December 14, 2006

Zen and the Art of Dodging Motorscooters

Arriving in Hanoi felt like we jumped in a time machine that zipped us back 25 years.

As soon as we left the gates of the modern international airport, we were surrounded by rice paddies, with people diligently working in fields, actually wearing those classic conical straw hats! The concrete highway cut through the landscape dotted with farmers harvesting rice, by hand(!), and the occasional water buffalo.

We soon came to the city limits and were surrounded by fleets of motorscooters, carrying entire families or strapped down with furniture. The scooters outnumbered cars at least 20 to 1. Not a helmet in sight, the scooters weaved in and out of traffic whereever there was a space. And it seemed every single one of them needed to honk to let us know they were passing us. The greatest thing was that most of the women wore wide brimmed hats, and hankerchiefs covering their noses and mouths, looking like bandits about to make a getaway.

The streets of Old Hanoi were equally clogged with these scooters, and with the narrow sidewalks covered with vendors, beer stalls, parked motorscooters, people cooking meals with only one pot, tiny plastic stools, and souvenir stores, it was impossible to walk on the sidewalk down an entire street. The sounds and smells and sights were overwhelming at first – it was hard to know which way to look, or which way to move to get out of the way. (Check out Jonathan’s nice collection of pics of Hanoi).

As a result, crossing the street was a slow motion zen experience unlike anything I’ve experienced. Without traffic lights or stop signs, the motorscooters and cars have no reason to come to a stop. If I stood on the edge of the sidewalk and tried to wait for a clearing, I could stand there for hours. As the locals demonstrated, the only way to cross is to become one with the traffic, to join the flow.

Leaving the relative safety of the roadside, I made eye contact with drivers coming towards me. I watched as scooters gauged where I was and simply continued, full speed, to swerve around me. This gave me a big enough gap in the traffic to move forward another foot or so. At all times I maintained eye contact and kept my movements slow and predictable. While standing still in the middle of oncoming traffic went against all my instincts to escape death, making a mad dash to the other side would have ensured I become splattered on the concrete.

And however crazy it was to be a pedestrian in Hanoi, hopping on the back of a moto taxi (scooters with a driver who will take you where you want) was fantastic, zipping along the narrow lanes, the wind in my hair and the street stalls whizzing by.

Way more fun to be on a motorscooter than trying to avoid them in the road…:)

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