Ignore everything I’ve ever said about crossing the street. In Vietnam, God has decided how he feels about everything (see Bangkok), there’s no latte in one hand and an iPhone in the other, checkbothwaysbeforejaywalking.
In Hanoi, your life will be spared by inches on either side – and not by mistake. This will happen each time you decide to transverse – whether for a particularly good Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk or in search of a street stall with doll-sized seats and spicy crab soup that everyone has been talking about.
Colonial architecture is punctuated by the sound of a million scooter drivers blissfully ignoring red lights and honking their horns – if not to show annoyance, then just to make others aware of their presence. Sitting on the second floor terrace of a cafe at a particularly busy intersection, you could watch the traffic move around for hours, mesmerized (and biting your nails) as though at a ballet.
Cars and busses are outnumbered by two-wheeled drivers by a factor of about twenty, and seem to be the only ones paying any attention at all to street signs, though even that might be a stretch. Scooters are the stars in Hanoi, and seem to dance with each other as they drive directly into each other’s lines and drive on the wrong side of the road.
Crossing the street is down to a delicate art. The motorcycles will never come to a stop, and I had the pleasure of witnessing many tourists standing at a street corner for minutes, waiting for a break in traffic that would never come. The key to getting across the street is waiting for the tiniest pause between scooters, and then stepping into the road and slowly making your way across.
As if in a magical Star Wars-esque forcefield, the motorcycles will go around you, either front or back. Although somewhat reckless, the Vietnamese are not particularly fast drivers and leave themselves with space to edge their bikes to one side or the other of a moving target, much in the way that stream will flow around a rock.
The first day in Hanoi is spent walking down streets, finding the need to cross, and then waiting until a local shows up and appears to be going in the same direction, standing downtraffic of them and allowing them to lead the way. Slowly, step by step, you build the confidence to tackle the six-street intersection with exactly no lanes at the top of Hoan Kiem Lake with no guidance, only a small prayer and the golden equation:
Eyes forward, walk slowly and confidently.