When visiting the Old Quarter area of Hanoi, Vietnam, you will need to navigate the busy city traffic. That could be a unique experience in itself, especially for visitors who come from lower density places or where there is strict traffic rules to adhere to.
There are several things to notice from the traffic in this area of Hanoi. First, the area seems to be quite busy at all times; you have cars, motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrians continuously moving around you. Second, people generally follow the traffic signs and things move in orderly manner. However, it doesn’t take long until you realize that in some places you will need some courage and a little ‘know how’ to get to places where you want to go, as otherwise you would have to wait for a long, long time (or take a very long detour) to get to your destination.
We came across such situation at one spot near the northern part of the Hoan Kiem Lake. We needed to cross the street, and it was a 5-6 lane, one-street, and there wasn’t really any good place to cross the street. So what to do? We saw what other pedestrians did, and then mustered up some courage to do the same… jay walking. In many other countries around the world, this could get you in a lot of trouble as it’s breaking the traffic laws. In Hanoi, however, it didn’t seem to be the case. In fact there were some places where you see what looked like pedestrian crossings, but there were no traffic lights or stop signs that tell the incoming traffic to stop when there is pedestrian crossing the street. I learned that the way you cross the street whether at the place marked as pedestrian crossing or else where is by keeping alert of the incoming traffic, and slowly but steadily move across the street. Incoming cars and motorcycles will see you in the middle of the street crossing, and they will not stop and just go around you. The key is not to make sudden, unpredictable movement that could cause the incoming traffic to misjudge your placement and not having enough time to react.
If you dare enough to be on the other side and either drive a car or ride a motorcycle in this environment, the rule is essentially similar. You want to follow the traffic signs wherever possible, but at all times you need to be alert of what’s going on around you — other motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists, etc. — and be ready to slow down to avoid accidents. In most cases, given the high density of the traffic, you are moving at very slow speed anyway, so it’s easier to control your movement and even if there was accident, it’s less likely to be a fatal one. I learned this from going back to my hometown, Jakarta, Indonesia, and having to drive a car there. In a way it was similar to Hanoi; there were traffic regulations to follow, but more importantly, you need to be alert of what’s going on around you.
The photo below was taken as we walked around the Old Quarter. Here is an intersection with pedestrian crossing. Unlike in the United States where there is a clear 4-way stop and everyone takes turn and follow the convention called the ‘right of way’, in Hanoi it’s not as orderly, and you pretty much keep moving slowly across the intersection and be alert to not hit anyone coming from another direction (notice in this photo a motorcycle swerving a little bit to the right when crossing the road because there is traffic coming from the left side).