traffic in hanoi

A popular joke in Hanoi says that when you buy a car or motorbike, the first thing you check is the horn. After five days, the most amazing thing to me about Hanoi is the noisy ballet of vehicles on the streets.

In Bali, Bangkok and Vientiane, road rules are loose to say the least. Vietnam takes it to another level.

There’s a speed limit and a side of the road you’re generally meant to travel on, but beyond that it’s basically a free-for-all. Drivers are responsible for what’s in front of them and not much else, so horns and brakes are key. Vehicles pretty much change “lanes” without warning, and it’s the responsibility of everyone behind them to get themselves out of the way. If you want to drive faster than everyone else, you just honk your horn a lot and push your way into openings – or create new ones. If you’re driving a truck, a bus or a big car, you just proceed at whatever pace you desire, lean on your horn, and it’s up to everyone else to get out of your way.

For pedestrians here, it’s a thrill. The proper way to cross a street is to wait briefly for the smallest of openings, then step into the street and shuffle at a slow and steady pace until you reach the other side. For me, the smallest of openings means no cars or trucks, because there’s always a moving swarm of motorbikes. You just keep moving and pray that the riders and drivers go around you. As you cross, you just hope that if something hits you, it’s a two-wheeler.

The other day, I wandered until I found the widest, busiest street I could. I watched for a while, and I never saw a single soul crossing my chosen street, but I decided to go for it anyway. I held my camera at my hip, facing the oncoming vehicles, and filmed my heart-pumping crossing. When I reached the safety of the opposite curb, I reviewed the footage, only to find that I had aimed just a little too high. All I could see was the occasional scarf-wrapped head of a motorbike rider.

Therefore, my thousand words will have to be enough, because I’m not gonna do it again.