Hanoi is a city of a million Honda Dreams. Forty years from now, when I visit the city in my sleep, I’ll still be hearing the thrum of these sturdy four-stroke motorbikes and wake up smelling exhaust.
Surveying the wide, leafy boulevards, you would never guess that the three million inhabitants of the capital all got around on bicycles until just five years ago. The streets are paved with Dreams, Vivas, Bonuses, Angels, Spaceys, Minsks, Super Cubs, Futures, Yamahas, and any number of Chinese cheapies with odd names like Hongda (hmm) and Romantic Horse. Each intersection resembles the entrance to a giant beehive, where heaps of quivering, 150cc insects must sort themselves out somehow if anyone’s to get anywhere.
Hanoi had its first stoplights installed two or three years ago, but to date there aren’t traffic laws so much as traffic suggestions. With no enforcement to fear whatsoever, perhaps 40 percent of all drivers sail right through red lights. A one-way street is, at best, a nice idea. As a result, you can actually gauge how long a tourist or resident has been here by the proportion of time they spend marveling at the volume, noise, chaos, speed, and density of motorbikes.
However, you can only be afraid to wade across the street for so long. It took me eight months, and I then began what felt like full participation in city life with the purchase of a 1997, blueberry-colored Piaggio scooter. Watching me stuff various items into the enormous hatch under the even more enormous padded black seat, a friend remarked, “It’s like a giant purse with wheels,” but I don’t care. After four years in Manhattan running up the stairs only to have the doors of the A-train slam shut in my face, the Piaggio is my blue heaven.
Today, I managed to haul myself out of my apartment, prop myself upright on the vehicle and plunge back into the traffic. After just two days in bed with the most-evil-flu-ever, I was already rusty. I had to remind myself to only scan every inch of street up to the next intersection, because if you survey the hypnotic undulations of an entire length of an avenue you’ll die of fright. Other than that, it was a typical ride to work. At one point I tried to contain my irritation at being nudged in the back by an impatient driver behind me, only to discover it was actually the hoof of a freshly butchered pig, slung over the back of a Minsk and heading for market.
After I straggled in to the office, much time was consumed by being told by co-workers that I was looking thin and terrible; I was not insulted, as this is a sign of concern in Vietnam and it certainly isn’t restricted to when you’ve been ill. It was lunchtime almost immediately, and the midday siesta is a serious endeavor at my newspaper. Noon until 2:00 p.m., no exceptions: The one time I tried to come back early to get a jump start on the afternoon I found a colleague sleeping across three office chairs lined up in front of my computer.
Back on the Piaggio, I had one of those ecstatic moments where I love living here so much it feels as if something wants to rip forth from my chest and fly away. It’s funny how often they come when I’m on the motorbike. Usually it’s skimming down a street under a green swag of ancient city trees late at night, the pavement lit only by the moon or one of those impressive Communist displays of pageantry (lights strung across wide boulevards, alternating hammer and sickle, giant yellow star, hammer and sickle, giant yellow star).
Today I was heading down Ly Thuong Kiet Street just late enough in the downtime that the streets were virtually empty, going fast enough that I seemed to be dodging the convection waves of heat shimmering all around. I stopped at an intersection, positioning my bike in one of the patches of shade daubing the street, as all drivers do here for good reason. And to my right, a stylish young Vietnamese man emerged from a house and made preparations to leave.
He finished his conversation on his slim, chic little mobile phone, checked the knot of his tie, and loaded his briefcase onto his flash silver Yamaha. Last, but not least, he ran back into the house and painstakingly bundled all 4 feet, 10 inches of a woman who must have been his grandma sidesaddle onto the back of the bike. There was a moment in the limpid, midday silence where they just smiled at each other. Then she adjusted her conical hat, crossed her legs, and the past and the future headed slowly off down Quang Trung Street in the direction of Lenin Park.
The light turned green. I went on, revving my tiny engine to catch up with another motorist a Dream’s-length in front of me who had never intended to stop for the red signal in the first place.