Hanoi has a distinct traffic personality travelers should understand - and respect.
Noting a few rules, ranging from matter-of-fact to tongue-in-cheek, may help visitors navigate their way through streets where traffic is fast-paced and leaves little margin for error.Rule one: Let somebody else drive.
I know that may be a bit of an insult to those of you who can parallel park on a hill in a stick-shift while chewing gum, but this is different.
Rule two: If you choose to ignore the first rule, you should note the address of area hospitals before starting your motoring adventure.
Only two of the six Americans I spent time with in Hanoi drove on their own. One of the two was still recovering after tumbling her motorbike into a curb. The other found out what it's like to experience a rice paddy from an upside-down four-wheel drive. I personally escorted the second through a Hanoi hospital where the concept of a post-trauma checkup for the sake of the insurance company was as foreign to the doctors as she was.
Rule three: "Honk and merge" is the operative theme in traffic.
Right-of-way is determined mostly by the size of the vehicle and the pitch and volume of its horn. Bicycles and small motorbikes make up the bulk of the traffic on Hanoi's busy and crowded streets. There are also a number of three-wheeled pedal cabs called "cyclos," a few cars, some old Soviet-built army jeeps and occasional larger trucks.
You have a right to any spot on the road as long as you make your intentions known. For example, if you want to turn left at an intersection, you honk and fade left into oncoming traffic so it gradually starts passing on your right instead of your left. Then turn the corner and start working your way, again through oncoming traffic, back to the right side of the road.
Bicycles earn their right-of-way by their sheer numbers. Friends often hold hands while riding two-astride. I'm not sure if this gives them more clout than bicyclists riding alone, but they create a sort of "red rover" barrier oncoming vehicles must either split or go around.
Bicycles and cyclos are often equipped with bells, in case they manage to get up enough speed to pass something else on the road.
Motorbikes are everywhere. They would probably take over the sidewalks if small tables and vending stands hadn't done so already.
The small motorbike is equipped with a correspondingly small horn. A "beep beep" lets you know there's a motorbike on your tail or headed toward you in an intersection - or is coming toward you head-on and wants to make sure you get out of the way. The sound of motorbike horns fills every street in Hanoi. It would be my guess that a motorbike driver would rather chance losing his brakes than his horn.
I had a driver one day who was a three-beeper. Beep, beep beep. Beep beep beep. It was almost a trademark. It made me wonder how many drivers had distinguishing horn techniques.
Taxis have only recently joined the few cars on the streets. They may be the nicest fleet of taxis anywhere since none of the cars - all Toyotas - are old enough to become run down. A cyclo ride will cost the equivalent of 50 cents to ride a mile or so. The taxi meter, calculating your fare in dollars, can cost 10 times as much for equivalent distances across town.
Cars are bigger than motorbikes, and so are their horns. When a car is approaching you get a "honk honk" instead of a "beep beep."
Trucks, most of them older, have proportionately larger and louder horns. But they are also equipped with devices that were probably mufflers at one time. If you haven't heard the engine noise before the horn snorts, chances are it's too late.
Rule four: Understanding the horns is important because they are a companion to the right-of-way rule involving eye contact.
Since horns constantly honk in all directions, drivers confirm their intentions by making eye contact with the person whose spot on the road they want to occupy.
Rule five: Any street can be a one-way street if the will and mind of the collective traffic so designates.
That situation can change at any time. Some streets are designated for one-way traffic, but the worst assumption a person can make, especially a pedestrian crossing the street, is that all of the traffic will be coming from one direction.
In similar fashion, a few intersections are equipped with traffic lights that are obeyed most of the time. But don't bet your life on it.