Saturday, January 14, 2017

Hanoi, Vietnam - Crazy Traffic

Okay, so there we were in the center of Hanoi, in what's known as the Old Quarter. Narrow streets. Crazy, endless traffic in all directions. Most notably 2-wheeled motorized vehicles. You know -- scooters of all sorts. Total madness. Everyone riding in any direction they please, with no attention to the concept of "lanes" and very little attention to traffic lights, which are few and far between.

We are with our efficient and super-helpful guide, Son. He says the most common scooters are Honda, Yamaha, and Vespa. Yes, you do have to take a test and get a license. Officially, the age for a scooter license is 18, as opposed to 20 for a car. Unofficially, judging by what we saw out in the country, looks like there's barely a limit. Kids start riding bikes (your basic, non-motorized kind) at a very young age; one must learn to get around one's village and be of use to the family. Once you've mastered riding a bike, what's to stop you from riding a scooter?.. Oh, you don't have a license? That can be easily arranged. You can always pay a kind of "insurance fee" that ensures you pass your test, hint-hint, nudge-nudge, know-what-I-mean.

Um, there's also no de-facto limit on the number of passengers per scooter, or the amount of stuff -- livestock, chickens (dead or alive) merchandise, crates, flowers -- you name it -- you carry on your bike. Again -- there are official limits.

But who can live on a daily basis with official limits? You and your spouse must get to work, and you have to drop off the kids at their respective schools, and your eldest is using the other scooter, so the four or five of you pile onto the parent's scooter, and off you go. The older kid stands between the driver's legs, holding onto the handlebars, and the younger kid sits behind the adult (or relatively-adult) passenger, hanging on to him or her for dear life. Sometimes there's also a baby nestled against his mother's chest, wrapped and tied up in some shawl.
Kids with helmets! Yay! A rare sight.
The adults usually wear a helmet, and the women hardly ever drive in town without a fabric mask covering their faces from under their eyes to below the chin. Why? Against pollution? Perhaps, But also so as to protect their skin from the sun and prevent it from getting tanned. 
Selection of scooter masks

Keep your complexion as pale as possible, is the name of the game. All toiletry manufacturers adjust their products accordingly.
Huge selection of cheap toiletries in the market
Statistically, there are around 10,000 fatalities from traffic accidents per year in Vietnam. It may not sound shocking considering a population of some 92 million, of which about 7.5 million in Hanoi alone. But still, when you think of it in absolute terms, it's scary.

And talking of scary. On a practical, daily basis, crossing the street in Vietnam is a scary challenge. Son confidently demonstrated how he does it, and had us follow him closely. In the evening, when we went wandering about on our own, I clung to my husband and prayed each time we chose to cross a street. The scooter drivers seemed to pay us no heed. They minded their own business, while we had to look out for our bodies and souls. Later on in our trip, even though by then we were somewhat more adept at crossing streets, there was one place where we simply gave up. But that was in Ho Chi Minh City, and will wait for a later blog post.

One more factor that complicates pedestrians' life is the sidewalks (pavements, in British English.) They are taken. In use. Crowded. Not by other pedestrians so much as by rows upon rows of parked scooters; by merchandise flowing out of shops -- dolls, bags, toys, flowers, clothes, food, etc.,
Sidewalk taken up by flowers on low plastic stools
Sidewalk taken up by parked scooters well as by coffee-drinkers perched on tiny plastic stools of the type used [in my country] for tots in nurseries and pre-school.
 Wish I could squat as these Vietnamese do. When we do squats in yoga class I am a total failure. My ballet-aficionada daughter introduced me to a wonderful fitness website that is guaranteed to improve my squatting skills if I only persist in practicing. These Vietnamese are just naturally gifted that way. And so they sit on those miniature stools, their knees close to their ears practically, sip their strong coffee and/or eat their lunch. Since I am a relatively polite person, I balked at staring at the squatting folks, and so don't have a good picture to upload :-(  The one I have doesn't do justice to this aspect of Life in Vietnam. But what's Google Images for? Search and ye shall find :-)

Useful info:
We stayed at the Hanoi Siesta Diamond Hotel, which belongs to the Elegance Hospitality Group. Extremely pleasant place, wonderful staff.

To be continued....

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