Before reading the following, I recommend going back to my earlier post on traffic that was written quite awhile back. The reason part two is delayed is that I’ve really been struggling with the topic. I think I’ve been trying to be tidy and concise about something that is messy and enormous and defies reason. Part of the reason I’m overwhelmed by it, is that there is no refuge from traffic in Hanoi. In most big cities I’ve been in, you can take refuge from the roads on the sidewalks. You can’t in Hanoi….a problem that has apparently spread to the Big Apple.
Once again the New York Times has beat me to the lead in my story…kind of. Here’s their version.
My version is that New Yorkers really have no idea what ‘overcrowded’ looks like or means until they’ve been to Hanoi. There’s so much diverse activity on the sidewalk it’s impossible to see or predict when you will have to jump out of the way of some-one who’s chosen to use the sidewalk as a private road. (It can be a challenge to distinguish the sidewalk from the road, but really!)
Hanoi is an ancient city; 1016 years old. This means that in much of the old city, sidewalks are minuscule, uneven or non-existent. In places the roots of trees have asserted their status, bursting through the pavement. While visually compelling, it’s treacherous for walking.
In terms of human activity, sidewalks are parking lots for motorbikes, a place to do business and a spot or the citizens of this fine city to relax. Remember there’s at least 8 million of them. Each day, thousands of small restaurants and cafes set up and close down on the pavement. It’s a place to get a 30 cent glass of Tra Da (iced tea), a Pho, or some sticky rice wrapped in banana leaf. In addition to the places you can eat that open and close each day, existing restaurants extend out onto sidewalks with plastic tables and chairs. Existing businesses also open up onto the sidewalk; racks of clothing, puppies
in cages and bags of buttons are carted in and out of shops every day. It’s quite possible that there are millions of small businesses who’s only address is the sidewalk. Tim has had his hair cut on the street, next to a key cutter, next to a women selling some kind of lottery ticket. Sidewalks (and roads) are also the people’s patios. (It can be hard to distinguish a sidewalk from a road). People put out chairs to sit around and chat or play chess. As I said earlier, sidewalks are for many things here, but they are not for walking.
The ambiguity between a sidewalk and road is very hard for a foreigner to grasp. But the ultimate challenge is the absence of rules in intersections. There are lights in major intersections, but turning left is hair raising as both directions do it at the same time and there is no such thing as a lane. It’s not an experience you want to have with some-one who’s anxious.
For the places there are no lights, which is most intersections, you’re completely and utterly on your own, flung out into a web of moving vehicles. I mean it. The Vietnamese don’t use STOP SIGNS! For me this is the scariest place to be when riding a motorbike. My driving instructor Tim, says whatever you do, don’t stop. Slow down yes, but keep moving. That doesn’t mean, your heart can’t stop…mine has, a couple of times.
On top of all these shenanigans is the distraction of what you are seeing all around you. Motorbikes carrying 4 people and two dogs, or the transporting of cargo that is so large and heavy you can’t help but marvel at the feat. You never know what you’ll see and if you’re concerned about how well a load has been secured, you shouldn’t be driving. You’ll never find peace. I’ve learned to focus on the few feet in front of me and around me and nothing more.
I started by saying that Traffic is scary shit. It still is for me…and I’m going to continue to think and feel that way because it will keep me on my toes. I have taken a driving lesson and tried to stash my Western notions of how safety and traffic should work. I have also considered not driving in this country at all. But that’s not the right answer either. For now, I’m just going day by day, and trying to force myself to practice and stay focussed, and to take deep deep breaths.