Every new Western visitor to Hanoi has many everyday matters to sort out that they do not think twice about at home: deciding what water is safe to drink, the first encounter with a squat toilet; identifying food that fits inside western comfort zones (pass on the pig-ear salad).
However the initial problem the first-timer needs solve is how to cross the road.
Fifteen or 20 years ago most residents got around on bicycles. Hanoi was a quieter town – and much poorer. As wealth has increased most people now drive motorbikes. Some even own cars. Yet the physical infrastructure has not kept pace with the number of vehicles crowding the roads from kerb to kerb. Many busy cross roads don’t have traffic lights, and pedestrian overpasses are few and far between.
Neither have drivers‘ attitudes kept pace with traffic conditions. Some motorbike drivers treat red lights as slight impediments to their journey rather than firm signals to stop. Some zebra crossings have been painted on the roads; they are completely ignored by drivers. Even footpaths are not always safe., because at rush hour motorbikes, and even cars, take to them. In fact, it’s hard to work out what the road rules are since they are so frequently disobeyed.
Yet if you waited for a break in the traffic to cross the road you could be waiting for hours.
So take a deep breath, and step out from the kerb into the traffic. Walk very slowly and very steadily across the road.
It works! You will find that, miraculously, the motorbikes will flow around you, like water flowing around a rock in a stream. Be sure to keep an even pace and never dart forward – the drivers are relying on you moving slowly so that they can weave around you. But keep a weather eye on the traffic and be ready to vary your pace according to the pattern of oncoming traffic.
Many Hanoians, old hands at navigating through the river of bikes, don’t keep a lookout as they saunter nonchalantly across the road. They are placing a lot of faith in the alertness of drivers, who might be making a phone call, or sending an SMS with one hand as they steer their bike with the other. There were, after all, 11,060 road deaths in Vietnam in 2010.
Sometimes pedestrians wave their hands, usually at elbow level, to signal their presence to drivers. This is also a common ploy among motorbike pillion passengers as the driver executes a U-turn, or crosses several lanes of busy traffic. What might at first glance seem a pointless exercise is probably effective as the sudden movements of the hand might just catch the attention of drivers.
That’s motorbike traffic sorted, but there are an increasing number of buses and cars on the road, and many of the cars are four-wheel drives that barely fit down Hanoi’s narrow streets. These vehicles are far less manoeuvrable than bikes, yet their drivers often drive as if they are weaving through traffic on a Honda Wave – hopping lanes and overtaking on the wrong side of the road, always without indicating. The same applies to buses.
These vehicles can be downright scary, so do wait until the road is temporarily clear of them – if not of motorbikes – before stepping out. As more and more cars clog the roads the wait for a break is taking longer and longer.
To see Hanoi pedestrians in action go to YouTube and type in “Vietnam cross street” or similar search terms to see the videos posted by foreigners who have mastered the art of crossing a Vietnamese road.