The Streets of Hanoi
It’s an act of faith! Crossing the street in the city of Hanoi in Vietnam is an experience I will never forget. The roads are literally wall to wall traffic. Motorcycles, bicycles, rickshaws, cars, hand carts, buses, cars, mopeds, taxis and trucks whiz by in a blur of color and motion. There are very few traffic lights and I quickly learned that the ones which do exist are just for decoration. I asked our guide in Hanoi how we would ever get to the other side of the street given the endless stream of vehicles. “Just step out onto the pavement” he said, “and start walking. Keep a steady pace. Don’t speed up and don’t slow down and never ever come to a complete stop. If you do you will be hit for sure. If however you walk at an even pace the vehicles will be able to judge your speed and will dodge around you.” He was right! I admit that even after being in the city for four days my heart beat still began to race ever time I took that leap of faith and stepped out onto the street. I had to keep my head down, because if I looked at that frightening wave of traffic coming at me, it was too easy to lose courage and slow down or stop. And the noise! There is absolutely no need for signal lights on vehicles in Vietnam. No one uses them. Everyone just blasts their horn when they want to pass. The honking of thousands of horns is a twenty four hour a day background accompaniment to life in Hanoi. After awhile you just get used to it.
The traffic is only one of the things that makes the streets of Hanoi unique however. The sidewalks are endlessly fascinating as well. Since houses and shops are small, narrow and for the most part without air conditioning, the people of Hanoi do lots of their living and working outside their homes and businesses. Children play tag, soccer and jump rope on the street. Barbershops are set up right on the sidewalk. A chair, a pair of scissors, shaving cream, razor and comb and you’re in business! In the evenings children in their pajamas sit outside their homes reading or doing homework. People wash dishes, butcher chickens, do laundry, bag rice, cook, eat supper, feed their babies and sleep on the sidewalk. Of course it’s also where everyone parks their motorcycles and bicycles. Often there are so many vehicles parked on the sidewalk that there is no room to walk.
You can buy just about anything on the sidewalk in Hanoi. Enterprising entrepreneurs have hundreds of “knock off” designer clothing items neatly arranged on blankets spread out on the cobblestones. People sell fruits, vegetables and fresh bread on every corner. Children carrying cases of cigarettes, souvenirs and toiletries accost you constantly. Vendors with pirated copies of bestselling novels piled high on their heads will approach likely looking clients any hour of the night or day. Lots of women have little restaurants on the street. In the morning they come from their homes with the traditional wooden yoke across their shoulders. Balanced on one side is a pot of steaming soup. On the other is a pail filled with bowls, spoons, a little coal burner, two small plastic chairs and a folding table. They pick their spot for the day, set up their supplies and voila they’re in business. Once the pail without soup is emptied of its contents it is filled with water so the women can wash dishes in it after each customer. We ate at several of these mobile soup kitchens and had delicious meals.
The streets and sidewalks of Hanoi are places of constant activity and endless fascination. If you really want to get to know the city all you have to do is walk down the street. Just be careful when you cross it!