Tag Archives: walk

Crossing the road? Slowly does it

Road traffic

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.

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Step by step

Hanoi footpath

Walking in Hanoi is rarely a stroll in the park. Footpaths are uneven and crowded with shops’ wares, food stalls surrounded by patrons sitting on small plastic stools, residents who treat the pavement as an extension of their cramped homes, tradesmen who treat it as extensions of their workshops, and of course rows of parked bikes. Pedestrians alternate between patches of clear footpath and the road, where they stick as close to the kerb as possible in order to avoid the traffic.

I have found one spot in Hanoi where the footpaths are clear. It’s on the perimeter of the Citadel, the military area north east of the city centre. The streets of the Citadel itself are closed to the public and the streets along its borders are open, but clear of parked bikes and street stalls. Around here I can manage a 15 or 20 minute walk without once needing to look down at my feet to check for obstacles. Bliss.

Most other walkers I see in Hanoi are foreigners like me trying to cling to their western habit of a daily constitutional, come what may. Either that or they are local people who must walk in order to make a living, such as fruit sellers and the women who go door to door buying household rubbish to resell to recycling businesses. It seems that most Vietnamese people who have a choice stick to motorbikes for even short trips.
 
 However some Vietnamese people do walk for exercise, even though the locations where they can do so easily are relatively few. Walkers step out in the early morning around the city’s many lakes, or stop on the lake shore for stationary exercises. There are also the parks, although these seem to be more popular with badminton players, who set up nets all over the place in the hour or so after the working day has ended. 
 
 I also saw, early one evening, people using the lawn in front of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum for exercise. This area is called Ba Dinh Square, and it’s where, in 1945, Ho Chi Minh delivered the speech in which he declared the independence of Vietnam. 

The lawn is beautifully maintained by a team of gardeners in conical straw hats and signs in English and Vietnamese warn passers-by not to walk on it. However it is criss-crossed by a grid of footpaths, along which strode dozens of serious walkers charging up and down, like swimmers doing laps.

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