Posted by: sharemore1 | March 11, 2014

Hanoi Traffic: Frightening and Fascinating

What I hate most about living in Hanoi is the traffic.  It’s noisy, polluting and often terrifying, whether you are on foot or in a vehicle.

What I love most about living in Hanoi is the traffic.  The city’s four million motorbikes create a captivating show as they transport everything from washing machines to a family of five.

Family Station Wagon

Family Station Wagon

How can I simultaneously hold such contradictory views?

Let’s start with the hate part.  It took me years to learn to cross the street in Hanoi without heart palpitations.  There are few stoplights and crosswalks are ignored.  The only way to get to the other side is to wade into the stream of traffic and let it flow around you.  This New York Times video demonstrates the challenges: <>

Eventually I learned to walk slowly and predictably, so the drivers could move around me.  It is essential to keep going forward and never stop or turn around.   A tourist was killed when she suddenly remembered she had left her purse in the hotel and went back to retrieve it.

Sitting on the back of a motorbike doesn’t feel much safer.  During rush hour I don’t casually ride sidesaddle in short skirts and high heels like many Vietnamese women; rather, I cling tightly as the driver maneuvers between cars, trucks and buses, hops onto the sidewalk or goes against traffic to avoid clogged streets.

Sharon in Traffic

Sharon in Traffic

Even traveling in a car can be dangerous.  At intersections with no traffic lights, cars move in all directions at once, weaving around each other as they get to the other side.  Making a u-turn in front of oncoming traffic is a common maneuver, one I can only tolerate with my eyes shut.

Once I felt the thud as our taxi hit a motorbike that was squeezed between us and another vehicle. I was relieved when the driver picked himself up and drove off.

Drivers slowly thread their way through tangled traffic by anticipating what the other drivers will do and signaling them with a horn.  The beeps from motorbikes, blares from cars and baritone blasts from trucks create a discordant symphony.

The heavy traffic helps make Hanoi one of the most polluted cities in the world.  Drivers often wear facemasks to filter out the exhaust.  “Are they all dentists?” my four-year-old granddaughter wondered when she came to visit.  These masks have not prevented an increase in pulmonary disease and asthma, which researchers at the Hanoi University of Medicine attribute to air pollution.

Now that I’ve made my case for the danger, noise and pollution caused by Vietnamese traffic, what’s to love about it?

Egg Delivery

Egg Delivery

For me, the traffic is an endless source of entertainment.  I sometimes get up early just to watch the daily deliveries.  I’ve stared in wonder at motorbikes carrying 1,000 fresh eggs piled high in open flats or two squealing hogs in a crate surrounded by bulging bags and bundles of animal feed.

I’ve walked cautiously around a bicycle transporting five hives of angry bees in homemade containers that looked like mesh screens stitched onto pieces of tarp.

Bees on a Bike

Bees on a Bike

Near our apartment is a row of small furniture shops where I can watch men load furniture twice as high or twice as long as the bike that will deliver them to their destination.

Moving Van

Moving Van

In the Bat Trang pottery village, I looked on with trepidation as a man balanced four expensive five-foot tall vases on his bike, two on each side.


Delicate Cargo

The pottery seller in our neighborhood loads her bicycle with fragile cups, teapots, vases and bowls that she hawks from the mobile shop she pushes up and down the street.

Bicycle Load of Pottery_3375

Portable Pottery Shop

Sometimes bikes are so heavily laden that it can be difficult to see either the vehicle or the driver.

Where's the Motorbike?

Find the Bike

Ever have trouble bringing home that perfect Christmas tree?  Think about transporting a live tree full of tiny oranges for the Tet holiday.  As usual, the trick is to hoist it on the back of the motorbike and balance carefully.

Bringing Home the Tree

Bringing Home the Tree

Watching traffic in Hanoi feels like being a spectator at the Indianapolis 500.  You admire the skill of the drivers but fear that at any moment they will crash into each other.   Accidents do happen.  I’ve heard about, but never seen, a deliveryman tip over with a tower of eggs that went splat on the road.

Once I sat at a sidewalk café as a young man drove by with six crates of beer.  As he turned a corner he toppled over, scattering the bottles.  I’ve heard about bystanders rushing in and snatching the beer, leaving the poor driver responsible to pay for the missing load.  Fortunately, this time two men helped the driver return the bottles to the crates and attach them more securely.

Accidents Do Happen

Accidents Do Happen

Observing the Vietnamese negotiate traffic helps me understand how they meet other challenges in life.  The way may be difficult, but somehow they manage.  They maneuver around obstacles, moving a little to the left, a little to the right until they find an opening to squeeze through, doing this again and again until they reach their goal.

Most people in the United States would find that journey impossible, but somehow the Vietnamese manage, with good humor and without complaining.  It’s a show I watch in awe.

[We are back in the U.S. now and these posts are based on our recent visits to Viet Nam.]


  1. I love Lilly’s thought about the dentists!

    And the thought of you slipping into your short skirt and high heels once you are safely off the bike is pretty humorous, too. =:)


    • I updated the post this morning with a picture of me on a motorbike (in long pants of course).

  2. Reframing the nature of the beast makes it not only bearable.but entertaining. Good for you.

  3. Such an enjoyable reading. I really like the way you described everything so lively, so true. And it’s also good to know that you enjoyed the traffic here, well, somehow. I really like reading that part, a new positive point of view about something traditionally horrible. Almost everyone, even the Vietnamese, we only can see/feel the bad part about traffic in Vietnam.

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