Traffic – some seriously scary SH*T!

Traffic – some seriously scary SH*T!

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.

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.

Two lanes of eight
Calm Street
A calm street in my ‘hood








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.

Somara's elbows
Somara on the left staking out her territory
traffic variety
At the very least the city buses are bright









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.

traffic - women in red
Not stopped, still talking
lorry 3
Bike transport, #1 way to move stuff around









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.

clothing vendor 2
Gym shorts today?
visual mayhem
Pineapples and flowers…how convenient








motorbike commerce
transaction in progress


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.

sleeping child
Girl is fast asleep in front.

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.


Just A Moment

Those of you who know me well, know that I believe in stories…and I’m always looking for the narrative thread.  But sometimes a photo doesn’t fit into a bigger story…I mean it could if you wanted to make something up. But since I’m so tightly aligned with my own truths, I can’t do it. At least not for this. Here are some photos that I love but they are photos without big stories. Each one is just about a moment.

Lantern Lady



I saw this woman in Hoi An making lanterns.   I think she’s quite regal.  She was at a workshop far from the tourists and crowds in a place we just happened upon.  Just before seeing her we shook hands with an elderly man and realized he was the guy on the big write-up in front of the place.  I wish I remembered his name now, but he was credited with bringing the art of lantern making back to Hoi An.


Grandma and Rice




During our visit to Hoi An we took a cooking class on an island about half hour by boat from the town. It was called “Grandma’s Cooking Class” and this is grandma. She was showing us how the Vietnamese once separated the rice from the husk. She’s 90 something and didn’t flinch once going up or down into her squat.



Spinning Somara


About 20 km from Hanoi is the village of Bat Trung. It’s also called Ceramic Village because almost all the commerce there is based on ceramics. I’ve never seen so many teacups, teapots and piggy banks in my life. I’m not sure the world is big enough. One of the best things about going there is that you can learn how to throw clay. It was super fun.



waving Buddha



These are just a few of the hundreds and probably thousands of Buddha Statues at Bai Dinh, a large Buddhist Temple. People were rubbing their knees as they walked by.








I posted this photo in a much smaller size when writing about the Catholic Church, Phat Diem. I can’t get over the eyes on this Altar Boy. I wonder if he’s really pious, or worried about something he did and what the priest is going to say, or if he’s wishing his mom would stop taking pictures.

two girls






I just love this photo of Somara and Doan Trang, who we spent a week-end with in Village #7. Either one of these girls could rule the world when they’re older.






tragic flowers


Those who are Facebook friends will see this too is a repeat. They are lotus flowers. I can’t get over them. They’re beautiful, they’re dramatic and they’re tragic. My friend Jane compared them to an ageing Bette Davis, which I thought was just right.



Mai Chau – A mountain sanctuary

Mai Chau – A mountain sanctuary

mai chau road
road between rice fields

About three hours into our journey to Mai Chau (pronounced cho) last week-end, a stranger handed Tim his cell phone and said ‘it’s for you’. We were on a public bus just over 120 km southwest of Hanoi, moving somewhat aggressively and quickly on roads that ascended and descended through mountains.  The only people Tim knew on the bus were Somara and me. In fact the only people who knew that Tim was on the bus were Somara and me.  The first thing I heard Tim say was ‘Sorry I don’t understand’.  Because it’s genetically ingrained in my being, I imagined every bad scenario possible. But after a moment’s pause Tim laughed and said  he was sorry but we already had our accommodation booked.   Through the rearview mirror I could see the eyes of the driver light up as he looked back to see that the connection had been made and a promise fulfilled. He didn’t care whether it panned out or not.

rice field
Rice fields

Connections are what Mai Chau is made of.  Rivers and canals bring water to rice fields and multiple other crops like corn and morning glory (known as muong); which is delicious smothered in garlic and chilies.  Zipping around are a multitude of birds, butterflies and other insects feasting on the flowers, while buffalo, cattle and goats graze for their sustenance closer to the mountains.  The most amazing part is that you can cycle the paths and rocky roads that link the series of small village settled in the valley between these mountains.  Mai Chai is an area that, in addition to showcasing ethnic minorities to foreigners, has become a haven for the Vietnamese to relax away from the city and connect with nature.

Sol's pool
Sol Bungalows’ pool

After eating dinner at Sol Bungalows (the place we had booked) the first night, and eating lunch at the largest of the villages in the area earlier in the day, we took a short cab ride to another small village in search of food on Saturday night.  It was clear that something big was going on because of all the activity in the large field on the edge of this small village.  My guess was an outdoor concert.  As we walked from restaurant to restaurant chock a block full of young people we quickly realized we weren’t going to find dinner there and unless we found the field more interesting and wanted to hang out we needed to move on.

So we started the 1 km trek to the village where we had earlier eaten lunch. Along the way we passed a lot of Vietnamese teenagers, heading to the field where loud music was now thumping away. I can’t remember now if it was K-Pop (Korean), V-pop (Vietnamese) or Western pop music but I do know Somara told me to start dancing.

Stilt home with basement

Regrettably we never figured out what was going on.  But fortunately we found a restaurant at the next village willing to serve us at this late hour. The only other customers were two tables of Vietnamese who looked more like family and friends than patrons. We were ushered to our own table and within moments a gaggle of kids starting running back and forth to where we sat.  They would run up, tap our shoulders, say ‘hello’ and then run away screaming and laughing uproariously.  Before our delicious meal was all done Tim had migrated to the men’s table to shoot rice wine.

Somara had wandered off by then, so in search of her I migrated to the sounds of music next door.  Up the stairs on the main floor of the stilt house was a group of people eating dinner and being entertained by local dancers. Before I could sheepishly back away from what was clearly a private party, I was invited in and told to make myself at home. I could see that Somara had already done so and was chatting with another girl who looked closer to her age. Eventually Tim appeared. For the next hour plus we talked, we danced and Tim drank more rice. They were a friendly, generous and fun loving group of people.  It was an awesome night.  I left with a couple of new facebook connections, great memories and an attachment to this lovely little valley in Northern Vietnam.  We’ll be back.

weaving silk
boiling silk worm cocoons and spinning silk
textile two
textiles from various ethnic groups
textiles of Mai Chau
I salivated over the one at the front
Sol cows
Cow traffic
buffalo bath
Bathing the buffalo