Hanoi was one of the worst walking cities I’ve ever been in. Thousands of motor scooters buzzed through the streets, the drivers seldom adhering to traffic laws familiar to Westerners. Traffic flowed in a form of controlled chaos. At four-way intersections it was common to see scooters simultaneously approaching each other from every direction. The result was a lot of last second avoidance maneuvers and a crazy stream of crisscrossing scooters. Imagine being a pedestrian caught in the middle of such a thing.
While there were sidewalks in Hanoi, the sidewalks were usually clogged by parked motor scooters. In addition to the scooters, many restaurants set out plastic stools on the sidewalks to accommodate patrons. Add to this the flow of pedestrians, and you have your work cut out for you.
Let me make one thing clear: I loved Hanoi. The chaos of its streets did indeed fray my nerves at times. However, this very same chaos also made Hanoi a very interesting place. The streets were always alive and bustling, and not just with motor scooters. Women walked about carrying shoulder poles, balancing loads of fruits and vegetables. Some Vietnamese made their way by bicycle, pedaling through the madness as if they were the only ones on the road. Trucks, buses, and taxis navigated the swarms of scooters. Vietnamese men pedaled bicycle taxis, ferrying Western tourists around.
There actually was a technique for crossing the road on foot. Once you made the first step into the road, you just kept walking. You didn’t stop. You didn’t look over your shoulder at the oncoming traffic, which may cause you to freeze in terror. You just kept moving at a slow but consistent pace, letting the scooters go around you. The scooter riders anticipated your movements and adjusted accordingly. It sounds crazy. But it was the best way to go about it. Anytime that I was hesitant and stopped or moved erratically, that’s when things went wrong, and crossing the street turned into a nightmarish game of Frogger.
Just how many scooters are in Vietnam? I doubt anyone knows for sure. The World Bank put the number at 20 million in 2008. While in Vietnam, I met an Aussie expat living in Danang who said the number was 36 million, adding that this figure included only legally-registered scooters. That’s 36 million registered scooters in a country with a population of around 92 million people. From what I read, the number will only continue to grow along with the population.