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Tuesday, July 03, 2007


Crossing the street in Hanoi

I can pick the new visitors to Hanoi. I see them standing on the side of the road waiting for an opportunity to cross. They start to rush, suddenly a bike is bearing down on them, they freeze. That's the quickest way to die in Hanoi.

On the other hand if you don't take the risk it is possible you could die of old age while waiting to cross.

In all Southeast Asian cities I've visited, except Singapore, it is a challenge to cross the road. In Singapore drivers are even more polite and considerate than we are used to in western countries. Anywhere else, crossing can seem impossible. Pedestrian crossings mean nothing. Green lights with a walking figure mean nothing. For that matter, footpaths mean nothing. To step out the door of a building is to risk collision with a motorcycle. Left side of the road, right side of the road, one way, pedestrians only—they all mean nothing. Almost anywhere a pedestrian can go so can a bike and they do; no matter that laws or common sense might tell you otherwise.

Bangkok has its overhead bridges that make it safe to get to the other side. I have not seen any in Hanoi. So if I don't want to get old on this side of the road, what do I do?

The longest journey begins with the first step. Yep, that's it. You have to take a step. No wait, look first and if there is nothing bearing down on you take that step. Now keep looking in both directions and keep stepping. Avoid the urge to run. After a while I realized that the motorcyclists don't really want to kill me. Maybe they don't care but it would delay their journey and they could also be injured. They prefer to avoid you. If you are visible, they will try to figure the best way to avoid you. I watch them and see they usually change direction— usually to go behind me which means I keep walking. Sometimes they aim to go in front of me which means I stay still for a second but ready to move on as soon as there is a space.

I tried this one night at a really busy intersection. It looked impossible to get across but once I made the move it wasn't long before I'd reached the other side. Everyone simply rode around me and I kept on moving. No heart attacks. I safely reached the other side.

It is perhaps more challenging walking along the narrow streets that comprise the Hanoi old quarter. The footpaths are impassable because they are used for motorcycle parking or people eating and the narrow streets are filled with motorcycles coming in all directions and honking to say 'Get out of my way.' Or so it seems.

I have had many near misses. On two occasions as close as one centimetre. One guy came around a corner apparently oblivious to the fact that I was walking on that part of the road. Fortunately he saw me just in time. I find the most dangerous are usually young women who beep and it really does seem to mean, don't expect me to give way to you. I was crossing at one intersection. There was nothing ahead of me. I hear a loud beep. I had no time to react but was missed by less than a centimetre by a motorcycle with two girls on it coming around the corner.

So please don't worry about me being ripped off by hawkers. The most dangerous thing in Hanoi is walking down the street.

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