Sunday, February 28, 2016

Vietnam's TumultuousTraffic

The rule of the road for all vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians is simple: Give way to those who are bigger. Or, to put it more accurately: the bigger thing takes the right of way and blows his horn frequently to let everyone else know he's coming. 

The streets of Hanoi's Old Quarter were made for people and rickshaws. As bicycles and motorbikes came along, the streets become crowded, but it worked. However now, people want cars and they have the money for them. But those old streets were not made for cars.

Based on this photo, the roads don't look big enough for even the motorcycles.
Hence, these narrow roads now have cars, motorbikes, bicycles and rickshaws zipping down them. Even where the roads widen, anything with wheels can be anywhere on the road. There are rarely lines, let alone bike lanes. The whole road is one big sharrow.

The roads are narrow, so for the most part, there's no parking on the street. Sometimes a car might stop for an extraordinarily long time, until a policeman passes by and insists the car be moved. Motorbikes park on the sidewalks. People are quite adept at packing those motorbikes in tight and leaving no extra space between them. They also park them in the wee laneways between the buildings that give access to the back rooms and upper floors of those buildings.

Cars aren't supposed to park on the street, but as you can see, they do.
If the police don't catch you is it still wrong?

Adding to this sidewalk clutter of motorbikes, are the shops, and eating places that spill out of their front doors onto the sidewalks with tables full of goods, or short tables and chairs for eating. 

At times all this traffic leaves little space for the pedestrian. It's hard to manoeuvre around a dozen parked motorcycles, the "patio" restaurants and store goods on a tiny sidewalk. So where do you walk? 

On the street of course. 

Walking the streets of Hanoi was exhausting - especially when in charge of Eamon. He's only 8 and is easily distracted when walking down the street. Let's be honest, I was easily distracted because there's just so much to look at. We found we needed to hold his hand just about the whole time we were outside of the hotel. When we were on the sidewalk, motorbikes would zoom up to park, exit out of the narrow lane ways, or use the sidewalk to bypass traffic. When there was no room to walk on the sidewalk, we were on the street. It's hard on both parent and kid when you have to hold hands anytime you're out and about. 

A decently wide street on the far left, yet motorbikes feel they can go faster on the wide sidewalk. Poor Eamon. Even on a really wide sidewalk where he should've been able to walk with ease was forced to hold hands with Kerry for fear that he'd leap in front of a speeding bike without noticing it.

Crossing the street is really quite the activity. Look at these photos. How do you even begin to cross with so much traffic?

 We knew the basic rule: start walking and keep on walking at the same pace - the traffic will avoid you. We were told that when Kerry and I first travelled here in 2002, and it seemed to work. We were told that again, but this time there were way more cars in the road. Guess what? They don't try to go around you to avoid you (mostly because there's no room to do that). Nor do they slow down and yield right of way. 

This traffic light appears to be for decoration only.

So this time we needed to time the start of our crossing to make sure that a car wouldn't meet with us in the middle of the road. And at times, there were so many motorbikes, it was hard to "just walk". We did learn that you could wave your hand like a Jedi at the traffic and it would grudgingly accept your crossing. Even cars. Though to be honest, we didn't practice our Jedi move on the cars very often for fear that the Force was not actually that strong in any one of us.

A policeman doing traffic control: attempting to tame the untameable.

Outside the Old Quarter of Hanoi, the roads are a bit wider sometimes, but the basic rules apply. It's every man for himself and if you're smaller you wisely give way to who is bigger. Sometimes the traffic lights are even followed.

Most fun to watch were the traffic circles. The rule in the rest of the world of yielding to the inside lane didn't apply. Maybe because there are no actual lanes painted around the big traffic circles. Trucks would thunder through these traffic circles blasting their horns the entire time as if shouting "GET OUT OF MY WAY". The other traffic magically just opened up a path to let the trucks pass. 

Driving on the highway was also an adventure. The lanes are painted on the roads, but I have to wonder why since no one seemed to follow them. You just drive and pass those who are driving slower. If you need to use the 'lane' of incoming traffic you do. You also blow your horn a lot. It's all a bit hair raising and I found it best to just sit in the back seat and not pay any attention to what was going on.

My view on a rickshaw ride. If a center line had been drawn on this road, we would have been on the wrong side of it. No line though, so was it the wrong side?

With all this crazy traffic, it should come as no surprise that the roads are not collision free. On my way home from the dentist one day, I saw a crowd in the middle of the road around a recent motorcycle spill. Eamon witnessed a car hitting a bicycle. Fortunately that was from a distance and we didn't see any potentially gory details.

That may explain why over the Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday period of 9 days there were apparently 300 people killed in traffic accidents. Another news report we read claimed that 30,000 people were hospitalised due to traffic accidents over the Tet holiday. Even if that figure isn't what we would view as hospitalization and refers only to medical treatment, the number boggles the mind.

I'm just pleased that we all made it out alive, and in one unscathed piece.

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