Hanoi – Death by a Hundred (Thousand) Scooters
Michael reports from the Bamboo Road cycling tour:
Saigon may be busier. Singapore may be cleaner. Hong Kong may be bigger. Kuala Lumpur may be more prosperous and Bangkok may be more popular but Hanoi takes the cake as the best city – the Grand Dame – of South East Asia.
Despite now being home to about 6 or 7 million people and seemingly the same number of motorbikes, the city, especially the centre, remains surprisingly easy to explore on foot. Of course you will have to first learn the basic moves to the Hanoi ‘traffic shuffle’ and get used to their being absolutely no rules on the road at all.
Once you conquer that, you are set. The traffic never moves very fast and as long as you keep moving slowly and steadily in one direction, you will be fine.
Next up are the sidewalks. This is where the locals park their motorbikes. There is even ‘sidewalk valet parking’ in the most popular areas. The rows of motorbikes leave a narrow path for you to follow but be warned that at certain times (especially at lunch hour and after dark) hundreds of plastic chairs will suddenly appear and fill up with hungry office workers. You may have to walk in the road at this point. It all makes for a very lively street scene.
What helps make the city so ‘cool’ is the incredible canopy of trees that covers the city, some 30,000 by the latest estimate, many over 100 years old. Figs, Sau, Bang Lang, Bohdi, Banyan and surprisingly Khaya senegalensis, which was brought by the French from West Africa populate the streets. Even in the busiest areas, huge trees rise up from the broken sidewalks, shading the population from the sun’s intense power. Additionally, they suck up at east some of the immense amount of pollution that the city’s traffic produces. And the local population loves them. Earlier this year city bureaucrats unveiled a plan to cut down about 20% of them, citing their age, disease and inappropriate aesthetics. A social media protest soon forced them to delay the plan ‘for further study.
Although the tree-cutting project seems to have been put on hold for now, the sheer number of motorbikes and scooters on the road shows no signs of diminishing anytime soon. A city that used to be thronged with bicycles when I last visited 13 years ago has now been completely given over to motorbikes. Occasionally one will spot a lone cyclist on the busy streets, usually a very old fruit seller or an ex-pat out for some exercise, but that is quite rare and even the local government seems to have accepted the rise of the motorbike and car. Public transit in the city is almost non-existent. And, unfortunately, studies have shown that motorbikes are actually producing more toxic pollutants than cars.
This triple threat – tree cutting, motorbike ownership & lack of public transit – may eventually lead to a much dimmer future for Hanoi, South East Asia’s great city.