Monday, June 18, 2007


Hanoi’s traffic is madness. There are not very many cars but for every car there seem to be about one hundred motor bikes. They charge along the avenues like bats coming out of caves at dusk. Luckily, they don’t seem to go that fast. On the main highway from the airport, the official speed limit is only 60 km/h, probably because speeding cars would endanger the slow bikes.

It’s a good thing that the bikes are slow because driving in the city still takes a lot of skill. Bikes jostle amongst each other and the riders always seem aware of other bikes or vehicles coming from behind. Intersections further complicate things. There are a few stoplights but I saw a five way intersection without a single light. It was mayhem. Bikes charged through narrow passages in oncoming traffic. From above the scene would have looked like hundreds of marbles spilling onto the floor.

To add to the chaos, many bikes carry passengers. It’s very common to see adults sitting on the back of the bike clasping the driver. Three riders are not unusual. Another student even claims he saw four on one bike. To top it all off, the bike riders carry every imaginable type of item, from groceries to vacuum cleaners. I spotted a rider toting a 27” TV set.

Despite their insanity, Hanoi’s traffic does not seem to be very destructive. The swarms of bikes are extremely condensed but the drivers are much more timid than their counterparts in Turkey, where taxi drivers routinely miss pedestrians and oncoming traffic by mere inches. Hanoi drivers pass slower drivers cautiously and they make sure that other vehicles are aware of their approach by gently tapping the horn as if it were a telegraph. The streets are safe but the city is noisy.

Without stoplights to break the traffic, pedestrians have to be nimble. The trick is to wait until the traffic thins out a bit and then walk deliberately into the middle of the street. It's unlikely that you'll make it to the end, but by stopping at a hole in the traffic, you've staked out some territory and you wait to make the final maneuver to the other side. Any bikes that catch up to you will slightly alter their direction to avoid you. It’s in their interest to—the bikes are small enough that a collision with a pedestrian would knock over the bike, throwing off the passengers and breaking their TV sets.

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