For some cities, it’s the architecture or maybe it’s a university or possibly a major river and all of the associated commerce that goes with it. It may be that the city is a centre for industry and that the character of the city is born of that industry.
For other cities, it might be a little less obvious and may develop as a response to significant historical and/ or social events. There are, of course, no correct answers and the possibilities really are endless. As such, this leads to animated discussion and debate and, depending on whichever city you find yourself in, a potentially infinite number of theories and explanations for what makes any given city unique.
Hanoi is not an exception. Hanoi has a real character as you see bustling activity in every corner of the city, but for me nowhere is this more obvious than on the streets.
Hanoi traffic is such a prominent aspect of this city’s identity that it has earned its place on the T-Shirts of countless travellers and expats, not to mention a fearsome reputation abroad. Few people that come to Hanoi are unaware of the fact that the traffic here is not to be taken lightly and even fewer people leave without a few stories to tell.
Hanoi is a relatively small city in the grand scheme of things but it manages to cram a staggering amount of human activity into a very small space.
There are close to 7 million people here in Vietnam’s Capital which is less than 10% of the 90 million people living in this country. Despite this, Hanoi has such a wealth of personality and vitality that you could be forgiven for thinking that the whole country was packed into the labyrinth of alleys and lanes that intersect this city.
Buses and motorbikes drive side by side whilst enormous 4x4 cars venture precariously into alleyways so narrow that the drivers probably feel like they are performing open- heart surgery as they move forward inch by inch.
Of course walking is an option if you really don’t want to take your chances in the traffic, but walking around Hanoi is a bit like attempting an obstacle course.
You can try and stick to the sidewalks if you like but you will be competing for space with parked motorbikes and elderly women selling fruit or vegetables or 30 different brands of cigarettes or Bia Hanoi or iced tea or some other obscure merchandise.
There may also be small infernos to avoid as piles of counterfeit US dollars are burned as offerings to the ancestors.
The alternative to the sidewalks is the roads themselves but this puts you in direct competition for space with people carrying fully grown trees or a single family of 4 generations on a motorbike that seems to defy all laws of physics and mechanics.
All in all, walking around Hanoi is quite an undertaking and whilst it never fails to provide new and valuable insights into life here that will consistently baffle and amuse, it is far from being the most practical means of getting around.
No. Living in Hanoi for most of us is something that requires a motorbike. One of the first things you realise when you start riding a motorbike in Hanoi is that the traffic is not quite as chaotic as it seems. Once you are in the middle of the chaos, it seems a little more manageable.
What appeared to be unbridled chaos from the little patch of sidewalk you stole from a tiny woman selling tiny pineapples, now seems to be organised chaos. There is a level of intuitiveness to driving a motorbike in Hanoi that most people seem to reach quite quickly. Just stick to the right hand side, try not to crash into anyone or make any sudden manoeuvres and watch out for cars and buses. This is a common practice to keep oneself relatively safe.
Once you have started to become comfortable on the roads here and the crippling fear begins to subside, then you start to notice that the lifeblood of Hanoi is all around you.
Take a look to the left and you might find a mother strapped to her 3 children on the way to school. Take a look to the right and you might see a young man transporting hundreds of empty bottles in a pyramid of crates more than double his height. Look a little further and you might be surprised to see a Ferrari or a Rolls Royce or some other similarly luxurious car being driven at a painfully slow speed through an ocean of motorbikes. Look further still and you might see an elderly man cruising along casually on a Honda Super Cub with literally thousands of plastic bottles strapped precariously to the back.
Construction materials, windows, mirrors, live animals, water bottles, laundry, and furniture are but a few of the things you might see being carried on the backs of motorbikes. If you hadn’t seen it for yourself, you might well have thought that it would be impossible to transport such things on a motorbike. In Hanoi, however, this is all completely routine.
There is absolutely no doubt that there are easier ways of transporting large objects or groups of people, but most people in Vietnam don’t always have the luxury of choosing the most convenient method of doing things. If there is a job to be done, then it must be done and people will find a way to do it with whatever they have at their disposal. There is no time for excuses. As is true in so much of the world, ‘Time is money’.
The virtue of necessity is that the cramped streets and roads of Hanoi are an open observatory for the economic, social and cultural activity that make the city worth a try. The lack of space means that all sections of society have to share the same space. We all participate in making Hanoi what it is and nowhere is this participation more tangible than when you venture on to a busy road like Le Duan or Nguyen Thai Hoc and you see a huge crowd of Hanoians going about their business.
As Hanoi grows with a larger population it will bring more pressure to bear upon the infrastructure of the ancient city and will inevitably require creative and innovative solutions. For what it is worth when they are put in place, there is hope that the vibrancy and liveliness making the city so special will be everlasting.