Just go to Vietnam! It’s a bicycle country. Everybody rides bicycle here – men, women, children, dogs, cats, in cities, in rural areas, everywhere. So cyclists have the right of way and more importantly other heavy vehicles on the roads keep a lookout for them.
What struck me when we landed in Hanoi was that everything looked similar, like Delhi was before Commonwealth. Muddy little lanes without pavements, haphazard way of erecting buildings, plastic lining the highway; the only change was that people looked different and traffic moved on the right hand side.
Ten days, erratic weather and a few local train travels later, the differences between our country and theirs started to emerge – strongly. In all reality it’s just a 38 years old country, for that’s when the war had ended. Just like most post war countries, population boomed from a mere 10 millions to around 90 millions today resulting in a lot of spread or growth in construction everywhere. People are not that sensitive to environment yet and laws are still not as strong as it’s our country. Like most Asian countries, Vietnam society also yearns for a son who will pray for them when they die. In smaller towns, two coffees together will result in discussions of marriage. The concept of men helping in housework is still not acceptable. Yet, in these 38 years, Vietnam has moved so much ahead of us - in development, infrastructure, lifestyle and most importantly attitude.
The plastic lining the highway in Hanoi was an aberration. Even though rustic, the rest of the country is spotlessly clean. Like most South East Asian countries, people are well dressed, friendly and naively lacking the ability to differentiate which usually ends in subtle forms of racism elsewhere. There is dignity in labour; people are polite and very punctual. You still have to cross the roads just as blindly as we do here but motorists will gracefully let you go first.
Sitting besides the Hoan Kiem Lake near the old quarters of Hanoi in the warm mellow winter sun, I felt I could spend an entire lifetime just watching people and life go by. Young mothers strolling with their adorable babies, the students trying to chat up tourists in order to improve their English, the many pre-wedding photo shoots with brides and grooms posing in different places – there was a languid quality to life here.
The afternoon sun filtering in through the tree got caught in the grey hair of an old couple sitting on a bench and chatting with each other. That warm picture made me feel like growing old just like them and in a place just like this.
But till that time, I would happily ride a bicycle along the sea coast totally free and perhaps even collect wildflowers on the way!