The challenge of crossing roads in Hanoi
Have you ever stood at the edge of a busy road – teetering on the pavement drop-off as motorists zoom by without a care – and felt that odd call, the sudden and overwhelming urge to simply…look left, then right, then left again, before crossing in a safe and sane manner? If so, you have felt the call to avoid. A natural instinct geared towards avoiding death as the result of an untimely collision.
While the call of the void has a lovely, somewhat morbid ring to it, for most of us acts such as crossing busy roads or navigating high places are associated with a healthy dose of caution. We are not going to go striding out with our gaze straight-ahead, content to place our lives in the hands of fate (for we all know that if fate had hands, they’d be rather shaky).
And yet, in the city of Hanoi, Vietnam, this is precisely what people do.
Ben and I arrived in Vietnam with half a plan and a whole lot of attitude. That is, we arrived sweaty, overtired and with only the vaguest idea where our accommodation was. If you have ever rented an Airbnb in Vietnam, you may be familiar with the HintHunt involved in finding your bed for the night. Once you have found the correct winding alley, committed several unintentional home invasions, asked the enigmatic security guard the right questions and decoded the lock-box found two feet to the right of the second door in the fifth building, you may – if you are lucky – find yourself in possession of a key. From there, the only thing that stands between you and the haven that is an air-conditioned room is stairs.
By the time we shed our bags and travel gear, Ben and I were in need of two things. A cold beer and a decent meal. Our plan? To take a calm amble through the streets of Hanoi until we happened upon a likely-looking establishment. How hard could it be, we figured? We are both, after all, seasoned amblers.
Thus we first encountered the challenge of crossing roads in Hanoi. We had already noticed, on our taxi trip between the airport and the Old Quarter, the cavalier attitude with which local motorists treated lane markings and stop streets. The city’s traffic seemed to operate on a principle of constant motion. Other rules of the road were more like guidelines.
Poised on the edge the pavement, we watched the steady flow of vehicles helplessly. Hooting, overtaking, one with more bricks lashed to his scooter than my limited imagination would ever have thought possible – they all possessed the kind of unrelenting purpose you would expect to see in the eyes of a hippo as you stood between it and the water.
Action had to be taken, of course. There was cold beer on the line. Both Ben and I leapt at the first sign of a gap. Being sensible people, we kept an eye on the oncoming traffic and, seeing that several motorbikes were getting quite close, we paused to let them pass.
Instant pandemonium. Motorcyclists who had predicted our trajectory now swerved violently to avoid our unexpected position – a disruption that rippled outwards. In our moment of hesitation, the gap disappeared. We were stranded in the midst of the traffic, unwilling to stay but fearful to proceed. In heeding the call to avoid we had violated the principle of constant motion, resulting in the nervous confusion of all (not least ourselves). The stop-start scramble that followed took many apologetic hand gestures and the last of our pride.
Unlike us, the local people were unbothered by the traffic. They stepped onto streets with nary a pause, eyes fixed firmly ahead. Where roads were busiest, they raised a hand above their heads so that motorists further away could see their path. Their pace was constant, their air confident, and the stream of vehicles broke effortlessly around them, as if in coordinated sequence. Each pedestrian avoided vehicles by not avoiding them at all. Rather, they allowed the vehicles to avoid them.
Instincts are not so easy to unlearn. Ben and I tried to imitate, but time and again the call to avoid would kick in and we would find ourselves hovering awkwardly in the middle of the road. Eventually, for the good of all involved, we settled for latching onto the nearest pedestrians and trailing in their wake like anxious Remora fish.
Later, sitting on the third floor of some Vietnamese beerhouse, cold pints in hand, we stared down at the streets below in quiet fascination. The movement of people and vehicles was no less confusing from above. We lacked the innate knowledge to make sense of it. Nonetheless, the continuous swirl of colour and activity worked. It was our way of thinking – and crossing roads – that did not quite belong.