How A Chicken Gets Across The Road
By Carol L. Bowman
My heart pounded. I struggled for the courage to cross like a local. Stepping from the curb, I focused on the opposite side and walked and prayed and kept walking, waiting to hear the crunch of metal meeting bone. The trick—never look to your right or left, because the sight of oncoming traffic bearing down upon you contradicts everything your mother ever told you. I concentrated on the day’s events to block out the mushrooming fear.
The travel brochure I picked up at Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport scared the hell out of me. It identified in bold print the number one tip for surviving Vietnamese cities—How to Cross the Street and Live to Tell about It.
INSTRUCTIONS for CROSSING the ROAD: Step from the curb, walk slowly and deliberately at a steady pace. Never stop moving. Never retreat. Make no jerky movements. Don’t run. Raise your hand lower than your shoulder to signal that you are advancing.
The reason for the alarm remained a mystery, but reading between the lines: If you’re feeling vulnerable, if your legs are wobbly or if you’re just chicken, enjoy your vacation from the sidewalk. If you want to explore, wear a good luck charm, hang on to it for dear life and go.
The airport cab zipped us along to Hanoi, this country’s ancient capital. Bucolic scenes in adjacent fields unfolded as cone-shaped hats atop Asian pajamas bobbed up and down in a sea of green rice stalks, while trusted water buffalo waited for duty.
What’s the problem with crossing the street? This looks easy, compared to the Hong Kong traffic we just left, I thought. As we neared the city’s fringe, the serenity vanished, replaced by a nightmare of swarming vehicles. Motorbikes, mopeds, motorcycles, two-wheeled contraptions of every cc and size emerged from everywhere. Some even traveled opposite to the flow. The mayhem didn’t faze our driver, but the staggering buzz of motor-bees triggered my ‘chicken’ instincts. I pulled out those instructions to reread them before the test.
A 125cc Honda, carrying a family of four, hugging tightly with flip-flops dangling from their feet, overtook the taxi and darted directly across its path. Brakes squealed, whitened knuckles dug into the armrest. At this point, crossing the street seemed irrelevant; making it to the hotel alive took precedence. Motorbikes ruled the road. Traffic regulations didn’t exist or went ignored. Welcome to Viet Nam.
The taxi veered onto a narrow street in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. The mental impact of thousands of motorbikes coming straight at us seared an image like the imprint of a branding iron. Men, women, teenagers, business suits, high heels, and funky outfits made up this ‘motor madness.’ Covered from head to toe, only the riders’ eyes peered out above cloth face masks and under newly required helmets, which they call ‘rice-cookers.’ I asked the driver why the riders had every inch of body concealed. “To protect from the sun; they think, the whiter their skin, the better,” he said.
On the frenzied route to the hotel, I saw no traffic lights. No stop and go, no slowing, just bikes carrying people and cargo, avoiding obstacles in constant near-miss collisions. Innovative Vietnamese have turned these cheap, easily maintained modes of transportation into delivery vans, mobile businesses or open-air taxis.
Bikes whizzed by loaded down. One had 30 bird cages, each with its own live bird, in a six-foot high tower that encased the driver, leaving only his face and arms visible; a woman with a washing machine strapped to her seat; a young girl, sandwiched between a huge computer box in front of her and a desk, chair and shelves secured to the rear; a fisherman with live fish sloshing about in plastic containers fastened to his scooter.
Viet Nam has an estimated population of 89 million and 37 million registered motorbikes. Elders, using rusty, worn-out bicycles must share precious road space with the motorized ones. Just then, a moped crashed into an old woman peddling her overloaded push bike, sending her and mounds of radishes to the street. No one helped to upright her transport and wares. There is no stopping.
The number of motorbikes had tripled for a Saturday night of bike cruising in Hanoi. It would take three street crossings to reach the restaurant. ‘Chicken queasiness’ stirred. The city sizzled, its excitement brewed contagion. Smells of crayfish hissing in garlic, herbed oil, slick night-market vendors offering knock-offs, and the zoom-zoom of Scooterville electrified me to ‘take the road test.’
After that first frightful scurry, I pretended to be blind for street-crossing. I just went—in Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An, DaNang and the grand prix of all motorbike cities, crazy Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City. Here five million bikers turn wide boulevards into chasms of fear. Riders drive on the sidewalks, through the central market and straight into shops. Here, chickens become breakfast—Vietnamese Pho Bo soup.