Utter chaos as motorbikes swerve by inches from my taxi. Others bikes took to the curb, weaving between tourists to get through the jam, while several bikes zoomed by with their entire family piled on. My first hour on the streets of Hanoi was definitely eye-opening, and had me worrying about how I would it make through Vietnam without causing any road accidents.
I was lucky to meet other tourists at my guesthouse who showed me the ropes, and later as I pounded the pavements on my own, I was confident enough to make my way around safely.
Here are four simple things that will have you crossing roads like a savvy local:
Throw your expectations of normal traffic rules out the door and adapt to the Vietnamese way. The general basic rule that governs Vietnamese driving style is that the traffic rules you’re used to back home are but loosely regarded ‘guidelines’ in Vietnam. Traffic signals aren’t usually followed, and the size of your vehicle usually indicates how much respect you’re going to get on the road.
I was honestly surprised not to see more accidents in the time that I was there, but I soon realized that it’s because the Vietnamese have developed their own unique code when it comes to their road culture, and things went smootly as long as everyone was on the same page.
When you do decide to cross the road, don’t change your mind halfway. The Vietnam driving style, while seemingly chaotic, is actually a fairly friendly one that works by everyone giving way to each other. Find the gap between vehicles and make your move with deliberation; as long as they can see what you’re doing, the drivers will react accordingly.
Walking the streets and parting the sea of motorbikes like the red sea is one experience you’re never going to get anywhere else.
While the drivers usually make the effort to avoid you, you still have to keep both eyes peeled for any errant drivers who might have missed you. So always look both ways (yes, that goes for one-way streets as well), and even when you’re walking on the pavements, remember that sidewalks are often parking bays and sometimes alternative routes for motorbikes, so you still need to pay attention even when you have ‘right of way’.
I often wound up really tired at the end of each day, not so much from the actual walking, but from just being on high alert all the time!
Most importantly, don’t panic! You put yourself in further peril if you suddenly freeze up or change direction in the middle of a crowded street. My little tip: I hummed to myself to help stay calm in the face of a zillion motorbikes bearing down on me.
Or when in doubt, remember that there is safety in numbers – trail a savvy local closely, or find fellow tourists to make that move.
And don’t worry if you suck at it! I met two American ladies who told me about their first failed attempt to cross the road, which left them stranded by the roadside so long that a local finally took pity on them, seized their arms and hauled them across the road. (I’m glad I wasn’t that bad!)