Really, I mean good morning… like wake up and smell the exhaust fumes. And if that doesn’t wake you up (or knock you out) the noise will because there are fifty thousand motorcycle and car horns blowing constantly!!
So, here I am in CRAZY Hanoi. Okay, forget what I said about Hong Kong. That city now looks like Kansas compared to Hanoi. If that was sensory overload, then this is sensory implosion. At least in Hong Kong there was some order and people still stopped at lights and crossed at crosswalks.
Here, horns are a constant—they love ‘em and use them. It’s like when we foolishly push the elevator button repeatedly as if that will make it come any faster. They beep here almost just for the sake of beeping. It’s so common and ingrained in the noisy fabric of society that I don’t think anyone here even hears it anymore and they certainly don’t get annoyed when someone beeps at them. In a way, it’s used much more, but much less aggressively than our honking back in the US. There, if you beeped as much as they do here, you’d rack up a good amount of dirty looks and one-digit hand gestures by the end of the day. Here, it’s really just to say “I’m behind you, move over a bit;” but the decibel level remains at a constant high.
I’ve never seen more scooters in my life—not Rome, not anywhere! It’s nuts. And coming from the airport, I think we hit one intersection with a traffic light—all the rest were just a free-for-all—proceed at your own risk. Someone recently told me something that has resonated with what I’ve seen on my tour so far: The world is divided in two—the countries where cars stop for pedestrians and the countries where pedestrians have to stop for cars. So true—and a good barometer for how most other things will be as well.
Vietnam’s Communist government opened the country up to foreign trade with the US just six years ago. And just this January they became members of the WTO (World Trade Organization). Now this tiny country, which is only slightly larger than the US state of New Mexico, is Asia’s fastest growing economy after the powerhouse of “Big Red,” China. The new competition has driven prices down… so in turn the poor working class can now afford all these motorcycles. And it won’t be much longer until they start trading up for more automobiles—an urban planner’s nightmare on the already clogged, tiny and exhaust hazed streets of Hanoi.
My most frequent mode of transport during my travels so far has been walking. Even that is a bit difficult and unnerving in this town. The sidewalks are barely there or non-existent. Most shops spill out into the street overtaking the sidewalk or they are completely covered by the aforementioned motorcycles. The sidewalks are more like unofficial scooter parking lots and pedestrians spill onto the street with the rest of the constant and frenetic motion.
But it’s not all bad here, its saving grace is that it was a French Colony for about sixty years—so amidst the hustle and bustle are some grand French boulevards and tree lined walkways. French rule ended with the Franco-Viet Minh war in the 1950s when French forces surrendered in the northwest town of Dien Bien Phu. The only reason I’ve heard of this city is thanks to Billy Joel’s we didn’t start the fire! (“Dien Bien Phu falls, rock around the clock, Einstein, James Dean, Brooklyn’s got a winning team…”)
I may get used to it, but I don’t love it so far. I was already a victim of an attempted scam. Many travelers I met and things I read warned me that here everyone sees Westerners and dollar signs appear in their eyes like an old Bugs Bunny cartoon. So everyone is trying to sell you something you need and make as much off you that they can. It’s a pain to be on your guard all the time. In my few short hours here, I’ve already been propositioned by about ten moped taxis, a girl selling travel books (they are copies of the originals) out of a box, a fruit lady, and other random hawkers. Now, of course, in Hong Kong there were the tailor guys trying to sell you suits, but they took ‘no’ for an answer. Here they follow you down the street after you’ve already said “no thanks” several times and then unfortunately you have to get ‘not nice’ with them which doesn’t make anyone feel good.
Plus the money? It’s 16,000 Dong to $1! That’s too much math work for my tired brain and too many bills in my pocket! But it does make me have to say one thing: “What’s happenin’ hot stuff?” For those of you who grew up in the 80s, I have no doubt you know what movie Long Duck Dong is from.