Battling the Vietnamese army

Our guide on Halong Bay, a charming 31-year-old named Manh, told us 7 million people now call Hanoi home. He also claimed there are 7 million motorbikes in the city. He insisted he wasn’t being hyperbolic. A bunch of those 7 million people are babies and school kids, and it’s hard to believe there’s a bike for every one of them — until you start driving and walking and driving through the streets of Vietnam’s capital.

Driving in from the airport last Wednesday night, Steve and I were slack-jawed, watching the army of vehicles surging around our taxi. There’s a swarming, free-form, chaotic pulse to the flow. Bikes suddenly veer off diagonally; once in a while you see them proceeding against the current. While cars and buses (mostly) stop at the occasional traffic lights, the motorbike riders for the most part ignore them. Everyone honks, often. (Manh told us this is considered a courtesy. “It tells other drivers, ‘Watch out!'”) Steve and I have previously awarded Cairo and Shanghai our award for scariest traffic. Now Hanoi surges to the top of our chart.

If I’ve had to stifle a scream a couple of times while riding in taxis, I’ve failed to keep my cool once or twice while out walking. Bikes parked on the sidewalks often make it impossible to walk on them. Instead, you have to edge around them, in the street. But that’s trivial, compared to the challenge of crossing streets. In the Old Quarter, where we’ve been staying, there are almost no traffic lights, and we’ve never been out and about at any time when the flow of vehicles abated, so getting across most streets requires steady nerves. We’ve used a couple of strategies. My favorite is waiting for a couple of locals who also want to cross, then positioning myself behind them, to use them as a shield. When no one else has been crossing, we’ve made each other hold hands before stepping in to the oncoming tide. People say that if you can refrain from panicking — never freezing or bolting — the motorbikes (and lowly bicycles) will always swerve around you. So far, at least, they always have. (Cars are another matter, but mercifully there are fewer than them.)

A rare quiet moment

As I write this, we’re at the end of our third full day of exploring Hanoi. By this end of this afternoon, I certainly wasn’t as blase as the locals, but at least I’d stopped being really frightened. I’d even come to appreciate a few aspects to the motorized insanity. To wit:

1) It can be extremely entertaining to watch. People of all ages ride the bikes. I’ve seen countless well-dressed middle-aged women at the controls, some wearing very high heels. A certain minority of them wear protective jumpsuits (to guard against the road grit) and decorative face masks (feeble protection against the gas fumes). I’ve seen guys simultaneously driving and texting and smoking. Many of the teenagers in the mix look to be no older than 14. Some folks are transporting cargo.

2) There’s an astounding fluidity to the madness. Watching the Hanoi traffic has made me think: these folks are so flexible, they could handle anything.

3) Many must enjoy the nutty drama, on some level. I say this based on what we saw last night. We’d gone out to dinner with Vietnamese friends, and we got back to our hotel around 8:30 p.m. We decided to take a short walk to the nearby Hoan Kiem Lake (“the spiritual heart of Vietnam”), to see what it looks like at night. As we got close to it, we found the streets not just busy, but jam-packed with a great mass of bikes — thousands and thousands of them. Most were couples or young families. I saw infants strapped to the backs of their mothers (who in turn were riding behind the dads). Other vehicles bore tiny toddlers — no helmets, no seatbelts, just clinging to mom.

The explanation turned out to be that it was Woman’s Day. All day long we’d marveled at the vast floral displays everywhere in the streets. That’s one way the ladies get honored. But apparently a whole gigantic bunch of them think it’s lovely to plunge into the throng — and cruise.

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