Sunday, August 29, 2010

Hell on Wheels

Hanoi, VN (day 8) -

A word problem: If Nguyen rides his motorbike down Lan Ong Street at 75 km/h and Trin rides his motorbike down Bat Su Street at 60 km and the two streets intersect at right angles in the seating area of a bustling noodle shop, which seating area has spilled off the sidewalk and into the middle of the road; and there's an elderly woman with a giant wooden pole balanced across her shoulder - each end of the pole laden with bushels of bananas that must weigh more than the woman, who tips the scales at 40 kg, *maybe*, does herself - crossing the street, blithe as can be; and to top it all off Nguyen has his six-month-old baby perched on the handlebars of his cycle like ET... what will the body count be when the motorbikes collide?


Our guesthouse is located in the heart of the Old Quarter, the intricate circulatory system of alleys-masquerading-as-streets that comprises Hanoi's northeast corner. The Old Quarter is claustrophobic, tangled, and clandestine. Opposing stuccoed building fronts lean together conspiratorially and crop out the sky. Men, cigarettes hanging from their lower lips, wield screaming circular saws and blowtorches against sheets of aluminum siding inside workshops. Walnut-faced old women suspiciously guard sheaves of knock-off soccer jerseys hanging in dimly-lit store interiors. Gaggles of twenty-somethings squat at low plastic tables outside cafes and bicker and laugh over steaming bowls of Pho Ga and glasses of mysterious amber liquid, a congregation on every corner, thousands of lives unfurling in the falling dark like plants waiting for moths.

The streets of the Old Quarter aren't as congested as Bangkok's, but they're scarier. Bangkok has at least a facsimile of the familiar traffic-regulating infrastructure, but Hanoi is utter chaos: no stoplights, no stop signs, and consequently no stopping. Motorbikes reign supreme: their agility and slightness makes them perfect for narrow twisting streets. Bikes come from every direction; avoiding them is like trying to dodge hail. They burst out of alleys, roar down boulevards, peel along sidewalks with total impunity. Intersections are nightmarish games of Tetris - baroque patterns of motorbikes hurtling toward one another at speeds that should be impossible to attain on slim city streets - nobody should go this fast on a road that doesn't have the letter I at the start of its name - vrooming toward inevitable collision like charging armies.

You cover your eyes, wait for the explosion, and there's an unbelievable cacophony of horns (all drivers here have their horns permanently set to BLARE to announce their presence, as if we couldn't hear their engines from like twenty blocks out), but, weirdly, no shriek of twisted metal. You peep out from the slits between your fingers and, huh, where's the wreck? There is none. Somehow four surging bodies of motorbikes have passed through one another like braided rivers, sliding around and squeezing through, and all involved parties are shooting down the block toward the next near-fatality.

Okay, now you want to cross the street. But how? You can no more wait for a break in the flow of motorbikes than you can for a break in the waters of the Mekong River. Watch the woman with the bananas. What's her technique? Well, but that's crazy: she just plunges, no look before she leaps, simply plows across the street without a glance up, down, or sideways. She has, you guess, a blind faith in the skill of the riders, and/or supreme confidence in her own invincibility.

Or, no: the possibility of being struck never occurs to her, just as the possibility of getting T-boned never occurs to the American driver who motors through a green light at a four-way stop. Hanoi has its own method of controlling traffic, in lieu of lights or signs: that motorbikes will envelop but not touch streetcrossers, as though each pedestrian lived in the eye of her own personal hurricane, is indubitably codified, not written down but as rigid as Western rules of the road. The sanctity of the hurricane's eye is inviolable.

To enter a country is to abide by its laws. Step into traffic.


More from Hanoi to come. I think my camera was pick-pocketed (or, y'know, I might've just lost it), so no pictures, alas. I've been here eight days now; two to go before moving on to... Saigon? Laos? Time may or may not tell.

1 comment:

  1. dude this is rediculously well written. I like it. You should write a novel. Matty Mcgee