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You can’t be a chicken if you want to cross the road.

September 15, 2010

Walking down the street in Hanoi can be a daunting feat. I feel like I’m doing a dance and I have yet to learn the steps. If I step too close to the storefronts, I might trip over one of the many people squatting on the sidewalk eating, preparing food, washing dishes, playing a board game, or just squatting. If I step too far the other way there is the traffic – the constant, maddening rush of traffic.

So I try to find the balance between the two, all the while avoiding trash, avoiding puddles, avoiding being near puddles when someone drives by, avoiding taxi drivers who slow down and honk hoping for a customer, avoiding holes in the sidewalk (if you’re so lucky for there to actually be a sidewalk.)

While there are plenty of cars and busses, the main traffic is bicycles and motorbikes. It is not uncommon to see three men riding together, hands on each other’s waists. Most adults wear helmets (I think it’s the law), but the children sandwiched in between rarely do. Many of the women and children also wear masks. They have more structure than a surgical mask and come in many stylish colors. Some people completely cover their faces and heads in spite of the heat. After spending a few days walking around the city, I can only assume it’s to protect them from the pollution and smells. It’s also common to see a lady driving a motorbike in high heels.

I sat at a café yesterday during a rainstorm and watched the traffic go by. Almost everyone wears ponchos, but many of the drivers looked like hunchbacks with four legs – kindly sharing a poncho with their back seat rider. Most of the ponchos are colored, but on many the lower half of the front is clear. This is so they can drape them over the front of the motorbikes and the headlight won’t be blocked. I think it is genius.

I mentioned the traffic previously, but I feel there isn’t enough that can be said about it. The first few days we were here we went to the Old Quarter every day. It’s usually $2-3 cab ride (regardless of the number of people) and takes about 15 minutes. We only saw two or three traffic lights the whole way. Major intersections work by everyone watching everyone else and squeezing in the first available space in whatever direction you want to go.

Organized chaos is the best description I can come up with. I know that accidents do happen (one of our pilots got hit by a car on his motorbike), but in general the movement of the traffic is impressive. It flows smoothly with a steady, yet friendly, honking of horns. I’m getting used to it, but as an American, it is difficult not thinking people are angry when they honk. I’d be lying if I said the horns still didn’t make my heart jump occasionally.

The first time we crossed what would be a four-lane road (if there were actually lanes), Jonathan boldly dashed out into the traffic. Based on the advice of others and by watching him, we discovered that the key to a successful crossing is to keep moving. So step out, always looking into the traffic and making eye contact if possible, and start walking at a leisurely pace. Occasionally I have tried to slow down or stop for a car or scooter, but inevitably it causes them to swerve and then I have to make a run for it. After almost a week of these heart-pounding street crossings, I am brave enough to walk across a road without waiting for a huge break in traffic. You may never get it.

Don’t even get me started on what the traffic feels like at night. You think you have it all figured out, and suddenly everything is dark and all you see are headlights coming at you. I haven’t figured that one out yet.

Among our group there are a lot of hypothetical pools going. One of the main ones is who will be first to get hit by a car while walking. I’m going to keep my feet moving, and hope it’s not me.

So, if you are looking for a sense of accomplishment – something to make you really feel good about being alive – spend an afternoon safely crossing the street in Hanoi.

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