Sunday, January 04, 2009

Hanoi Traffic

So, we've talked about motorbike traffic in Vietnam.

But it is different in Hanoi. In Saigon, it is a delicate, if potentially deadly, dance of organized anarchy. It is teamwork, loud, scary, and thrilling, but collegial, smiling and epitomizing a certain kind of other-worldly social arrangement you read about in books.

Hanoi, Hanoi, Hanoi....

Not so here. We were warned of this in our travel books. Watch out! Follow locals across the street. People don't go around you. Watch out! Maybe just hide in a bathroom.

Well, that was about right. First, people don't slow down when you cross. They tend to accelerate toward you. They make no effort to go around you until the last second if you are willing to play chicken, but of course at the last second they have very few options, and they are moving very quickly. People will be sitting at a red light, and you go to cross, and they take off (still at a red light) and go right at you. In alleys they whack you with their handlebars.

And they honk. There is nothing I've ever heard like it. First, the minibikes all have very loud, very high pitched horns (maybe this is why Hanoians yell when they talk--their hearing has been permanently damaged--I actually believe this is why). The horns are the loudest horns in history.

Now, the horn is used frequently in Vietnam, to signal a turn, a merge, a sudden movement, distaste, approval, hello, and "I'd like this traffice to be moving faster." But in Hanoi, that's only the tip of the iceberg. If you only honked this much, you'd be run off the road. I imagine that each driver imagines a world of molasses in front of him, that can only be parted by the soundwaves of his horn. Which is why he honks constantly. Some actually hold it down for ten to thirty seconds at a time. I'd be willing to bet an average driver honks at least 7 times per block, and more like 17 if he is male. I'm not kidding. People actually drive cars with one hand on the wheel and the other on the horn.

Now, imagine this in the little alley with the people sitting in it outside our hotel. Now imagine people holding their horns down, in an alley, because a woman might be walking down the alley and they want by. Loud, high pitched, and held down. At SIX THIRTY in the morning.

I've learned something about Vietnam. There are cultural differences between Americans and Vietnamese. Certain things that might seem rude to Americans aren't to Vietnamese, and vice versa. But the Hanoians are aggressive and rude at an international standard. It's the state of nature on the road.

I should say that I had an important experience. A young woman was coming toward me (face on face) in an alley. I've gotten pretty used to yielding nothing (not my most charming point, but very useful in Hanoi). So I was walking straight at her (Trina in tow). She stuttered on her bike, and we tried to go around each other, and didn't pull it off (she was going slow). Her bike started to fall. She was small, clearly terrified and overwhelmed. I caught her, and her bike, and helped her on to the bike and got her going again.

I was reminded of something important. Hanoians on bikes are like packs of hyenas. But the person on each bike is still a person, with hopes, dreams and a mom. It really seems like some forget then when they are driving, but I forget it too, and that's not good either.

Fortunately, I'm writing this from another city, so I did happen to survive Hanoi traffic. Granted, I used locals as human shields...

And, why do they even bother with these signs??

1 comment:

hiro said...

Wandered around and happened to see your post. You may be right about the traffic situation in Hanoi but you are wrong about Hanoians. What you felt is just from a different (and lack of thorough study) view of a foreigner? On another hand, if you want to know what Hanois truely looks like , come in February, around the time of Lunar New Year when the people from outside provinces have gone back home.