Other travelers had warned us about a lot of things concerning Vietnam, most of which turned out not to be true. The one thing that they had mostly right, though, was the unique challenge of simply trying to cross the street in Hanoi.
Motorbikes, scooters, bicycles, and cars all bear down on you from every direction. It never stops; not for other vehicles or for red lights and certainly not for pedestrians. If you want to get anywhere in the city you’ll eventually have to wade into these waves of rushing metal. Fortunately there are rules that govern this madness of crowds which, if followed, will see you safely through the seeming chaos.
Here’s how to survive as a pedestrian on the clogged and crazy streets of Hanoi.
This is the single most important rule in safely navigating Hanoi streets. It’s the thing that secretly maintains order in what by all appearances is unbridled anarchy. Without it, everything in the street would come quite literally to a crashing halt.
Being a predictable pedestrian means avoiding sudden starts or stops. If you want to gawk at knock-off handbags kindly step aside first. And when you’re done, carefully merge back into the flow of traffic rather than just darting off.
Being predictable also means not turning sharply or reversing direction. Generally the idea is to set a course and slowly, methodically, follow that course in as straight a line as possible.
By doing that one simple thing you allow everyone else on the street to react to you and navigate around you. For the most part, they will.
Watch Where You’re Going
This is something that really should go without saying and yet it really needs to be said. Too many people walk around as if they’re the only person on the planet. They’re diddling their phones, looking over their shoulder or down at their feet. They’re accidents waiting to happen which, in normal crowds, is simply annoying. In Hanoi it’s actually dangerous.
There is a trick to monitoring a large number of things at once and that is to avoid focusing on any one thing in particular.
Try this as an example. From wherever you are right now, look to the center of the room and focus on something like a table or a chair or whatever, it doesn’t matter. You probably see the details of that item, its color, its shape, its texture, in perfect clarity. But what else do you see in the room? Not much unless you move your eyes.
Now soften your focus. Try to not look at anything in particular and let your attention drift outward from the center of your vision. What do you see now? If you’re like me, you see the entire room. No one object in the room is sharp. The details are all gone. But even so, from where I sit right now I can easily identify the chair to my far right, the person to my far left, the plant across the room in front of me and the coffee cup (of course) resting on the café table within arm’s reach. And I can see all of those things at once without moving my eyes.
When navigating a crowd, this technique is more than helpful. Being able to keep an eye on the motorbikes to your left, the hawker bearing down from straight ahead, and the bicycle on the right is a survival necessity.
Act Quickly and Navigate Thoughtfully
When navigating any crowd you’ll almost always find yourself on a collision course with someone. The key to avoiding contact is to identify it early (see Watch Where You’re Going above) and to make a small, thoughtful course correct that allows everyone time to react to your new direction.
If, for example, it looks like you’ll hit someone approaching from the right it’s best to maintain your speed but angle slightly to the right so that you pass behind the oncoming traffic instead of running into it.
The more common, and more dangerous, reaction is to stop so that the other person can pass. The problem with stopping is everyone else on the road expects you to keep walking. If you stop to avoid the collision in front of you there’s a good chance you’ll get T-boned from the side or run over from behind. That’s because by stopping suddenly you just violated the most important rule: Be Predictable.
Check Your Blind Spots
It’s a good idea to get in the habit of looking over your shoulder whenever you want to move left or right, even if just to step around something. Motorbikes and bicycles have a way of sneaking up from behind. We found that to be especially true when walking on the rare sections of unobstructed Hanoi sidewalk. It was quite common for motorbikes to use those as open avenues to drive against the flow of traffic.
Walking with confidence is essential to being predictable. If you act like a halting and timid deer caught in headlights no one will know what to expect from you. Worse, some motorists will try to bully you out of their way. It’s a recipe for road kill.
Once you wade out into the flow of traffic, just keep moving with slow and purposeful determination.
Shannon Says: Hold on to Brian
Well, not me so much as your travel companion. We found navigating the streets together easier when one of us took the lead and the other went along for the ride by holding hands or locking arms. That way communication between us was non-verbal and instantaneous.
If you’re a couple and instead decide to each make your own way, you have to ignore whatever your partner is doing. Just because she’s moving right doesn’t mean that’s what you should do. Forget them until you get to the other side. At least one of you will likely make it.