Don’t worry, it happens to everyone when they first get to Hanoi.–”Vietnam,” Lonely Planet, page 9.
What the authors meant by “it” is that you get lost in the many streets and alleys of Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
I remember reading this sentence a few times in the past, using the sentiment to console myself when faced with the reality of crossing the street in Vietnam, facing a steady stream of motorbikes.
Motorbikes are the primary form of transportation in Vietnam. The Wall Street Journal, citing Vietnam’s Ministry of Transport, puts the number of motorbikes in Vietnam at 37 million. That’s roughly one for every three people in Vietnam.
There are so many motorbikes in Vietnam that there was a news report of proposals to ban motorcycles in cities. There are cars, vans and buses also sharing the road, but not nearly as many and they’re just big boulders trying to get through narrow streets.
Motorized traffic doesn’t stop often in Hanoi, or elsewhere in Vietnam really. There are traffic lights and drivers obey them, but there seem to be fewer in Vietnam than in an American city. Which makes crossing the street in Hanoi terrifying at first. I kept thinking of George Constanza’s Frogger experience from Seinfeld.
In order to make it across the street, I hid behind Kiwi and acted like his shadow, so wherever he crossed, I just followed. It was kind of romantic in a way: I need to be near you [please make sure I get across safely].
After a couple of days, the shock of crossing the street wears down and the act itself becomes fun. You become part of the flow. A friend recommended to look motorcycle drivers in the eye, so that they will see you and move around you. That does work, and I’m thankful for that advice. I would also recommend downing one beer (just one) to take the edge off. That way, you can move across an intersection or street in a Zen-like, give-zero-cares manner.
If anything, crossing the street in Hanoi is basically an exercise in Newton’s first law of motion. Things will stay in motion until something acts upon it: Motorcycle traffic will continue at the same rate and pace until a pedestrian appears, then drivers change speed and direction accordingly.
Science can be comforting sometimes.