My heart pounded. I struggled for the courage to cross the street like a local. Stepping from the curb, I focused on the opposite side and walked and prayed and kept walking, waiting to hear the crunch of metal meeting bone.
The trick, I realized, was to never look both ways, despite that childhood advice my mother had pounded into me. The sight of oncoming traffic coming full throttle mushroomed into fear, but I knew that if I wanted to explore, I needed to wear a good luck charm, hang on to it and just go. Chickens would never make it here.
The travel brochure I had picked up at Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport scared the hell out of me. It identified in bold print the number one tip for surviving Vietnamese cities―How to Cross the Street and Live to Tell about It. It read:
INSTRUCTIONS for CROSSING the ROAD: Step from the curb, walk slowly and deliberately at a steady pace. Never stop moving. Never retreat. Make no jerky movements. Don’t run. Raise your hand lower than your shoulder to signal that you are advancing.
The airport cab had zipped us along to Hanoi, Vietnam’s ancient capital. Bucolic scenes in adjacent fields unfolded as cone-shaped hats atop Asian pajamas bobbed up and down in a sea of green rice stalks, while trusted water buffalo waited for duty.
What’s the problem with crossing the street? This looks easy, I thought. But, as we neared the city’s fringe, the serenity vanished, replaced by reality. A nightmare of swarming vehicles, motorbikes, scooters, motorcycles, two-wheeled contraptions of every cc and size emerged from everywhere. Some even traveled opposite to the flow, all avoiding obstacles in constant near-miss collisions with the minority four-wheeled, metal conveyances. The mayhem didn’t faze our driver, but the staggering buzz of motor-bees triggered my ‘chicken’ instincts. I pulled out those instructions to reread them before the test.
A 125cc Honda, carrying a family of four, hugging each other tightly, flip-flops dangling from their feet. It overtook the taxi and darted directly across its path. Brakes squealed. My whitened knuckles pressed into the armrest. At this point, crossing the street seemed irrelevant; making it to the hotel alive took precedence. Motorbikes ruled the road. Traffic regulations didn’t exist or went ignored. Welcome to Vietnam.
The taxi veered onto a narrow street in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. The mental impact of thousands of motorbikes coming straight at us seared an image like the imprint of a branding iron. Men, women, teenagers, business suits, high heels, and funky outfits made up this ‘motor madness.’ Covered from head to toe, only the riders’ eyes peered out above cloth face masks and under newly required helmets, which they call ‘rice-cookers.’ I asked the driver why the riders had every inch of body concealed.
“To protect from the sun; they think, the whiter their skin, the better,” he said.
On the frenzied route to the hotel, I saw no traffic lights. No stop and go, no slowing, just bikes carrying people and cargo. Innovative Vietnamese have turned these cheap, easily maintained modes of transportation into delivery vans, mobile businesses or open-air taxis. My concentration on the traffic chaos shifted to the assortment of loads that whizzed by.
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