With more than 5 million motorcycles swarming the streets of Hanoi, crossing the street can be like a game of Russian roulette.
The first thing anyone tells you about Hanoi is that it is impossible to get anywhere by foot.
But it’s not until you’re actually there, trying to manoeuvre from one side of the street to the other, that you realise how pedestrians are treated like second-class citizens.
The chaotic, clogged streets of Hanoi are a free-for-all, where two-wheels rule and pedestrians take their life in their hands every time they venture out.
Forget about the safety of traffic lights and zebra crossings. They’re merely speed bumps for the frenetic horde of honking, blaring xe máy (motorbikes), as well as scooters, cyclos, vans and buses that swarm through the city each day.
A staggering 92 million Vietnamese people have 45 million registered motorbikes, with three million new two-wheelers purchased every year.
On Hanoi’s claustrophobic streets, there are 5.2 million motorbikes, 10,686 electric motorcycles and 4,367 homemade motorcycles, according to police data. For a population of around 7.6 million people, it’s clear that this two-wheel type of transit is more than just a mode of transport
People do everything on their motorbikes. You’ll see people texting, talking on their phone, reading a book – even cradling a baby in one arm as they steer with the other.
It’s actually rather disturbing when you first arrive in Hanoi to see a family of five straddling a 125cc Honda.
Alongside are bikes stacked high with unimaginable loads: 10 cases of beer on one bike, 30 water cooler bottles on another, eggs by the tens of dozen balancing precariously on another.
Bikes rule the road … and the sidewalk
While the streets are either thrilling or terrifying, and usually both, the sidewalks offer little reprieve for weary pedestrians who must weave and manoeuvre their way through the mayhem.
You see, in Vietnam, the crammed, narrow pavements are used for everything except walking thanks to decades of lax enforcement.
First and foremost, they are for motorcycle parking. You’ll see so many bikes parked on the footpaths that it’s actually best to walk on the road if you want to get anywhere by foot.
In most areas, when traffic grinds to a complete standstill, motorcyclists take to the footpaths or cruise down one-way streets the wrong way.
If it’s not the motorbikes in your way, it will be vendors squatting at every street corner with their cauldrons of boiling soup and noodles; elderly men sipping tea at food stalls; street traders balancing poles on their shoulders laden with heavy baskets of fruits and vegetables; and half a dozen kerbside barbers that sprout up just 20 metres apart.
Then there’s those ubiquitous red and blue stools – a common sight in cities throughout Asia where street food thrives.
The 10-inch-high plastic seats are everywhere, on every corner – a reminder that Hanoi is a living city where life is played out on the streets, in full view.
They’re also a sign that you can probably get some decent street food or an ice-cold beer nearby.
In Hanoi, a one metre patch of footpath is almost more valuable than gold, and restauranteurs and stall owners often protect their patch with invisible lines and different coloured stools.
But kerbside dining is not for everyone in Hanoi, a city that is easily among the world’s most polluted. Some experts even think it’s the worst in South East Asia.
For instance, pollution last year was a staggering four times higher than what the World Health Organisation (WHO) considers acceptable. (It’s no wonder I developed a nasty chest infection on a recent visit, which resulted in a partially collapsed lung.)
Motorbikes from the late 1990s and early 2000s are to blame. They produce more of the nasty stuff like carbon monoxide and smog-forming pollutants due to less sophisticated engine design and a general lack of emission standards.
That’s why the Department of Transport and the City Council plan to crack down on old motorcycles with new bans by 2030, along with a new rapid bus system funded by loans from the World Bank, in the hope of reducing both the congestion and the polluting particles.
While locals agree that pollution is a massive problem, and most motorbike users wear respiratory face masks, many of them are not convinced the ban will ever see the light of day, let alone improve congestion or pollution in the Vietnamese capital.
The heavy motorbike density can be attributed to how expensive car ownership can be in Vietnam. Car owners have to pay VND 300 million ($AU18,000) for a car due to high production costs and a special consumption tax.
Given so many Vietnamese people treat their motorcycles like a family station wagon, it’s hard to imagine how a ban would be imposed. Authorities will most likely only limit the number of bikes entering heavily-trafficked areas, which will do little to ease the choking pollution.
Perhaps it will only be when Hanoians decide their next upwardly mobile goal is a car that pedestrians will have any hope of reclaiming the sidewalks.
By then, presumably, everyone will be legging it anyway as the roads will become entirely gridlocked.
How To Cross The Street In Hanoi
If you stand and wait, you will never manage to cross the street in Hanoi. Follow these simple tips to get from A to B:
Try to cross in a group or follow others;
Venture out when there's an obvious gap and take slow and confident strides. Drivers will adjust their course accordingly;
Be predictable. Don't run, don't panic and don't try to turn back. That will just confuse drivers and most likely cause an accident;
Avoid crossing in front of buses and cars. They are big, fast and generally don’t stop for anything or anyone.