Storytime: Hanoi and Counting

Thirty eight motorbikes, ten bicycles, seven cars. The light changes and traffic flows by in downtown Hanoi. Suzuki FX 125’s, Honda Dreams, Honda Waves. Chinese no-frill bicycles, taxis and cars with diplomatic license plates.

When I first came to Hanoi, eleven years ago, the bicycle reigned supreme. Motorbikes were a luxury and cost two years of hard labor. One evening, we heard a commotion in the courtyard we shared with fifty local families. A thief had attempted to steal a neighbor’s motorbike. He was pinned down, kicked and beaten until the policeman, who had been summoned to take him away, took pity on him and hauled him off to jail.

Behind me shimmers Hoan Kiem lake. The legendary giant turtle swims up from its murky depths and lumbers onto the grassy bank only once or twice a year. Whoever is lucky enough to see it will enjoy hanh phuc, good fortune. I was on my way to the post office several years ago when I saw people swarming excitedly toward the lake. I ran too, and there it was, purply green and enormous. In Vietnam, legends and life are often indistinguishable.

Fifty three motorbikes, nineteen bicycles, twelve cars and four taxis. The number of cars in Hanoi is increasing geometrically, although female automobile drivers are still rarer than snow during the monsoon.

Walk/don’t walk signs blink at most corners, but in Vietnam, their message is purely theoretical. Pedestrians are the lowest rung on the traffic ladder, and must weave through streams of speeding vehicles while constantly looking left and right – think of watching a live tennis match – to avoid being knocked down. It’s easy to identify a tourist in Hanoi: s/he’s the one pawing nervously at the curb. After awhile, you get the hang of it and it’s fun until whoops, you forget to look both ways and a motorbike driver snarls at you, or thuds into you, or both.

I celebrated my first day in Vietnam flat on my face in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). The overland crossing from Phnom Penh, Cambodia was a deadening eight hour trip by shared taxi on rutted roads. We were five people in the back seat, four in the front, of an ancient vehicle. The driver honked at everything that moved including bicycles and ducks, so the trip was basically one unending honk. Finally arriving at my hotel, I should have showered and gone to bed, but instead went outside, tried to cross the street and was promptly mowed down by a motorbike.

After regaining consciousness and checking for contact lenses and teeth, I noticed a worried looking man hovering. He’s the motorbike driver, I was told, you really should apologize to him. He could get in a lot of trouble for running over a tourist. I apologized, he gallantly forgave me and a tiny scar under my left eyebrow accompanied me for many years before disappearing under a convenient wrinkle.

Eighty motorbikes, ten bicycles, five cars and a lone cyclo. Cyclos, relics of French colonialism, once wound leisurely everywhere in Hanoi. Drivers pedaled away on their bicycles pushing attached carriages piled high with entire families, great bolts of silk and the marketing. When it rained, a sheet of plastic was tucked around the passengers to keep them dry and in the fierce midday sun, an accordion canopy was opened for shade. Cyclos were once king of the road, but the Hanoi authorities have decided they slow down traffic and are bad for the city’s modern image, so the downtown area is now off limits to them.

You can still find low-tech transport near the marketplaces. Cyclo drivers ring their bells, looking for business. A peddler walks his bicycle, which he has outfitted with display cases. Over the front wheel are hammers, pestles and knives. The back wheel displays rope, pins and ribbons. Market women, straining under 25 kilo baskets balanced from a pole across their shoulders, offer sugar cane and oranges. Another cyclo passes, twenty chicken heads peeping out of their bamboo cages.

A silver-haired orange seller points to her pyramid of fruit. Very sweet, she insists, and pushes an orange into my hand. No, I say, I really don’t need any oranges. No problem, she smiles, peering into my face. How old are you? Fifty. You look young, she says. Here, we’re old at fifty. Are you sure you don’t want to buy my oranges?     

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