There are no sidewalks where the sidewalks are

Quảng Yên, Việt Nam

Construction materials clog the sidewalk in Quang Yen, Vietnam. © 2011 Douglas Inglis

Fruit on the street corner. © 2011 Veronica Morriss

There are no sidewalks where the sidewalks are. We cannot walk ten meters without having to weave into the road. Like urban breakers, the streets of Quảng Yên crash into an endless line of little store fonts. The space between curb and building is just another parking spot for trucks, bikes and fleets of the ever-present scooters. Like a crumbling coastline, each shop spills its wares out onto the road – crates of Bia Hà Nôi, palettes of sweet bird’s nest and truffle soda, jumbled boxes of brightly packaged snacks, things with cryptic labels, wild haberdashery, racks of cell phones and knock-off watches, and always, baskets overflowing with dragon fruit, bananas, and lychees.

It seems everyone is a street-side micro-entrepreneur. Capitalism is alive here with a dizzy free-wheeling vitality that cannot exist in the land of Wal-Mart and corporate super-chains.


A street vender, selling oranges from his bike. © 2011 Douglas Inglis

Vibram Five Fingers Bikila, from

The street-side eateries expand their seating all they way across the sidewalk and into the road. Locals gather around short tables on small plastic chairs and smoke and eat and watch traffic blare by. Everyone stares at us. Americans are rare, but it’s Veronica’s feet that fascinate everyone here; she is wearing Five-Finger shoes – the ones with individual sleeves for your toes. As we walk by conversation slows – all heads turn and follow our feet as we go by. Women glare.

Around the corner from our hotel, a little café sells phở thịt chó – dog soup. We always pass by. Phở bò (beef noodle soup) is more our style. We blunder along until we find another café; they won’t serve us today. It falls on us. We are too strange or have arrived at an inappropriate time or are asking for the wrong thing – neither Veronica or I have any passible control of the language. It is a sin to show up in a country without a the most basic vocabulary, but I try to learn more each day.

The streets of Quang Yen. © 2011 Douglas Inglis

Few tourists come here – there is little to see except dirty and vibrant and beautiful Việt Nam erupting on waves of globalization. We are off the road from the traditional lonely planet tourist stops, and little if anything is in English, Chinese or German. French is everywhere. An elderly Vietnamese gentleman shouts “Bonjour!” We talk a while and he invites us to tea. Unfortunately we have to move along.

Everything in Việt Nam is reconstructing itself. Buildings sag, crumble and rebuild with the action of a rolling boil. Along the sidewalk, piles of mortar, lumber and rebar fill the gaps  between the overflowing merchandise and parked scooters. A monolith of bricks blocks our way. We skirt a mound of sand and veer into traffic; scooters and trucks weave around us without hesitation. In our short time in Quảng Yên we saw the city rapidly changing. Some projects had frenetic energy, moving forward with the choppy feel of a stop motion video. Other construction sites seemed to malinger – stalled, abandoned or without the energy or finances to continue.

A child makes his way down the street of Nam Hoa. © 2011 Douglas Inglis

Even the legend of General Trần Hưng Đạo is rebuilding itself. We are here in Việt Nam investigating the archaeology of his great victory over the Mongolian navy. The battle was over 700 years ago, yet the history of the Đại Việt triumph in the face of invasion has had continued relevance in the wake of the First Indochina War and the Vietnam War.  Many Vietnamese make pilgrimages to sites associated with Tran Hung Dao, bringing new life to old shrines. In Đồng Cốc they have started building a brand new temple, though the one it is replacing is only 50 years old.

A New Temple for Tran Hung Dao. © 2011 Douglas Inglis

The courtyard is a mass of tiles, brick concrete and  bamboo poles. Massive timbers rise, levitated by a small army of workers and devoted volunteers. The wood is red, and gleams in the afternoon sun. An elderly man takes us to a shed around back. The temple finery is inside, along with a statue of Trần Hưng Đạo. He stares out at us through the door with his face stern in warning, with his stance embodying the resilience the people that live here.



Tags: , , , , ,

Categories: Adventure, Photos, Travel

Author:Doug Inglis:

I study the archaeology of seaborne exploration and contact. I am passionate about public history and outreach, and write about nautical archaeology at

4 Comments on “There are no sidewalks where the sidewalks are”

  1. Talitha
    February 24, 2012 at 4:37 pm #

    Reblogged this on My Favorite Spaces.

  2. February 24, 2012 at 7:33 pm #

    extraordinary, really gives you a sense of the flavour of the place

    • March 4, 2012 at 10:18 pm #

      Thank you for all your comments – we love them! Vietnam is such a dynamic place – it is very hard to capture. We have lots more photos and stories to post, so I hope between Veronica and myself, we can capture a silver of the experience.

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