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Hanoi: Motor Scooter Madness

Color blindness was the Dougherty family curse. 

Or rather, my father’s.

He was unable to see any hue other than yellow so he stubbornly resisted our pleas to trade in our old black and white Zenith for a color model. 

Hence, we were the last family in town in the 1970s still watching the nightly news with Walter Cronkite without benefit of Technicolor.

Perhaps that’s why my impressions of this little country in southeast Asia - from the nightly dispatches during the Vietnam War - are preserved in shades of gray.

A little shrine by Hoan Kiem Lake. (No English signs, unfortunately.)

A little shrine by Hoan Kiem Lake. (No English signs, unfortunately.)

So it was something of a shock to wake up Wednesday morning to the sounds of a rooster crowing - in downtown Hanoi! - and peek from my hotel window to see green. Everywhere. Vines and flowers spill from the tiny balconies and rooftops of the warren of modest apartments nearby.

(We got to our hotel after midnight Tuesday. This was my first daylight glimpse of the city.)

If there’s a spot for a pot, bucket or trellis the Vietnamese fill it with flowers and vines. The greenery softens the dingy urban landscape and perfumes the air with scent of jasmine and lily. 

While many of the narrow Hanoi houses are bucolic, the streets are in a state of utter anarchy. 

There are roughly 7.8 million people living in Vietnam’s capital and it seems every single one of them is riding a motor scooter. (Actually, the best estimate is that there are 4 million motor bikes in the city. That seems low to me. I was nearly run over by at least that many my first day.)

Scooters. Everywhere.

Scooters. Everywhere.

Entire families squeeze onto scooters. Career women, in suits and pumps, zip through the streets on scooters. Laborers commute to job sites toting ladders and equipment fastened precariously to the rear of their bikes. 

And when a fire truck with sirens blaring blasted past us yesterday afternoon, it was followed by a fleet of firemen. Yep, on motor scooters, with plastic fire hats where their helmets should be.

There are helmet laws in Vietnam but they apparently don’t apply to children, who usually ride sandwiched between their helmeted parents. Or firemen. Or anyone else who simply doesn’t want to disturb their hair.

Worse - from a pedestrian’s point of view - many intersections exist without the benefit of traffic lights, which is fine, because most drivers are indifferent to red lights.

There is only one way to cross a street in Hanoi: To team up with a gaggle of other walkers, whisper a Hail Mary and boldly step out into traffic at a steady pace. Hesitation will result in death or serious injury because scooter drivers calculate the speed of walkers and swerve to miss them. Keeping a constant pace is the only way to cross without being hit.

Once safely across the street, pedestrians face another threat: being flattened by scooters taking shortcuts on sidewalks or shooting out of shop fronts.

I was worried about getting sick from the water, food or mosquitoes while in Vietnam, but so far my only near-death experiences have come trying to negotiate Hang Gai street to get to my hotel.

As we were timidly waiting on the curb by one of Hanoi’s most insanely busy intersections I shook my head at my daughter and said, “We’re never getting across.”

Family outing.

Family outing.

“Yes we are,” came the voice of a smiling young man of about 20 standing beside  me, who leapt into the street and gestured for me to come.

“OK, I’m with you,” I grinned, shamelessly using the young man as a shield.

“You don’t have this in your country?” he asked, gesturing at the mayhem.

I told him we didn’t.

“Where is your country?” he wanted to know.

“America,” I replied.

“Ah, make America great again!” he said with a big smile and a wave once were safely out of traffic.

That was unexpected.  

When I was in college I had a political science professor who claimed that chaos in the streets was linked to unstable governments. He used various Latin American nations as examples. He insisted that countries with free-for-all traffic patterns were in peril of government breakdowns.

I asked Google how stable the Vietnamese government is and got this answer:

While the war for a unified nation had its roots in communism, modern Vietnam is a socialist republic. A single party, the Communist Party of Vietnam, has defined politics for over 40 years and has been relatively stable since the late 70s.

When I get home I plan to look up my old college prof and demand an explanation. If I’m not killed by a scooter first.

Thap Rua shrine in Hon Kiem Lake.

Thap Rua shrine in Hon Kiem Lake.

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