I’ve lived many places, including New York City, Addis Ababa, Manzini (Swaziland) and Toronto. So I’m no chump when it comes to handling the changes an aggressive urban environment can toss my way.
But Hanoi, my home for the past two months, really threw me for a loop. It wasn’t the hot, sticky weather or language-learning curve that got to me. Waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, the nightmare that plagued me continually was…. how do I get across the street?
The Scary Streets of Hanoi
For the first week I barely left my apartment, other than to jump in a cab. The Niagara Falls like torrent of traffic was terrifying. In this city of 9.3 million, almost everyone owns a motorbike. There are also millions of buses, cars, trucks and other vehicles crowding the streets. No big deal, just go to the cross walk or the traffic lights, right?
In my section of town neither exist. What Hanoi does have are five-way intersections where motorbikes blithely go the wrong way and drivers perpetually stomp pedal to the metal. Cabs are relatively expensive on an NGO worker’s budget, so I had no choice but to start taking the bus. Unfortunately, the stop was across the street.
At first a colleague kindly offered to shepherd me to the stop. I clung to her and closed my eyes as hundreds of cars and motorbikes zipped past, missing me by a hair. Then one day she didn’t show up. I was stuck and I had to do it on my own. I took a deep breath and said a little prayer.
Heart beating frantically, I stepped out into the relentless flow of traffic. And froze, causing a phalanx of motorbikes to nearly collide before speeding off angrily. I quickly stepped back to the curb and stood there wondering what to do. Finally, an elderly Vietnamese man plunged recklessly into the traffic on foot and I shadowed him. Trying to look only at my feet since my deer-in-head-lights reaction would most certainly cause a 50-car/bike pileup this time. Once the old man had reached the other curb, I finally raised my eyes again. By some miracle, I had made it safely to the other side.
From then on, each day before work, I would stand around waiting for ladies on bicycles, tottering grandmothers, grandfathers or even little kids to attach myself to. Eventually I got brave enough to do it on my own. My strategy was to avoid lumbering buses that have trouble stopping. I waited until all the cars had passed. When it was only motorbikes, I took a small step off the curb. Let them see me, then another small step, giving them time to swerve slightly to the right or left. The key was to keep a steady pace. Never slow down and never speed up. Slow and steady wins the race. Something very important for me was avoiding eye contact after that first look. DO NOT FREEZE. I kept telling myself, ‘They do not want to hit me.’
Crossing the Road in Hanoi? No Problem
Two months in now, I can easily cross the street. I know now that honking horns do not mean someone is angry at me, just that they are behind me and don’t want to collide. I’ve learned from the grannies to wave my arm at the drivers to tell them I’m coming through.
Confident now, and easily able to get to that bus stop, I’m still not complacent. I say a little prayer every time I get there safely. If you had asked me before I left Canada, what would your biggest learning curve be? I never would have guessed it would have been crossing the street.