These were among the first words my wonderful Vietnamese tour leader Minh told me shortly after my flight touched down in Hanoi. “It is very busy with many motorbikes and almost no lights. You must walk slowly – VERY slowly – out into the street. Do not stop. Do not turn back. Do not run.” Minh said this with such sincerity and seriousness, I silently vowed to never cross a street in Vietnam.
My inner vow got stronger as I settled into the city around me. There are over 6.5 million people in Hanoi, and over 2 million motorbikes! Everywhere you look, there are motorbikes whizzing by in every direction. Often, there are entire families – and often several children – squished onto one motorbike, calmly and contentedly making their way to one destination or another. It looks fun.
“Ok, remember what I told you,” Minh tells my group. “Stay with me. Walk slowly. Do not run. Do not turn back.” He is trying to infuse us with bravery and confidence. Gulp. I take a step off the sidewalk. I walk slowly. I see several motorbikes making their way right towards me. I pretend to be brave and I follow Minh’s lead. As the motorbikes come closer, they slow down, and they move around me, with millimetres to spare. Before I know it, I have crossed the street. Elation!
As I spent more time in Hanoi, and other cities in Vietnam, I became somewhat of a pro at crossing the street. My fear evaporated as I realized that what appears to be chaos is actually very organized chaos. No one wants to hit a pedestrian or another motorbike. Drivers are very calm and attentive, and yield more often than not. You don’t hear raised voices and honking is simply used as a way to tell others you are there. There is no road rage that I ever saw.
In my final days with Minh, he gave my group a funny presentation to explain the differences between our culture and his. One of his examples stuck with me.
This appears to largely be the case – even on the very busy streets of Hanoi.