I read my fair share of travel guides prior to my departure for Vietnam, so I was therefore well versed in the infamous rules of the road as a pedestrian in Hanoi. Looking back, I didn’t truly understand what it meant to cross a road in Hanoi until I found myself standing at the side of the road, ready to cross and saying a Hail Mary before attempting to even put one foot out there. Apprehensively, I tried to catch my breath while trying to observe the flow of traffic in order to devise some sort of plan to get across the road. A couple of motorbikes let out a few beeps as they came down the dirt road behind me. As they weaved around me, I kept my eye on them to see how they integrated into the rest of the traffic. A few seconds later, they were completely out of sight – all I could see were hundreds of vehicles zipping around left, right and centre. I felt like I had just entered an arena of bumper cars at an amusement park, except there were no cars bumping into each other! I guess you could say I was standing on the “curb” of the “intersection”, for the curb was simply a random patch of grass and the intersection was a huge circular area where several different roads just so happened to intersect, with one not continuing into the other. There were motorbikes, cars, bicycles carrying boxes stacked several feet high, and buses – all about to enter this free-for-all of an intersection. There were no lanes, lights, or traffic control signs. Vehicles travelling north, south, east, and westbound somehow entered this arena and effortlessly weaved around each other to get where they need to go. I even saw some motorbikes driving beside each other while having a conversation, and then eventually crossing paths to go in opposite directions! I should also mention that each motorbike was carrying a minimum of 3 passengers.
After a few days, I caught onto the real rules and essentially mastered the art of crossing the road in Hanoi by following this sequence:
- Remain calm, and confidently start to walk across the road regardless of what is coming towards you, because any hesitation will completely confuse the drivers and possibly cause an accident.
- Slow the pace of your walk for cars, because they always have the right of way.
- Even if you think you’re going to get hit, NEVER take a step backwards – just linger very casually, and slowly resume your saunter as the car passes.
- Keep a constant pace for motorbikes, who will comfortably weave around you even if they look like they are about to run you over. They might also come to an abrupt stop about 1mm away from your feet to allow you to pass through their space if they are unable to swerve out of the way at the last minute for some reason.
- Most importantly, be cool about it; there is no point in whipping your head back and forth, trying to identify a good pocket of space to hop into – it will only leave you with whiplash.
- Have a very nonchalant expression on your face while looking to your left, and beginning your stroll. When you reach halfway, casually look to your right as if you’re stretching your neck, and continue your stroll to the other side.
It was absolute madness to watch the flow of traffic. I could have sat and watched it all day! The sound of horns beeping characterized this system of organized chaos. The horns may indeed be the secret to the success of these highly skilled drivers, as the beeping was never an indication of anger or distress. After all, they say that motorists in Vietnam use a horn instead of using their brakes!
Leaving Hanoi, I knew I would have to ditch my newly mastered skill as a pedestrian for fear of instinctively executing the same protocol back home in Toronto, where I would probably get hit by a car…and if I didn’t get hit, I would most certainly get ticketed for some form of traffic violation!