What the “Beep”?

22 Jul

or, Musings on Hanoi Traffic

This post is rated (NA) and is considered unsuitable for my Nana. It contains motorcycles and traffic themes that may concern her.

There comes a time for every Hanoian expat who is pretentious enough to maintain a blog, when they must turn their attention to the subject of traffic. As I approach my three-month milestone here and with fewer and fewer semi-original things to say, I’ve decided to put my two thousand đồng in on the matter.

First though, an admission: in Australia I am an ideological road-rules stickler. If I see a motorist fail to indicate as he or she enters a roundabout I am likely to descend into a furious private monologue in which I castigate the offender as a philistine, hell-bent upon the destruction of civilisation. Any passenger unlucky enough to share the car with me at this time may then be subjected to a sermon on the importance of law, communication and reciprocal trust as the foundations for a peaceful and just society, with the implication that failing to indicate represents a first step down the slippery slope into total anarchy.

I know, I know, they probably just forgot.

Anyway, given such predilections, you can probably imagine that I struggled initially in Hanoi to cope with a road environment in which law, communication and reciprocal trust seem, at first glance, to be entirely lacking. But when you’re operating in a world where lane-markings and pedestrian crossings are, as aptly described by a local friend, “just for decoration”, you either adapt or stay off the road.

And so, when I came to the realisation that my travels in this city were going to be too hot, far-flung, and generally suicidal for cycling, too frequent and rambling for buses, and far too expensive  and spontaneous for taxis, there was only one choice: get on a motorbike and join the throng.

Would you share a ride with this man? No, you wouldn't.

Now, to begin with, I opted to get on the motorcycles of others, namely those of xe ôms (motorcycle taxis / the drivers thereof), but after one or two journeys which involved unexpected detours down crowded pavements, over hazard-strewn construction sites, and through blatant red lights, all tinged with the faint smell of rice wine, I decided that it was probably wiser to take my life into my own hands. After a perfunctory late-night practice session, I fumbled my way through the purchase of a second-hand 125cc Honda Future Neo and immediately careened off into the murky sunset.

It so happened that my maiden journey was to take me down La Thanh street in peak hour traffic. This, in retrospect, was probably a mistake. Anyone who has lived in Hanoi will tell you that La Thanh street is generally considered to boast the worst peak-hour traffic of any stretch of road, street, alley or lane in the city.

Imagine a narrow, pot-holed hell, two kilometres long and one-and-a-half lanes wide, populated by a thousand motorcycles, a hundred cars, and a few dozen hapless buses and trucks crawling along in both directions. Imagine choking exhaust fumes, a cacophony of ineffectual beeping, and a rate of travel that alternates between tectonic and trundling. Finally, imagine that this street is flanked on both sides by bia hơis (beer houses), small children at play, and metal workshops that spill hot welding sparks and newly formed girders into the street. You still cannot imagine La Thanh during peak hour.

La Thanh Street in quieter, more peaceful times.

Yet subjecting yourself to this particular acid test teaches you much of what you need to know about surviving Hanoi’s traffic. You learn very quickly that lanes, red lights and right-of-way are abstract concepts that should be treated with much scepticism. You learn that motorcycles are not like cars that can be driven in stately procession, one after the other, but more like schooling fish that swim as one against the flow, and scatter at the sight of a predatory, oncoming bus.

You also gradually learn about the subtle language of beeping.

The beeping of horns is a constant, syncopated rhythm in the soundtrack of Hanoi and can seem like so much meaningless, aggravating, high-pitched static until you begin to recognise its value. Such an appreciation does not come easily. In Australia a car horn is most often beeped in anger; perhaps at some idiot texting when the green light hits, or at a petrified learner driver or elderly lady mystified by a roundabout. It is difficult to break that instinctive association between honking and road rage.

But in Hanoi beeping generally means something quite different to an outburst of impatience or angst. I’ve come to think of beeps as a courtesy. When operating without reliable road rules, rear-view mirrors or indicators, the excrutiating “meep meep” of a motorbike as it sails through your blindspot should be welcomed. Essentially, what that considerate fellow motorist is trying to say is “Look out! Look out! Here I am! I’m behind you! I’m beside you! I’m pulling blindly out of an intersection in front of you!”. This well-meaning clamour is far kinder to the nerves than the sudden “vooooOOOOM” of an unannounced speed demon as he hurtles past within an inch of your left handlebar.

That said, when a hundred over-considerate honkers announce their presence as they zoot past your bedroom window at 6am, you can be forgiven for cursing their caution. And when a bus or truck decides to signal its already well-established location and road privileges by blasting you off your bike with its shockwave air-horns, it’s difficult not to feel aggrieved. And when over-zealous women on Vespas “TOOT TOOT” you, the innocent pedestrian in their general vicinity, just in case you should absent-mindedly veer into the street and throw yourself under their wheels for lack of warning, it is possible to forget the subtle charms of beeping.

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4 Responses to “What the “Beep”?”

  1. Dave July 22, 2011 at 5:48 pm #

    Another great post Mike! However, can you at least put some pants and shoes on if you are going to be careening through the streets of Hanoi on a death-cycle? 🙂

  2. Rose July 28, 2011 at 5:03 pm #

    Hey Mike, it’s Hai. u know what? I really like your posts and enjoy them actually:D keep your curious eyes to explore and suprise me with new awesome posts 😉

  3. 2012Weymouth - Paul (@2012Weymouth) September 14, 2011 at 2:04 pm #

    Great Blog Mike, Really interesting and very well written, can’t wait to visit Hanoi in February 2012

    • Mike Pope December 21, 2011 at 3:27 pm #

      Thanks for the compliments Paul. Enjoy visiting Hanoi and maybe check out my latest post on tips for living there.

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