As my taxi from the airport turned into Hanoi’s Old Quarter (at 5PM on a Friday), I knew we were in trouble. There they were—thousands (no, I’m not being dramatic) of motorbikes blanketing the streets and taking over every direction, with no method to the madness. The light turned green and they went; the light turned red and they went; the traffic cop motioned for them to stop and they went; the cop waved them onwards and they went. You get it. After pulling directly into the middle of the intersection, we were frozen for nearly 10 minutes. Not even a tiny budge forward due to a sea of bikes. I felt like the girl who is out for a leisurely morning stroll when she accidentally crosses the path of the San Francisco Marathon—holy crap this is overwhelming and why is everyone so good looking? Ok, maybe not the latter, but that’s not the point. Eventually a public bus bullied its way across the “lanes” of traffic and we were able to use it as interference for our crossing. Hello Hanoi, it’s nice to meet you.
Vietnam’s 1000+-year-old capital is a fascinating mix of comfortable neighborhood charm and frenetic city life. Honking horns are so common that they almost become white noise, but their message is usually one of common courtesy (“Hey, I’m heading your way”) versus the American “WATCH OUT JERK!” In five days we saw just one “accident” and it was more of a skid-out as a result of two people trying to give the other the right of way. That didn’t change the fact that each and every time we crossed a street it was a heart-pounding, seemingly near-death experience.
Here are a few tips that may help you to stay alive during your first street crossing in Hanoi:
- Cars typically stop at red lights but bikes definitely do not. Be sure to always look first
- Walk at a constant pace so that the motorbikes can anticipate your movement and veer around you
- If you hesitate, you’re asking to be hit as the driver may anticipate your movement incorrectly and actually veer into you instead of around
- While it’s scary, just keep walking (look straight ahead if you must)
- Street vendors sell matching motorbike jackets and face masks—adorbs
I quite enjoyed our time in Hanoi and feel that it was a solid introduction to the country with which we share such a sordid past. For the first time, I was exposed to the Vietnamese side of the Vietnam War story, and while information was often presented with an obviously dishonest bias, it was eye-opening nonetheless. I look forward to continued exploration of this crazy country and will do everything in my power to stay on the sidewalk.