Motorbikes, Taxi Music and Abuse of English: The Best of Hanoi

Photos by Evey Burilin and Jack Nuttgens


Living in Hanoi can be stressful, but one of the things that helps is enjoying the strange sights that you can see around the city. It’s well-documented that Vietnamese people have an astonishing ability to fit improbably large, unwieldy or fragile objects onto the back of even the tiniest motorbike, and you never know when or where you’ll encounter this (though it’s usually in a Hanoi rush hour traffic jam).

Some of the things that I’ve seen on the back of motorbikes, sometimes attached by only a single strap and apparently defying gravity, have been; baskets of live chickens with their heads poking out, a small and surprisingly roomy gauze basket of lizards (why?), a huge flatscreen TV (still in its box), potted plants (and these aren’t flowers, they’re saplings), rows upon rows of eggs in topless cardboard eggboxes, boxes of china cups, and, most impressively, a whole pig carcass.


The Virgin Mary looks on at the Hanoi traffic

When a motorbike isn’t enough, it can be attached to a sort of two-wheeled trailer, which are inevitably full to bursting, and make peripheral vision impossible. My favourite of these had an enormous painting of the Virgin Mary strapped to the side (apparently it couldn’t fit inside the trailer), looking out at passing motorbikes and taxis like a streetwise guardian angel.

When I’m teaching, some of the pupils wear school uniforms; others don’t. What’s noticeable, though, is the array of bizarre slogans, in English, on some of their t-shirts and jumpers. It’s long been a source of fascination to me how English is used and misused around the world; some of my favourite t-shirt slogans from across the world have been “Romeo F*cked Juliet” (not my asterisk), “This image is not available in your country”, a children’s t-shirt saying “mad as a fish, crazy as a badger” (all Germany) and a linguistically confusing child’s t-shirt depicting a cyclops with his eye covered by an eyepatch with the imploring phrase “Why a cyclops can’t be a good pirate?” (Spain). Is it a question, or an explanation?


Literally taking his work home with him.


My favourites in Vietnam have been the following. Children’s clothes designers are the worst offenders:

  • “What’s Wrong? The headphone is out of order” (this sounds like it could be on the syllabus that I teach).
  • “If you’re bad, come to dad”. Is that a threat?
  • “Dirty Poet Scum”. This was actually on an adult, in Hoan Kiem, though I don’t know whether she understood enough English to know what it meant. It’s also the only thing on the list that I would wear.
  • “Genius Owls”- with a picture of some technicolour owls, and some nonsense words.
  • “Happy Market”- with a picture of smily faces that looks suspiciously like pills.
  • An extremely fluffy pink jumper with Micky Mouse and simply the word “Mouse.” On that theme, there have been a few that I suspect aren’t official merchandise; one fourth-grader was wearing a red jumper with a picture of Spiderman, with the word “Superman” underneath it. My personal favourite was a tracksuit meant for a toddler, for sale in a Hoan Kiem market, with a Manchester United crest on the breast and the Metallica logo across the middle.
  • A bear wearing sunglasses with the speech bubble “serious dude”.
  • Another fluffy pink jumper with the words “What happens at grandma’s house, stays at grandma’s house.” What does that mean? Is this a female equivalent of Rick and Morty?

First prize, though, goes to this:


Who designed this? Who for? So that I could have a laugh? When was the last time that a boyfriend was referred to as a “gentleman caller”? Does the average English speaker even know that term? It’s accompanied by a pipe and bowler hat, so I think it is meant to have connotations of 19th– Century values. But why?


The Hanoi sunset, offset by a man carrying a tree on a motorbike


Finally, it’s worth mentioning the following songs that have soundtracked my journeys to and from schools around Hanoi, from the playlists of the drivers.

Westlife- Seasons in the sun              This is a very gloomy song about dying and missing his friend, father and daughter. It mainly stood out just for being very gloomy, but I looked up the song’s Wikipedia entry and found that there’s far more to it than I ever expected:

“The original French-language song is a sardonic ballad, in which the speaker gives backhanded farewells to his adulterous wife and her lover and the priest he disagreed with while sarcastically expressing his wish that there should be singing and dancing when he is buried.”


Sights like this are common, and it always impresses me that the boxes stay on.


Apart from that, there’s been:

Unknown Artist- Weird dance remix of Auld Lang Syne.

Lucky Twice- Lucky                          This is a mid-noughties pop song by two 15-year-old girls from Sweden, with a command of the English language that only Scandinavian pop groups can have (a recurring theme). In fairness, it is extremely catchy, and as good as most Eurovision winners. The chorus does go “I’m so lovely lovely” though. It’s begging to be given the Punk Goes Pop treatment by a We Came As Romans/ The Devil Wears Prada type band.

Toy-box- Tarzan and Jane               Listening to this song is like going insane. It’s by a Danish pop duo who have a growly male/ extremely high-pitched female dynamic almost identical to Aqua and an ability to blend lewdness with extremely cheesy pop music that reminds me of the modern hair metal luminaries Reckless Love. I was going to do an autopsy on the lyrics, but I just reread them and realised that it’s so blatantly about sex that it’s actually a bit more self-aware than I realised.

This verse is indicative of the levels of smut:

“When you touch me, I feel funny/ I feel it too, when you’re touching me/ Come to my tree-house, to my party/ Yes, I’ll go if you carry me,

Tarzan is handsome, full of surprise/ He’s really cute, and his hair is nice/ Tarzan is handsome, Tarzan is strong/ So listen to the Jungle-song”

The best bit has to be the ad lib of “Hey cheetah, get banana! Hey monkey, get funky!” Tarzan does seem to believe his own legend a bit, joining in with Jane when she calls him handsome and strong. Though based on my experience in Cuc Phuong, the jungle song should just be the noise of extremely loud crickets.


A very deadpan jumper

Staind- Wannabe             an aggressive, quasi-rapped song by American nu-metal/ hard rock band Staind, about their haters who, according to Staind, live in basements and smear peanut butter on their genitalia for a shih tzu to lick off. It’s the only song on the playlist with distorted guitar, so sonically it sticks out like a sore thumb.

Fiona Fung- A Little Love               Irritating pop-song by a popular Cantonese singer. It’s sung in quite an insipid, childish voice, and the emphasis on everything being little and the sentimentality wind me up. I also think that it plays into dubious stereotypes about Asian women. The tune isn’t too bad, but the nonsensical lyrics and vocal delivery make it a terrible song.


A gravity-defying mattress


Perhaps the most bizarre musical experience, though, was a rather long, mainly instrumental dance song that barely featured any vocals apart from a looped sample of “don’t want no, I don’t want no”. A minute or so in, there was something of a drop, and a very sassy voice announced “that is the smallest dick I’ve ever seen!”

This was followed up by more electronic beats, but the voice soon came back in to proclaim “I don’t want no small-dick man!” Then the “don’t want no” sample (which now made sense) came back in, and the song lasted another good four minutes, with no more lyrics.

The last one aside, we’re speculating that one of the drivers in particular has recently broken up with his girlfriend, but if so, he’s been moping for rather a long time.


Balloons may not be a heavy cargo, but they must harm visibility.

I hope you enjoyed reading this- a quick thank you is in order to Evey, who offered to let me use her fantastic photos of mattresses and trees on bikes. My next blogs will be about teaching, playing football in a professional V-League Stadium in Cam Pha and climbing Fansipan, the highest mountain in Indochina.


Jack is currently teaching English in Hanoi. You can find his YouTube at Llaqui Detritus and his Twitter at jacknathanblog.

2 thoughts on “Motorbikes, Taxi Music and Abuse of English: The Best of Hanoi”

  1. Well, could it have been a Vietnamese to English translation that was lost?
    We’ve seen lots too in China! LOL – Hotel : “please feel free to take advantage of the chambermaid”…

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