There we were, standing on a corner in Hanoi, trying to gather courage to cross the street.
It was our first day in Vietnam and it didn’t take long to discover that crossing a street in that country was not the simple exercise we were accustomed to at home. You see, precious few stop lights exist and every major road has a constant, almost unbroken, flow of traffic. At any given moment, dozens of motorbikes are streaming past, along with a few taxis and buses, none of which have any intention of stopping for pedestrians.
The scene is certainly unusual. Few of the drivers wear helmets but many people have scarves over their faces. Moreover, a number of these one-seated vehicles manage to carry father, mother and one or two children, not to mention pieces of luggage or bags of groceries. And, yes, sometimes even a crate of chickens or a few pigs or a piece of furniture. Perhaps that’s why they don’t make sudden stops – everyone and everything would go flying. On top of this, there is a steady symphony of honking horns. The Vietnamese honk to tell others to get out of the way, they honk when they approach an intersection, and they honk as a warning to anyone who might not see them coming.
Surprisingly, none of this is a problem for the locals, who nonchalantly cross the road by casually weaving their way between the moving vehicles. This state of affairs does, however, pose a challenge for Westerners, who are used to waiting for traffic lights and who have been taught since childhood to never, ever cross a street in front of a speeding mass of metal.
So that day, Lisa and I stood on the corner for several minutes, surveying the scene. We saw that the Vietnamese seemed to inch out a few steps, serving notice that they were about to cross and thereby giving drivers time to adjust their route. Then they proceeded to march straight through the wave of traffic, ignoring the near collisions with motorbikes and taxis, which miraculously seemed to surf around each individual. It was fascinating to watch, but nerve-wracking to endure, for there is a rhythm to the movement of vehicles and people that locals innately understand but which foreigners can easily disrupt. Truly, it was like being inside the old video game Frogger, except that backing up was not a realistic option. The trick, we were told, was to keep moving slowly and just trust that the traffic would find ways to maneuver around us.
Trust. No matter how many times I repeated the word, trust is just not easy to come by when you have to walk through a swarm of streaking motorbikes. What we quickly discovered, though, was that we had no choice but to step in front of the oncoming traffic. There was simply no other way to cross the street.
So we took a deep breath and stepped off the curb. We walked a few steps, and then a few more. Before we knew it, we were in the middle of the traffic and there were dozens of motorbikes and a few scattered taxis whizzing by on both sides. Hurtling vehicles just inches from our bodies. I gulped. It would really be unfortunate, I thought, if we ended up splattered on the pavement at the very beginning of our journey. But at this point there was no turning back, so we kept walking – and praying – until we finally reached the sidewalk.
Photo credit: Bob Riel
(The above story was excerpted from my travel memoir, Two Laps Around the World.)