Sunday, June 28, 2009

Life in the Swarm

Hanoi just became a lot less safe for its inhabitants, because I - yes, I - have a motorbike! My kind-hearted landlords, Anh Thành and Ch Dung, have rented me their spare 100cc Honda Super Dream, for the reasonable price of US $40/month. No longer am I bound to mercenary xe om drivers and cabbies, or forced to trudge miles in the sticky heat. Like a 16-year-old with his first car, I've had my first taste of freedom, and I challenge anyone to take it away from me!

Now I am a member of the swarm of traffic that clogs every thoroughfare, alley, and sidewalk in this town. And life in the swarm is not for the faint-hearted! Bikes collide, bodies touch, motorbikes, pedestrians, cars, and bicycles appear out of nowhere - and then there are the potholes, sewer pipes and other obstacles to overcome. Total anarchy rules. Nobody pays attention to lights, stop signs, dividing lanes, anything. If you need to turn left you head into the oncoming traffic, hug the left curb, swerve around the yoke lady, and try to catch the wave of motorcycles going your way. Boo yah, baby! Surf's up! Cowabunga!

The main rule for driving is the same as for walking: look straight ahead, never behind. One foot on the brake, one hand on the horn at all times, not that the feeble toot of a 100cc Honda does any good at all. Anyone honks at you, ignore them. And at all times, be ready to play, "shoot the gap!" When a spot of air opens up, you go for it, horn a-blaring; out-hustle the other bike shooting for the same space, and you win! And the prize is a face full of lung-burning exhaust! Isn't that fun? Play it again and again!

Everyone's watching, but nobody's looking. And there's so much to ogle at! Motorbikes piled high-and-wide with baskets, families of five on one bike, people hauling every good, or combination of goods imaginable. Just one vignette: I'm riding along and I see a woman ahead of me, her legs splayed out like a frog, about to fall off the rear end of a 110cc Honda. As I pull alongside I see the reason for her absurdly precarious posture: teetering on the seat ahead of her, and behind the driver, is a 50-inch TV! Poor girl's putting all her effort into trying to keep it, and herself, on the bike. But there's more! I pull alongside, and I see the driver, presumably the woman's husband - and he's texting on his cell phone! And then at the intersection, he runs a red light! I love this town!

So this is how it is to be. As a member of the swarm, I resolve to shoot every gap, toot every horn, overcome every pothole, and disobey every law, to get myself where I need to go. There is no use wishing for, or trying to impose any sense of order. We are anarchy. We are Hanoian. You will be assimilated.
A rare sight: space around the bike!


  1. Hi Hal, Mr. Erratic here. Pete just told me of your latest adventures. It has been a real pleasure catching up with your writings here.

    I'm glad to see from your picture that helmets have made their way to Hanoi. Thinking back on my motorbike misadventures in Phnom Penh, I'm just happy to be alive!

    Thanks for sharing your trip like this. It's great to see you!

  2. Ahhh, adventure, Hal, I envy you. Seriously. Not that I don't get those waves or moments right here in New York, doing the stuff I do, but there is something about being far from home and that sense of....anarchy and assimilation, like you said. Have fun and keep writing.