A Pedestrian's hands on guide to Hanoi's Traffic.
There are certain things that stand out when one visits a foreign country. For brevity’s sake, let’s call them destination idiosyncrasies. These idiosyncrasies may contribute either positively or negatively on one’s travels in a foreign country. To avoid leaving a destination with a load of negative emotions a traveller needs to accept one cardinal rule: “Foreign countries are full of foreigners…” That is to say that people tend to do things differently in different cultures. Differently does not mean right or wrong, it just means different. This seems obvious, but when one scours the TripAdvisor and google reviews of certain travellers, the only thing that is really obvious is that this feature of travelling to strange and different lands needs to be explained at length to some people.
Nowhere are these idiosyncrasies as clear as in South-East Asia. Walking down a city in one of these countries may make you feel like you’re on another planet, nevermind another country. But if South-East Asian cities are a different planet, then the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi is is another solar system. Even other Vietnamese from the central and southern parts of Vietnam would sometimes shake their heads in disbelief when observing their northern compatriots in action. And one of the biggest points of contention? Traffic.
Traffic in Hanoi is something else. I, for one love it. I love the feeling of organised chaos unfolding before my very eyes. It’s like watching a jazz master weave an intricate pattern of seemingly unrelated sounds into a somewhat less disjointed tapestry of unrelated sounds. But it is, of course, understood that to someone looking at this mess for the first time it can be, to say the very least, overwhelming.
Heck, the first time I was confronted with the sight I stood at the pedestrian crossing for close to 10 minutes before an elderly lady took me by the hand and guided me over the street. I still consider that moment a personal low point for my sense of masculinity. But don’t worry, you won’t have to suffer the same indignation, as long as you follow this hands-on guide for traffic in Hanoi!
PS: This is of course just a guide, and it’s by no means a foolproof law handbook for traversing traffic in Hanoi. If you are unsure or uncomfortable with a situation, do not force it. Rather ask a local to assist you, they’ll be glad to help.
1. Be Assertive
This first point in the guide is all about taking that first step. Like plunging into a cold pool, or even just the initial text to that special someone, we understand that that first step may be daunting. So much more so when you’re confronted by an apparently never-ending stream of cars, buses and motorcycles. But you need to take it, and when you do, you need to be assertive. Watch out for a gap between oncoming traffic, and step into it and just take a moment. You’ll notice that the traffic starts to flow around you, just like a school of fish moving around a rock. Great, you’re in the middle of the chaos, now it’s time for your next move.
2. Use Your Hands
While standing in traffic extend your arm towards the direction of oncoming vehicles. What you want to achieve is basically a 45-degree difference between your extended arm and your body. With your hand facing down, palm towards your body, you now start making a movement with your hand, a little bit reminiscent of a flopping fish. This movement indicates your intention of moving through this relentless ocean of movement. You’ll notice that motorcycles start to maintain a greater distance around you, while cars might actually slow down, allowing you to cross. (Important note: Buses don’t care about anything you do – watch out for them, but more about that later on.) You may now start to slowly commence the previously death-defying journey across the street.
3. Don't Hesitate
This is maybe the most important thing you can learn while dealing with Vietnamese traffic. The cardinal rule for Vietnamese drivers are to concern themselves only with what is directly in front of them. Therefore, when someone swerves from one lane into another, they do so with little regard to those drivers behind them, because they believe that the drivers behind them will see them coming and act accordingly. So when you step into traffic, with a barrage of motorbikes heading towards you, don’t hesitate. The drivers will see you and they will start to react towards your presence. This may mean swerving to the left or right or just slowing down. They know you are there and they know you’re going to keep on moving, so they understand what to expect. When you hesitate you create uncertainty amongst the drivers. This uncertainty is something for which the state of Vietnamese traffic was not created and cannot tolerate. SO DON’T HESITATE!
4. Keep a Uniform And Steady Pace
With the tricky situation of hesitation out of the way, it brings us to the next golden rule: Keep a uniform and steady pace. We understand that it might be tempting to take a quick dash across the street, especially when confronted by the steady stream of commuters but this is a mistake. If you start out your journey at one pace, stay true to that pace. Any quick acceleration or deceleration will only cause uncertainty. When you walk at a steady pace, the drivers can assume and therefore predict where you’re going to be, and avoid also being there when you get there.
5. Walk Diagonally Into The Traffic
This was one of the first pointers that I received from a local Hanoian. He then promptly demonstrated it by crossing the street, walking into traffic diagonally. I was absolutely sure he was about to get run over, but rather the traffic just passed him on the one larger part of the road available. This piece of advice is not applicable to junctions with traffic lights or pedestrian crossing, but rather for semi-busy smaller streets when you need to cross without a traffic light. When you walk diagonally into oncoming traffic you force the traffic to pass you on only one side, thus further eliminating any uncertainty. However, it is a tricky and counterintuitive manoeuvre, so don’t try it if you’re not comfortable. Maybe observe how the local Hanoians do it, before trying it yourself…
6. Don't Assume A Pedestrian Crossing Means it is Safe
Right, now we get to a point that has left many a traveller bemused, if not completely annoyed… A pedestrian crossing in Vietnam does not really mean anything. In theory, they should, that’s the law, but in practice, this road sign is ignored by both pedestrians and commuters alike. This causes some confusion amongst travellers and you’ll often see little islands of tourists gathering at a pedestrian crossing whilst looking left and right with utter disbelief as the traffic fails to react to their presence. They’ll only react once somebody takes that bold first step mentioned in point number one.
7. Keep an eye on the traffic lights
While a pedestrian crossing might not mean much, a traffic light does. When we first arrived in Vietnam, we made the mistake of assuming that the green pedestrian light does not mean anything, and we would undertake crossing busy intersections at any point, regardless of the presence of a green or red pedestrian light. Thankfully, a somewhat irritated traffic cop showed us the error of our ways… You should only cross when the pedestrian light is green. This does not always mean traffic will stop for you, but there is a chance, whereas they will definitely not stop for you when it’s red… Strange, we know.
8. Watch out for buses
I used to look at buses as the kind-hearted whales of the tarmac. Lumbering behemoths going on their way with an underlying jolliness that only overweight men with white beards truly understand. This is a view I do not hold anymore… Buses in the city of Hanoi are closer to the bloodthirsty orcas than a serene humpback whale. They function on one rule and one rule only: If you are smaller than me, you need to get out of the way. When I’m trying to cross a busy road I always do one thing first: Check if there are any busses coming my way. If there are, stand and wait it out until it’s safe to go.
One Last Thing...
There you have it, our guide to traversing traffic in Hanoi. Please remember, if you are uncertain or uncomfortable, don’t risk it. Wait a bit, or ask a local to help you out. And once again, this is just a guide, comprised of our own personal experiences, please don’t take it as gospel when it comes to traffic in this chaotically beautiful city. For more info, or if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to visit our website at www.therealhanoibicycleexperience.com. We look forward to hearing from you!
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