Vietnam Sources (March 1997) tells us that only 13% of Vietnam's roads are sealed.
Half of all roads are described as in bad condition and a third are critically damaged.
Determination and some perversity led us to drive to SaPa, a mountain village near the Chinese border. It is less than 500 kilometres from HaNoi but takes ten hours by road or you can take an overnight train.
We hired a van with two drivers, one was Nguyen Hong Thang, the 26 year old son of the owner of HaNoi's Lavender Hotel. Thang speaks reasonable English and French and was able to explain a bit (though rather cautiously) about the changes in north Vietnam over the last five years. He used to go to school by bus or push bike. Now, he says, all kids have motor bikes or even cars. Roads have become incredibly busy and dangerous.
Back To Vietnam Sources The main problem is all those bicycles; analysts say that given the same conditions, Vietnam's traffic allows speeds of five to eight per cent slower than in other countries.
Our experience in Vietnam, (particularly in Hanoi as the photos show) was that not only are there incredible numbers of bicycles on the roads, but that there seems to be no common understanding of which side you should drive on. To cross a road in Hanoi, is not a matter of looking left, then right, then left again but rather of looking firmly into the eye of the driver of the approaching vehicle and indicate that you intend to cross, no matter what. Fortunately, as the statistics show, they drive slowly enough to allow you to do this.
Traffic speed also allows time to examine hat fashions. Clearly there is a deep and abiding affection for hats no doubt driven by need in this climate -- to keep off sun and rain. Nowhere have I seen such variety. Ranging from the traditional conical straw hats to large soft floppy versions, smaller brimmed and bowed ones, sometimes with fake flowers to a whole range of exotica -- fedoras, pith helmets, Mexican sombreros, bowlers, baseball caps - worn usually the right way round; boaters, cowboy hats, Andes mountain hats, woollen caps, berets and lots and lots of army gear.
Gloves are also worn still by beauty conscious women. Guarding the skin from ravages of the sun is important. Masks are also often put over the face, both to reduce the effects of pollution and as further skin beauty protection. Traditional clothing with its long skirts and sleeves does the rest.
Most of this relates to women (and most of the pictures feature them too). As reported in The Economist (March 1997 of Vietnamese aged between 35 and 44, there are twice as many women as men.