Having spent the last eightish years living in New York, I’d foolishly thought I had a handle on navigating crowded, noisy streets. But that was before I got to Hanoi. The only thing louder than the din of scooter horns is the sound of my nerves shattering every time I step outside.
Like everyone with even a passing knowledge of Hanoi, I was aware that the city is defined primarily by its pulsing rivers of scooter traffic. “Big deal,” I thought. It’s not like I’m some asthmatic field mouse fresh off the Greyhound from Davenport. I live in New York City! New York, where a cab will mow you down on your bike then yell at you for smudging its tires with your blood. New York, where a hit-and-run is barely considered a traffic offense. Bring it on Hanoi, I thought.
Well. Hanoi did bring it. In my three days here, I’ve adopted something of a routine whenever I decide to leave the house, which has been every day so far. Here it is:
Step One: The Exit
Like many Hanoi apartments, ours is located in the interior of a dense block of buildings, accessible only by an unlit alley that is the exact same shade of pitch black at every hour of the day and night. Once I’ve locked the door, I leapfrog over a herd of scooters, blissfully asleep in their courtyard lair. Fact: Scooters are at their finest when they’re asleep, or dead. I then stagger blindly down the blackened alley, groping toward the speck of light coming from the street, and hoping I don’t step on a rat or snake or worse. Sometimes, a man crouches in the alley pouring water from a bucket into another bucket. “Excuse me,” I say. He does not answer, and I step over him, apologizing to his hunched form in the darkness in a language he does not appear understand.
Step Two: Contemplation
Now that I have emerged from the alley, I stand on the street, blinking into the gray light and wondering if I have made a mistake. As my eyes readjust to the outside, my ears, sensitive from several moments in the darkness, are assaulted by the only sound they will hear today: scooter horns. For whom do the horns beep? Each other, yes, and the occasional car or doughnut hawker. But mostly, they beep for themselves. They beep and beep and beep, happy to be alive, happy to be beeping. I wish they would all die.
Step Three: Into the Abyss
At this point, several minutes or days have passed since I first stepped outside. But I didn’t leave my quiet apartment to stand blinking outside while a stampede of scooters threatens to crush my toes for nothing. I’ve emerged for coffee, which in Vietnam comes iced and with a heavenly layer of condensed milk. I would take a scooter to the chest for this coffee—three scooters to the chest, if it came down to it. And if we’re being honest, it probably will.
Step Four: “Walking”
I’m told that the best way to walk in Hanoi is slowly and consistently, as though you’re approaching a timid cat. I’m told the scooters will flow around you as long as you walk in this very specific way; that in crossing the street boldly and with an ocean of internal calm, you can stand up to the scooters and earn their respect.
That may be true. I wouldn’t know. Instead, I wait until I think I see a break in the scooters, then dart erratically into the road. When an unseen scooter inevitably whips around the corner or descends from the sky, I freeze, bug-eyed and terrified, upsetting the delicate scooter dance and thus nearly getting hit. (Of course, this crazed dashing is rewarded with a thunderstorm of beeps.)
An anecdote: On our first day here, we saw a dead-eyed tourist staggering down the road, enormous scrapes etched onto her face and limbs. She, I know, tangled with the scooter gods, and she lost. I feel confident my day will come.
Step Five: Arrival
By the time I’ve arrived at my destination, my hands are clammy and my heart is pounding in my ears. I throw myself on to a tiny plastic stool and beg for coffee, which I raise shakily to my lips. I swallow hard and try to clear my mind of the horrors of the past 15 minutes, reveling in the safety of the indoors. Outside, the scooters beep, hungry for their next victim. I pray, as we all do, that they never learn to open doors.