A friend suggested I should write about traffic in Hanoi before we even left Halifax. And even though I agreed verbally, I actually thought that would be predictable and a bit mundane. Isn’t traffic just like weather? You talk about it in the absence of better material. I’d seen a New York Times video on how to cross the street that was funny and helpful, and I couldn’t imagine there was anything more to say.
(Take a look here. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/28/world/asia/hanoi-traffic-daunts-tourists.html)
But I am now professing VERY LOUDLY, that this video is just the tip of a very LARGE and CONFUSING iceberg. From the mouth of some-one who has been walking, taking cabs and driving a motorbike for the past four months “Traffic in Hanoi is SCARY SHIT!”
First of all my photos will never capture the enormity of how much traffic there is.
Of course I’m hoping that some of you and you know who you are, won’t have caught the motorbike part. But I’m going to have to fess up some-time; Tim and I are both driving motorbikes, yes we are, and that makes our relationship with traffic that much more emotional and intimate.
Before you make judgements or send me off the stats about traffic accidents for foreigners living overseas, please read the rest of this. At the very least you’ll see I’ve put some serious study into the matter of traffic in Hanoi. And for you who can’t resist, my sister has already reminded me that I said ‘over my dead body’.
Okay, so back to the beginning. After just one day in Hanoi I was convinced that it’s a city with no rules and no place for pedestrians. You can’t just casually meander down a street; the streets in the Old Quarter are far too narrow and the people far too plentiful. There were times I wanted to go out to pick up some drinks or food, but the thought of navigating the streets made it all too much. Every time I did go out, all my senses were alert and my hands clenched. I just about had a heart attack the first time a motorbike came barreling down a sidewalk toward me. Plus I can’t even tell you how many cellphones I wanted to grab from the clutches of people on bikes texting. Apoplectic is the best word for what I was feeling.
During those first few weeks I couldn’t even employ what I learned from the NY times video. One of the women selling pineapple in the Old Quarter grabbed my arm on two separate occasions to escort me across the street. She couldn’t stand to see me there just waiting and waiting for the right moment to step off the curb. I know now there is no such thing as the right moment.
Three months later my perspective has evolved. Instead of looking at traffic and seeing a hurtling mass of metal in many directions, I can decipher the motorbikes, from the cars, from the taxis, and the bikes and the buses. I even distinguish between public transportation buses and the buses carting tourists around. (There’s millions of those coming here each year as well as the eight million who live here.) Most important are the vehicles that I call ‘miscellaneous’ moving objects; anything from a lorry, to people pushing carts selling clothing, to people on bicycles selling food and/or flowers. The key to overcoming the paralyzing fear that many foreigners experience is to carefully watch each category that I’ve mentioned and understand how they move and the rules that govern them.
For example it’s okay on the small side streets to pull up in front of a store on a motorbike and without dismounting from their bike, make a purchase. A lot of the small shops have some-one at the door ready to take an order. All others need to maneuver around these transactions. There’s a lot of honking in this city, but never at this situation. The same goes for the merchants who are transporting their wares by cart or bike. Don’t get between them and their customer, transactions first, pedestrians and other travellers second.
Honking. It will drive you crazy, until you realize its purpose. I first learned this in Hoi An where we were getting around on bicycles. You ring your bell or honk if you’re going around some-one. The side check is almost non-existent. In its place is a horn, listen for them, the larger the sound, the larger the vehicle.
Your place in the hierarchy on the road is determined by your size. Bicycles yield to motorbikes who yield to cars, who yield to buses…. I’ve yet to see a massive transit bus slow down for anyone or anything and if you’re on a motorbike heading towards a vehicle that’s backing up, get out of the way. At the bottom of this heap is the pedestrian. People don’t walk in Hanoi. Most of the people you see walking are foreigners and it’s usually on the road.
Back to Thomas Fuller, and his New York Times video. Hanoi has a lot of cross walks that are well marked. But he’s correct in saying that if you stand at one waiting for the vehicles to stop, you’ll expire of hunger, thirst, heat, or all 3. They rule of the road is to always move at a consistent pace. Let me say this one more time, ALWAYS MOVE AT A CONSISTENT PACE. Even the dogs and cats in this country know you don’t jump out into traffic. You must trust that the traffic will move around you. If you dart quickly and make a sudden change in movement, you’re looking for trouble. What he didn’t say in the video is that rule governs vehicles as well. There are always the idiots who drive too fast, and jump in and out, but for the most part traffic here moves at a consistent forward pace. Seeing all those vehicles is heart stopping, but if you can take a breath you will realize that their speeds are significantly lower that those in North America.
This is where I end part one. Frankly I’m exhausted and need a drink. I hope you’re beginning to relax too. But I’ll be back soon with part two that includes the low down on sidewalks and their significance to the life of this city. Drive safely my friends.