Vietnam Vacation: Infrastructure

Water – It is not safe to drink the tap water in Vietnam, but bottled water is cheap and readily available. I have since learned that may not be entirely safe either, but none of us got sick drinking it. We used tap water to brush our teeth, and that turned out fine as well.

Bottled water for cooking and drinking. We consumed two of these large bottles and innumerable small bottles during our visit.

We learned the hard way how water is delivered to individual homes. On Christmas Eve, our first night in Hanoi, we suddenly had no water. Back home that would be a major plumbing emergency with an equivalent service fee, but in Vietnam it just necessitated a call to the house helper to arrange for a plumber to drop by. Despite a significant language barrier, he managed to explain to us that water is pumped into a holding tank on the roof. One of the toilets had kept running and emptied the tank. In about an hour the tank would refill and we would have water again, but we would need to make sure that toilet stopped running. Problem solved.

Sanitation – To conserve water, toilets are equipped with either two buttons or a two-way lever. One delivers a mini flush for liquid waste and the other a full flush for solid waste. Some public facilities are equipped with “squatty potties.” Although I was instructed on various methods for their use, I fortunately never had to use one.

“Squatty potty” en route to Mai Chau.
No, thank you.

Electric – Wiring in Vietnam is a jumbled mess, with ugly tangles of cables everywhere. Phil surmised that when there is an outage it would be easier to cut a wire and start over than to find the problem, so there are multitudes of dead wires, some just dangling, as well as live ones. Once while we were walking through the city, Joseph inadvertently knocked the cover off a service box of some sort mounted to a utility pole. He started to pick it up to replace it, but Phil and I both quickly intervened.

Typical Hanoi intersection.

Trash – Hanoi is a dirty city. There are no streetside garbage cans; people just drop trash where they are. (Our “Leave No Trace” training would not allow us to do the same, so we kept our trash in our pockets or backpacks.) Streetsweepers run, but they can’t reach the refuse that accumulates on sidewalks. Household trash is put out on the curbs and collected in pushcarts.

Trash pickup outside Hanna’s house after the holidays.

Streets and Traffic – Traffic is as bad as you’ve heard – maybe worse. Traffic lights are few, and personal bubble space is nonexistent. Sometimes another vehicle would be merging toward ours so closely that we anticipated a collision, when suddenly a motorbike or two would zip in between. Amazingly, we saw just one accident during our week in Vietnam. It was not serious, as the volume of traffic keeps the speed low.

Back in college, I preferred playing Frogger to Pac-Man, Who knew that years later those skills would come in handy crossing the street of Hanoi? Hanna was impressed by our fearlessness and taught us early on that motorbikes can avoid hitting you, but cars can’t.

Inexpensive to buy and operate, motorbikes are the preferred mode of transportation. Whole families, including infants, will ride on a single motorbike. We often saw a precarious amount of cargo tied with twine to a motorbike. Automobiles are a sign of affluence. Bicycles are still common, and we saw a couple of horses and buggies.

It startled us to see infants and children on motorbikes. Most adults wore helmets but most children did not. Hanna’s friend Aimee explained that many Vietnamese believe that children’s necks are not strong enough to support a helmet until age 12.

Taxis are plentiful and inexpensive. There are small (4-passenger) and large (7-passenger) taxis and even larger buses for hire. Large taxis cost more, as do rides with English-speaking taxi drivers (Hanna would only use two companies). Still, we had only one fare over $10 and that was for a more than 20 minute ride with two stops.

Hanna sometimes rode motorbike taxis when she was by herself, but usually took the bus. Her monthly bus pass fee was $4 for unlimited rides. Individual bus rides cost 15 cents (that is not a typo). We took the bus a couple of times for the experience. It is considered rude to speak loudly on the bus which makes for a much more pleasant experience than in the States.

The sheer number of vehicles puts parking at a premium. Parking lots are three or four deep bumper-to-bumper vehicles, and motorbikes are often parked en masse on the sidewalk. In fact, it was not unusual to see motorbikes driving on the sidewalk.

Motorbikes parked on the sidewalk.

Motorbikes aside, Hanoi sidewalks themselves are often in a sad state of repair. Uneven surfaces, cracks and potholes are common. It is quite a contrast from the ADA standards back home, but we also did not see a single person in a wheelchair during our visit.

Air Quality – Industry, the massive number of motor vehicles, and lack of regulation contribute to extreme air pollution in Vietnam. Many residents wear a cloth filter over their nose and mouth, but I don’t know if they are effective. Hanna had a chronic cough while she lived in Vietnam. Phil and Laura also developed a cough during our visit. Joseph and I, who both take Singulair for allergies, did not.

Motorbike riders wearing face masks.

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