Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Learning to Cross the Street

The main difference between the Hanoi of 1991 and the Hanoi of today is the traffic. When I was last here, the predominent mode of transport was the bicycle, and motorized vehicles were rare. It's hard to believe, against the din and clamor that is modern-day Hanoi, but the city was quiet then: on a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake, you could actually hear the trees.

Today, you'd be lucky to hear yourself think. This Hanoi is a madcap rush of motorcycles, cars, trucks, buses - and did I mention motorcycles? Worse than any roach-infested cupboard, the city is teeming with motorbikes (the Honda Wave seems to be the most popular). And throughout the city, in every alley and thoroughfare, these flatulent little termites all toot at a timbre that reaches right up your sphincter and gives it a little squeeze.

The rapid evolution of a motorized transit pool has given rise to a traffic culture that at first seems inscrutable, but in actuality is fairly straight-forward. The rule is: look straight ahead. Don't bother with what's behind you, or even next to you. You are responsible for everything ahead of you. This means if the bike in front of you starts to drift, you drift along with it. If a street vendor crosses in front of you, you predict the vector and veer around. In the case of an accident, I am told, the party at fault is the party that should have seen it coming. From what I've been able to gather in my short time here, it really is that simple.

These rules extend to foot traffic as well, but as a pedestrian you get to rule the roost. Nobody wants to hit you. Just wade into the midst of it, neither too fast nor too slow, and the traffic, like a school of metal fish, magically opens around you. At first, you need cast-iron cojones to leap into the fray. But like so many frightening things in life, it's only daunting until you do it.

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