Hanoi Traffic

Fifty years to the day after the beginning of the Tet Offensive, we were on our way to Vietnam.

This wasn’t a political act — we just hadn’t thought about the date, and were looking forward mostly to a Backroads bicycle trip.  Apparently, the locals weren’t giving the anniversary any particular notice either though, at least that we observed from our room at the Sofitel Metropole Hanoi, or while strolling around the Lake of the Returned Sword.

Peach blossoms too.

The lunar calendar put the celebration a couple weeks later in this particular year, on February 16, so we were present for some of the preparations. The holiday is close enough to Spring that decorations center around flowers and fruit.  A favorite, and frequent, image in Hanoi is a decent-sized kumquat tree speeding down the street, partially obscuring a motorbike, the latter bearing at least one human, and possibly more.

We saw many other loads, just as remarkable in different ways. One scooter was carrying a tall oxygen cylinder placed transversely at the driver’s feet. There were plenty of two-wheeled hay-wagons and mobile kitchens of course. These extra-wide vehicles beep continually as they travel; the regular ones, mostly just when merging or passing. The note of a car horn here is usually advisory, not accusatory. I don’t remember seeing any sign of anger or aggression.  It may be that all have become conditioned to view the chaos as a communal problem, rather than a zero- sum competition.

There’s lots of other stuff to talk about besides motorbikes, but traffic is the one aspect of life that just can’t be ignored. The pedestrian is not sacred here.  A walk light may tell you when to cross, but it doesn’t seem to tell vehicles to stop for you. Spotting a lull is doubtless a good idea, but the essential skill is to move with absolute predictability.  Traffic will certainly part for you, but in the way that a river will part for an island, not as the Red Sea would for Moses.  The speed of the current, and the smallness of your island, are both remarkable.

The system works astonishingly well.  Our trip leader Trevor says that, when back in the States and waiting for a light, he sometimes finds himself thinking.  “Why are we all just sitting here?  This is so inefficient!”  There are over seven million people living in Hanoi, and over four million motorbikes. No pavement is wasted.

This all probably seems natural to the participants, who will have grown up in traffic. I wonder if infant-scooter-position may not be more important to development than birth order?  I would imagine that a person who grew up draped over handlebars, Kilroy-fashion, would be fearless and outgoing, at least compared to one who was carried in the driver’s backpack, perhaps facing another relative.

At the hotel, an oasis . . .

Alex and I got to see more of this phenomenon than some of our fellow-travelers, because we took a separate side-trip to Hai Phong, two hours each way by car, on our way to Ha Long Bay.  During this journey I developed my second theory,  that motorbikes provide a kind of lubricant for larger vehicles.  Say you’re driving along in a truck and want to move left one lane. Vehicles in that lane are paying you no attention.  But sooner or later a motorbike will wedge its way in, perhaps followed by others.  They may not be as long as a car, but they aren’t as wide either, and eventually part of your truck may share their lane. Now you briefly have two lanes to choose from, as the bikes swarm off to fill some other void.

There are a few other refinements to bear in mind.  For instance, left turns may occur in two stages, the first beginning well before the intersection. For the pedestrian, again, all that is required is resoluteness.  The cyclist needs a broader perspective; and for this reason, we were not allowed to pedal in traffic until we got to Hué.