Six months after returning from our honeymoon, there’s one thing I definitely haven’t missed about Vietnam: the ubiquitous scooters and resultant, constant noise of city traffic. I live in Birmingham, so am no stranger to the hum of urban life, but this was on a different level entirely and at times quite overwhelming. Here’s a recollection of how we sought refuge from the roads during our first afternoon in Hanoi…
A first-floor bar at the northern end of Hoan Kiem Lake provides the perfect platform to observe Hanoi’s traffic. Utterly disorientated after our first venture into the Vietnamese capital’s Old Quarter, where scooters mount narrow pavements and incessant beeping mingles with petrol fumes and aromas of sizzling street food, we took a table overlooking a roundabout, and were transfixed.
Scooters in their dozens criss-crossed the tarmac, weaving past each other in every direction while placid cyclo drivers propelled their vehicles on a gentle meander through those ceaseless ribbons of revving two-wheelers. Cars, an occasional bus – more often than not used by similarly-daunted pedestrian tourists as a shield to make their crossing – and local Hanoians with baskets of donuts all formed part of the urban tapestry.
I never knew, before arriving in Vietnam, how often and in how many different ways a horn can be deployed. The streets of Hanoi are a cacophony of hooting, from individual bursts and quick–pattern toots to long, enduring blasts that sear into you. A wordless language that is omnipresent and bewildering in its volume and variation.
It was also revelatory seeing how much can be transported on a single scooter. We saw three large art canvases precariously balanced by a passenger, his foot hooking under the bottom of one while the other two obscured his driver’s vision. Then a ladder, stacks of plastic baskets, coconuts in their dozens and my favourite of all, a bonsai seller; each plant securely fastened in its pot and the small trees piled high above his red helmet in polystyrene trays.
Smartly dressed women in kitten heels texted, eyes on their smartphone screens and one arm casually steering the handlebars through the melee, while a family of four travelled the other way; a baby asleep in its mothers’ arms and the elder daughter ensconced in a book on her perch above the exhaust pipe. A lone vendor with a pedal bike, hidden under a vast array of traditional conical hats, started a new route to the opposite pavement, unphased by the swerving scooters that by some miracle never collided – at least not while we were watching.
Knowing the route to our hotel lay across this stretch of road, we attempted to use our heightened position to identify the best place to cross. Alas, it seemed all zebra crossings were purely decorative and that like the locals, we would just have to step out into the mass of hooting scooters, stride confidently forward, and trust to the swerving motorists’ prowess.
Which, after another Bia Hà Nôi and several false starts, we did.