After the chaos of Bangkok’s traffic, I figured I had seen it all. The half hour ride from the airport into Hanoi was a sort of preamble and then I found myself in the heart of the Kingdom of Motorbikes. Much has been written about the incredibly densely packed flurry of scooters, but you really have to see it to believe it. And even then it kept me muttering in amazement my entire week in Vietnam. I have seen up to five people on a bike, a passenger carrying a large piece of sheet glass, pigs bundled on back, computers, large long pieces of construction material or plumbing. A fellow traveler told me of a donkey laid uncomfortably across the seat and drooling, no doubt in holy terror, as it was lugged through the scrambling traffic. At uncontrolled intersections (and even some controlled ones) traffic simply continues through with dozens upon dozens of bikes in the center of it at one time, moving in totally different directions, perpendicular, threading through one another magically without crashing. Often riders are inches from each other – to the side or front to back – slowing, speeding up and always perfectly balanced. Cars cut off and are cut off by the mad rush of motorbikes which resembles swarming bugs. When they hit a red light, many will rush up onto the sidewalks and keep going. Some have helmets, others dust masks for the pollution. Hotel doormen will step out into the street to guide hapless tourists safely across. As a pedestrian it was intimidating, especially crossing the streets, but I soon found there was an order to it all. Move slowly, steadily, and predictably, and for the most part the whole lot of them flows around you the way fish in a river never run into your legs when you wade across. I saw no road rage despite incidents that would have given me an aneurism and sprained my middle finger. If it means certain collision, the right of way is given. Rarely do people look both ways or check blind spots, because whoever is behind has the responsibility of watching and adjusting speed or trajectory. (I took this to heart and when I returned to Bangkok and drove a rental car downtown, I just plowed ahead without looking, signaled and drifted into and out of lanes. It worked well but gave Tip a case of taxi-ride jitters.)
Whereas walking had certain risks, being in a taxi seemed quite calm and surreal. In a collision surely the motorbike was the loser. I watched through the windows like a reverse aquarium, surrounded by the weaving riders. I quickly gained an appreciation for their balance and skill. These gracefully reckless drivers showed cool nerves. I checked into the Hanoi Elegance 4 (excellent!) in the center of the Old Quarter and tried to collect my own.
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