen, yet the visualization was so vivid that the aura around us changed forever. Right there, at that waterfall, I can smell and touch that strong sensation.

I am losing grip babe. I am losing my poise.

In mainstream psychology, lust is defined as such

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Aside from the surface pleasure that lust triggers, I deeply believe there is correlation between lust and vulnerability. I have never felt such an immense level of vulnerability in my life recently, and the desire for attention/ connection increases with the same rate.

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After writing for 30 minutes, the receptionist came behind my back and when I turned around, I can felt that look again. I better not disturb her, I think and sigh.

” What are you writing?

-I am writing about yesterday. I went to a waterfall and wanted to kiss every freaking person there.

-Ha ha, really?

-Yeah, maybe it is hormone, haiz.

-It happens to me too, ha ha.

-What? Really?

-Yeah, sometimes when customers come in, it took me some minutes to be calm and professional =))

– So you can control it. I can’t. Damn.

Where will this lead and for how long? Is it purely biological or psychological? Let’s see. Maybe you can let me know.

When Avril loses her grip, she can fall over her fans and the audience will take her with all they have. When I lose my grip, hmm, when I lose my grip, maybe I will come and find you and kiss you, right there.

Y.O.U (Why. Opressing.Us)

Survival skills in a modern world ?

Two days coming back from a 3D2N trekking and camping in the best mountain route in Central Highland Vietnam with Dalat Discovery, I still hesitate to write anything about it. Definitely a splendid area which leaves us many photos to show off in social media and another experience to solidify the “strong girl” image I want to create, but part of me feel uneasy. I never trekked or camped before the trip, and may not trek or camp often (or ever?) in the future. In a zoom-out stretch of time, the 3-day adventure seems lost, like a red puzzle piece in a green mosaic. I came back to my modern world and the trip was so unfit to the normal schedule that it felt like a dream. Did it really happen?

Abundance in scarcity

When I brought my carry-on small suitcase to the meeting point, Tuan looked at me, bewildered

Are you serious? Just leave it here and take as little as possible!

Mind you, this is the freaking first time I went trekking. With careless character and lack of experience, I throw everything and brought with me just 2 trousers, underwear and 1 piece of snacks. “The rest I can rely on the organizers”, I thought.

Yet the moment rain dropped and my only pair of shoes got soaking wet, I started to feel that there is not much to rely on. A feeling of immense scarcity surged inside me. When everybody finally got to the hill to set up the camps and we found out that we left an essential device at home, I became so sleepy and tired that I just lied there and slept for 2 hours while others give a hand in setting things up.

 

When I woke up, around me everything is set like I have been in deep sleep for the whole night

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Fire is lit (photo credit goes to Tan – the owner of The outdoor life)
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Wood ready to warm us up at night

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Shoes are dried up from fire smoke

Tea from flowers of this little monster plan along the way

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A super delicious feast at the top of the mountain

At that moment, my shame goes away and makes way for the admiration for all the people around me, at that top of the hill. Fear and scarcity pushes people to optimize whatever available around. Necessity is truly the mother of invention.

In modern life and especially in big cities, this rarely happens. With so much available around us, we have become so lazy and reliant that there is no need to strive. We live in such a convenient and protective society that sometimes, it pays off to jump out and be in the wild, to get a slap in the face on how much behind we are in the path called “development”, to remind us skills we lack and more importantly, how much we can learn.

Lost, fickle and self limit

The trip in total was 55km stretching in 3 days with many ups and downs. To professional trekkers, this should be as easy as a cake, yet to me and some others, this was a challenge. By saying challenge, I mean many times I was pain and uncomfort.

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Tired in a not so beautiful stop over

Before we departed, all we pictured in mind was lush green hills and the motivation that we can tell our all friends “we did it”. Everyone knew there are challenges included but in a way, we were not mentally prepared.

Or maybe just me, I was not mentally prepared. The moment water nearly runs out and there is still a long distance before we can camp, there was nothing but an overwhelming unease.

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Keep going

There is a saying “never give up”. That 4 words are said too much that it becomes cliche. In this trip, even though 80% of the trail is super beautiful, many parts were purely dirt. To finish, we gotta move on nevertheless and keep a consistent pace.

As someone who cycles very often, I have been very confident about health, yet once in a while I felt exhausted. Consistence and stamina are required. We cannot rush because rushing does not help so there is only one option left .”Keep going”. Looking up or looking back does not help. Just keep going and concentrate on where we are, one step at a time.

A trip to humble us all

In this trip, I met many people who are way more talented, travel-savvy, those been in incredible trips, yet none of them seems arrogant. Is there a correlation between arrogance and ability? Not always. Yet in trips like this, when we swing ourselves into nature, either intentionally or unintentionally, there are always some moments to shut us all up.

Being so small within immense nature has a profound effect. It helps us to realize how small we are and decrease the big ego inside. It humbles us and therefore, gives us strength to improve.

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immense beauty
photo credit – Tuan Anh Tran

amazing sunrise

amazing trail

Sometimes just better feel and say nothing.

Battlefield reporters – the souls behind Vietnam War

Peter

When Peter looked up, I asked:

“So what is your favorite picture?”

He stopped for a moment:

“Favorite? No not “favorite”, but I think the ones that impressed me is the ones showing the brutality of wars”

Upon saying that, Peter was referring to the collection of war crime pictures exhibited on 2nd floor of War Remnant Museum, Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam. This 35-year-old Museum has been an excellent bridge connecting the gaps of history awareness (or lack thereof) from  both sides. Despite some criticism of being biased, I felt touched by various pictures shown here, taken by the brave men behind the cameras. Today I want to explore their stories, what led them to the battle fields, their impacts on public and the reverse impact on their own lives after fame.

Troublesome Risk-Takers

Tim PageBritish, the danger craving man

 

1. Tim Page
“War is hell”, Tim Page

I should not have chosen “War is hell” photo to present here since my eyes are glued at this solder’s mesmerizing look and not the tiny sentence on his hat, but it is good attraction leading me to an interesting War Reporter called Tim Page.

As the person behind haunting photos of Requiem Exhibition in War Remnant Museum, a collection of pictures from photographers who died in the Vietnam War, Tim Page is also the inspiration for the journalist played by Dennis Hopper in the famous film Apocalypse Now. However behind the glory he also suffered from PTSD and attempted suicide 2 times. At the later period of life he shifted his focus to portray war veterans and wrote about their stories, mainly as a self-therapeutic act.

Requiem collection portrayed not only brutality but also humanity in this War:

4. Tim Page
A Communist Guerrila being executed in a Saigon street

 

5. Tim Page
An identified U.S. Army personnel wears a hand lettered “War Is Hell” slogan on his helmet, June 18, 1965, during the Vietnam War. He was with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Battalion on defense duty at Phouc Vinh airstrip in South Vietnam. (AP Photo/Horst Faas)
Vietnam The Real War
In the first of a series of fiery suicides by Buddhist monks, Thich Quang Duc burns himself to death on a Saigon street to protest persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government, June 11, 1963. The photograph aroused worldwide outrage and hastened the end of the Diem government. With the photo on his Oval Office desk, President Kennedy reportedly remarked to his ambassador, ÒWeÕre going to have to do something about that regime.Ó (AP Photo/Malcolm Browne) FOR ONE-TIME USE ONLY IN CONNECTION WITH THE BOOK AND/OR EXHIBIT “Vietnam: The Real War” (Abrams 2013)

 

7. Tim Page
U.S Marines carry the injured during a firefight near the Southern edge of the DMZ, Vietnam, October 1966

 

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A picture that caught my attention in War Remnant Museum. Is that a man/ woman, why is that one smiling? The strange moment may unfold an interesting story, reserved for next part covering Vietnam War reporters 😉

To be fair, Tim Page is not a “Vietnam” war photographer, but rather an Indochina War & Middle East war reporter. His photography is self taught in the years he was in Laos working for AFP when he was only 17, which earned him a staff position in Saigon Bureau of the news agency in 1965. He was severely injured in war 4 times.

2. Tim Page
Tim Page under fire with Martin Stuart Fox in Vietnam, 1966

 

What brought  Tim Page to this career was not burning passion at first for either war or photography but rather a string of incidents, notably his near-death experience following a 1960 motorcycle accident:

“I had died. I lived. I had seen the tunnel. It was black. It was nothing. There was no light at the end. There was no afterlife. Nothing religious about any of it. And it did not seem scary. It was a long, flowing, no-color wave which just disappeared. The mystery was partly resolved, all the fearful church propaganda took on its true, shameful meaning. I was content. I was alive. I was not dead, and it seemed very clear, very free. This was the dawning, the overture to losing a responsible part of my psyche. A liberation happened at that intersection. Anything from here on would be free time, a gift from the gods”

That incident might not be the only factor, but definitely an important one which helped Page to swing himself into brutal, exhausting, emotionally turbulent scenes he faced.

In this interesting interview by Talk Vietnam, Page shared about his reason why he came to Asia in the beginning

TIM PAGE– At 17 years of age, you decided to leave UK to come to Asia. Why did u decide that?

  • – I think my whole life has been a series of falling over, accidents, and then becoming lucky. When I was 16 I died. I was in a motorcycle. And I lost 6 liters of blood from here, I thought I was dead. I think when you see the other side, death, whatever this is, ended now, when you come back, you are changed. So I run from England and it was mind-opening.

– So you would go on to shoot your very first war photos eventually in Laos, and you never thought of becoming, you know, a photo journalist, let alone a war reporter.

-In Laos, I lived with a man who became a correspondent for UPI, United Press. The war in Laos, in 1963-1964 escalated, so they sent my friend to Tokyo to learn big time correspondent, and I am UPI’s Bureau chief in Laos. I am 18, I am bureau chief in Laos, right, so the bureau chief in Saigon comes in

“Hey kid, how do you like your job? 3 days later I am in Saigon”

Tim Page’s totally unpredictable life turn brought him to Saigon and War reporting in general, which pushes him to hone his skills as the requirement of the job and exposure brought after that, just like the characters in the book of Carl Newport . It is not the idealist image I have in mind about passionate people who believed in justice and meaning and looking for something to change the world but much more complex, and because of that, much more interesting. The stories of people with extraordinary works but very vulnerable and normal at the same time.

I can’t help thinking the lady interviewing him already having certain story in mind though, a polished plot for television.

The next war reporters I want to explore are Henri Huet from France, Kyochi Sawada from Japan, Larry Burrow from Britain and Luong Nghia Dung from Vietnam. How are their stories different from Tim Page?

 

 

 

Who are we when the world is shrinking?

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Mary looks over the window when it started to rain, claimed:

“This looks like a part of Philipines”
“Yeah, it looks like my hometown too, actually”, I replied.

We kept conversing in English about frequently discussed topics about Vietnam and Cambodia, when Sang, the Khmer tour guide on Mekong Express bus came closer and started talking in Vietnamese to me then in English to Mary.

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Sang holding water coconuts in a trip in Mekong Delta, Vietnam

 

After talking, each of us stares at our phone surfing FB with similar newsfeed probably filled with international news everyone reads.

Then images kept flashing back to my mind. On the trip to Phnom Penh, I saw backpackers on the bus holding classic history books about Cambodia, which is just like what my tourists did on the bus to Vietnam when they held books like Tunnels of Cu Chi

Most Vietnamese and Cambodians never read those books or having curiosity to. In other words, the images they have in mind about us and the image we have in mind about our countries are two worlds apart. People travel seeking difference, while locals just want to move forward, ending up following the path of globalization. In the case of South East Asia, our generation is becoming more similar than ever.

You come here to drink coffee on street, but we look for fancy cafes to stay in.

You come here to see National Museum, but most locals never set foot there.

A feeling of awkwardness surges inside me. Should I be happy about this? Should I be happy about the easy conversations we are having, or should I be disappointed that we are blending and turning to boring clones with no identity, including national identity? Even worse for people working in industries which depend on culture preservation because culture is diminishing faster than ever before. Soon enough, what is different about each country will just retain in museum or set-up tourism context.

Should we cling to nationalism or should we be grateful about the dynamic communication landscape we are granted thanks (due) to Internet that is clearing national borders with speed of light?

And as always, travel is overrated. Stay home people, we are all alike.

 

 

Phnom Penh puzzle pieces

When the bus of Mekong Express strolled around passing by Independence Monument at night, Phnom Penh shined like a golden princess. Without any fixed plan to really explore this neighboring city in my second time here, Phnom Penh patterns just emerge themselves naturally in a spontaneous path, telling the story of a strange development entity.

Cool Motorbike army

Compared to where I come from, Phnom Penh seems to be the heaven of cool motorbike hipsters. On the way to attend a casual meetup event organized by my friends, a mysterious Khmer woman in her unique suit with purple lipsticks passed by on a black motorbike, stopped at the red light and smiled at me. I was charmed just in seconds @@. That lady easy rider is just one of a cool motorbike army scattering all around this capital, maneuvering streets in a deadly dangerous yet attractive manner.

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Urban Planning and the grid navigating system

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Pnom Penh is fairly easy to navigate even for a person like me who has no sense of direction or never cares where the sun is. When I was on the bus from Saigon, Amrak, a new Khmer friend sitting beside already told that it would be easy to move around since nearly all signs are bilingual (Khmer- English). Not only are all signs navigation-friendly, streets are numbered in a grid system.

For an outsider, the grid layout saves a lot of time and mental energy. Whether being the legacy of French colonization or progressing work of smart urban planners, this system seem to help avoid the overwhelming chaotic scenes often encountered in neighboring cities in Asia.

Cambodia National Museum

With typical Khmer architecture, Cambodian national museum is a huge collection of Khmer history and culture from Pre-historial era to modern time in 3 layers. Yet with an impulsive, impatient personality, I could only linger there for 45 minutes before getting out with a plan to read about its history online, a plan likely to be left dusted, as promising as my ignorance about Vietnam’s history.

Banks and an emerging economy

An stupid incident with ATM card led me to an expected, heated walking tour to different banks in the city. From big international banks to local ones with a modern look, the city is full of financial entities.

What does that fact say about the economy here? Maybe it is time to read some reports and be more informed about this fast-changing neighbor.

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Hip cafe culture

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In its adjective-packed introduction, Lonely Planet claims that Phnom Penh has a world-class coffee culture. Well, when Lonely Planet authors have to use the word “world-class” or “one of…”, it means they have no idea what they are talking about anymore. The coffee here is just like in Vietnam, with a mix of international coffee franchise invasion and its own funky, hippy cafes being set up all around. Combined with riverside bars and pubs occupied by stylish youngsters, the drinking scene is very vibrant, with so many choices that we can be paralyzed, in a lovely way 🙂

 

When I can’t escape

Felix exclaimed:

“Hi May, where are Luke and mom?”

My heart skipped a beat. The mom and her 10 year old child slowly dragged their bikes towards us with a frustrating look. The chain is falling out and the derailleur is broken in half, with the second half lying nowhere to be found

chain falling out

“I have searched for it everywhere. I didn’t see it”

I was panicked. Since the beginning I have acted the role of a poised, know-it-all guide very well whom won their affection and trust. Can I say something funny to twist their perspective of this shit – that I don’t know how to fix a broken derailleur?

The normally romantic rubber plantations are at their worst time of the year: rainy season when tree branches fall off, creating a messy backdrop.

From all corners mosquitoes are screaming, waiting to eat us alive. Two little boys, 10-year-old Luke and 7–year-old Felix are losing their cheerful face. I called numerous people for a few minutes when Felix started his rambling

Why does it take so long? Uh huh, ahhh, mosquitoes

 

Their mom says nothing.

Deep down I know they have all the rights to complain. I am delivering a service and this should not happen. In this case, they need a problem solver and not an entertainer as usual. I happen to be in a situation when I don’t have what it takes to solve and people who can solve are out of reach.

When you are expected to be a problem solver

Normally, I am an escaper. I just do things I like and meet people I care about. If there is any hint of mess or discomfort, I just say NO.

No. You deal with it. That is not my shit.

No, I will not meet you (because I have no interest at all)

No, I will not meet you (because I have so much interest that I am scared of rejection)

But there are cases when I have no choice but standing in front lines. Being a tour guide is one of that. I talk obvious things in different ways to entertain people and when bad surprises happen, I am expected to be a problem solver.

Problems expose our vulnerability

kids

If things go right, I will just make fun with Luke & Felix, listen to them eagerly sharing about their life in Singapore, act like I am so interested and then look at their satisfying mom’s face, happy that somebody is caring about her kids.

If things go right, I will just be poised, comfortable and in control. The mess kicked me out of that driver’s seat and just in seconds I became passive and frustrated. I felt so vulnerable, and somehow I feel that is a good sign. It shows me what I know I lack and force me to face it, find a way to deal with it, seeking help from others and grow from them.

If we feel stupid and vulnerable, that is a good sign. If we always feel confident, we are in the wrong environment.

Hanoi Cyclists – From Classic to Hippy

With more than 4000 active cyclists, various lakes to stroll around and diverse options to get away, Hanoi can satisfy any demanding cyclist if he/ she know hows 😉

Hanoi Cycling Nostalgia

Before turning into a motorbike-crazy city, Hanoi used to be a haven of nostalgia. Decades ago, in subsidy period, bicycles were considered a great asset of families.  As the main transport means at that time, the bicycles are memories, romance and even pride of generations. Bicycle riders had to pass the test to earn driving license, have their bikes installed license plates. School boys carried their girls on the back of a bicycle with red flame flowers on the front basket, marking a classic icon.

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Long Bien bridge, icon of a generation
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In front of a cinema where bicycles have proper parking space
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A decent driving licence for…cyclists.
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An old bicycle kept in a Hanoi Museum

At that time,  the most desirable brands are  Peugeot, Aviac or Mercie with value can be compared to a car driving registration paper nowadays. A great source of nostalgia.

From being classic to being hippy

Decades passing by witnesses the huge transformation of Hanoi from an elegant cycling city to a crazy motorbike metropolis. I felt so sad when recently expensive imported pollution masks have been hunted, as a sign of trendiness and even..fashion. In rush hour, Hanoi is a nightmare, full of motorbike hubs.

respro masks
Well this girl has eyes worth dying for, but beautiful babe, do not turn this into a fashion icon

Nevertheless, a new generation is rising: youngsters who are health conscious are bringing bikes to the transportation scene. They are forming groups, actively participating in events, roaming around the city and out of it, either in their close-knit groups or in bigger gangs. They even connect with each other and support Cross-Vietnam youngsters in a mission to explore their home country and at the same time, themselves.

Tom, trainer of Hanoi Elite Fitness with his 6-pack friend on an early morning in Hoan Kiem Lake. Are they also the little boys in the picture? You wanna find out 😉 ?

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Emong, an active cycling group, in one of their cycling charity Emong,trips to mountainous areas

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Minh Tran Anh, a member of Hanoi Banabike Club, set up by the French expat Yoann Forsure for Hanoi youngsters to try dirt jump
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Banana Bike members dig the dirt paths themselves
long bien bridge
A huge farm right under the city bridge
trang kiu
Trang Kiu, a biking enthusiast in her cross-Vietnam cycling trip

 

Hanoi is definitely not a cycling city compared to Amsterdam or Copenhagen, yet will not disappoint you when you know who to play with. Cool cyclists there welcome you with all their arms 🙂