Over the last few weeks I’ve been lucky enough to visit Hanoi twice: once for a weekend break and then again for a story that is coming up in the October issue of the magazine.
As Vietnam’s capital and its second largest city, Hanoi is a busy place. Thousands of motorbikes stream through the city streets daily, transporting the bulk of Hanoi’s nearly seven million residents, while hawkers on bicycles, slow-moving cars and the odd pedestrian battle to navigate the two-wheeled throng.
With constant honking, seemingly non-existent road rules and pavements packed with food stalls serving local fare on plastic tables and chairs, Hanoi is not unlike many other growing Southeast Asian cities. But no matter how noisy the traffic is nor how precarious crossing the road can feel, Hanoi manages to give the impression of a very peaceful city where the quality of life is good.
In the last 100 years or so, Hanoi has been under the control of the French and Japanese. It’s survived American bombing raids as the capital of North Vietnam and it is from here that the current Vietnamese government now runs its country of nearly 90 million people. But this fractious recent history doesn’t seem to permeate much of modern Hanoi’s daily life.
In keeping with Ho Chi Minh’s vision, former streetside bomb shelters were repurposed as tree planters and the boulevards and parks built by the French colonialists continue to be hives of activity during early mornings and evenings. Indeed, it’s hard to spend a few days in Hanoi and not be tempted to join one of the outdoor exercise classes taking place on any surface that seems able to accommodate them. From ballroom dancing and aerobics classes (both accompanied by rather dubious music blaring from nearby stereos) to older couples stretching on purpose-built public-fitness frames and whole families playing badminton with nets strung between lamp posts, Hanoians seem hellbent on getting the most out of their city’s outdoor space.
With many of us in more developed cities spending considerable chunks of change on things such as gym memberships and yoga classes, perhaps our cities can take a leaf out of Hanoi’s book. Local governments around the world could carve out more spaces in our parks – and even on our pavements – for group exercise. How about a morning dances in Trafalgar Square, lunchtime volleyball courts in Manhattan’s Bryant Park or evening aerobics on the Rocks in Sydney? Give Hanoi a few years to clean up its air quality (hybrid buses are on the way) and the city would get my vote as a global exercise capital.
Aisha Speirs is Monocle’s Hong Kong bureau chief.