Challenging Crossings: The New York Times reporter Thomas Fuller visits Vietnam’s capital to document the daily duel between motorcycles and pedestrians.
HANOI, Vietnam — Tourists who check in to the Meracus Hotel, a compact and friendly establishment in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, are handed a tip sheet by the receptionist titled “How
A decade or so of capitalist fervor has transformed Hanoi’s once-quiet, tree-lined boulevards and side streets into roaring rivers of rubber and steel. Tourists, when they are not cowering in their hotel rooms, can be spotted standing by the side of the road wearing expressions that range from startled to stupefied.
“We were terrorized the first day,” said Christelle Rouchaville, a visitor from France who with her husband found the courage to push a baby stroller through rush-hour traffic. “There are times when you just can’t cross.”
Ms. Rouchaville’s recommendation to other visiting pedestrians: Imagine yourself skiing. “The motorbikes slalom through the streets,” she said. “You need to put yourself into the flow.”
Bob Greer, an Australian visiting the country with his wife for a program to help disadvantaged children, invokes the divine. “Trust in God or whoever made you,” he said as he scanned a small side street for motorbikes with the look of a soldier behind enemy lines. “Show no fear, even if your knees are trembling.”
Hanoi is not the only city in the world with a traffic problem. But when thousands of motorcycles — there are nearly four million registered in the city — funnel into the winding streets and narrow alleyways, the resulting rush of two-wheelers makes a Hell’s Angels gathering seem polite and orderly.
The real experts on crossing the street, the residents of Hanoi, offer varied advice.
Nguyen Tuan Minh, a high school student, recommended using “human shields” — crossing while surrounded by other pedestrians. He also disagreed with the advice given by the Meracus Hotel; eye contact is impossible, he said. “The moment you walk onto the street there are 40 motorcycles converging on you,” he said. “If they see you, they will avoid you. Don’t get pinned down!”
Many Hanoi residents complain that the traffic chaos rattles their nerves, especially the nearly incessant honking. Pham Cong Thinh, a Hanoi native who works as the concierge at the Metropole, reminisces about riding his bicycle to work two decades ago down quiet streets, before Vietnam opened its economy to the world.
“Life was easy and calm,” Mr. Thinh said. “Now everyone is stressed; people want to make money.” He attributes the traffic conditions in Hanoi to migrants from the countryside, who ride through the packed, narrow streets according to the traffic rules of their home villages, which is to say none at all.
The Old Quarter of Hanoi is where a visitor’s abstract notions of population density meet a living and breathing reality. With its mix of French colonial architecture and wafts of burning incense, the city is a permanent carnival of food vendors and sidewalk cafes accompanied by the constant whining chorus of internal combustion engines. Hanoi has generally good sidewalks, but in many areas they have been transformed into giant motorcycle parking lots, forcing pedestrians into the streets.
“Sometimes people come back really shocked,” said Nguyen Thi Xoa, a travel agent whose office caters to tourists in the Old Quarter. Her advice on crossing the street: “I always tell people to be very confident and walk slowly. You should never run. Don’t hesitate. Be predictable.”
The government handbook for people taking their driving test says “motorcycles must yield to pedestrians crossing at a crosswalk.” That is wishful thinking. In reality the white lines are little more than decorative paint. Other traffic rules are flouted with seeming impunity.
Residents of Hanoi make a point of looking both ways when crossing a one-way street. And traffic signals at some intersections seem like a waste of electricity.
“In foreign countries when there is a red light everyone stops,” said Mr. Thinh, the hotel concierge. “Here, if there is no police, they go through.”
Mr. Thinh helps his foreign guests by mapping out itineraries specifically designed to guide them to the easiest places to cross roads. Most tourists return without incident, he said.
“Only a few guests come back to the hotel shocked,” he said.
Unlike in Western countries, where they are reserved primarily for leisure, motorcycles and scooters are the main mode of transportation for Hanoi residents. (Cars are for the rich.)
Motorcycles also often carry cargo, adding to the chaos. Motorcyclists can be distracted as they balance flat-screen television sets, crates of beer or large sacks of artificial flowers, to name a few items spotted one recent weekday.
Nationwide, car and motorcycle accidents take a heavy toll.
The state news media reported that last year across Vietnam, there were 44,548 accidents, resulting in more than 11,000 deaths. The National Committee of Traffic Safety declined to disclose the numbers for Hanoi, but the sheer concentration of motorbikes makes it hard to attain high speeds and thus appears to reduce the chance of serious accidents. A traffic police officer at one main intersection said almost all the accidents he saw were minor scrapes and tangles.
The sheer volume of tourists in the Old Quarter of Hanoi — and the large numbers who say they cannot wait to return — suggests that the city’s charms compensate for the traffic challenges.
And for the truly terrified, there is always public transportation.
Ms. Xoa, the travel agent, said she had recently helped a tourist who was badly rattled by the traffic conditions return to her hotel. When it was pointed out that the hotel was walking distance — right around the corner, in fact — the tourist declined the suggestion, Ms. Xoa said.
“She said, ‘I’ll take a taxi.’ ”