To be in traffic in Hanoi is to be a liquid — a drop of water in an endless current, sluicing from one intersection to the next, your position and shape ever changing depending on the surroundings, like beads of humidity on the inside of a windscreen. There’s something almost balletic about it, if you can imagine one on a stage that is too small and crammed with far too many dancers. To the uncharitable it is a chaotic mess, a cacophony of idle motors, abrupt braking and endless, endless beeping. But to a willing participant it can be seen as something else: a surprisingly coordinated and cooperative act of organic movement, capable of moments of selflessness, patience, and a strange, haphazard beauty.
It is too hot and my shirt is already soaked through and I have forgotten my face mask so it stinks. I am sitting in the middle of a cluster of bikes squatting together as the timer on the lights drops down into single digits. To my left is an office worker, immaculately dressed except for the fact that his socks aren’t matching, a fact only visible when his magnificently shiny pants ride up his legs as he balances his bike at the intersection. To my right is a young punkish speed jockey, whose helmetless head shows off his admittedly badass mohawk. I have seven minutes to get to the class I am supposed to be teaching. I will be late.
The lights change, but by that point we are already off. Hanoi’s traffic is keenly aware of the delay between signals. My bike groans as I start off in fourth, having forgotten to change down while stationary, and I am quickly engulfed by the legions of fellow riders eager to get where they are going as fast as humanly possible. A thick, pervasive air of impatience cloys the street atmosphere as much as the humidity. Train crossings provide apt venues for performances of such restlessness: riders desperate for a rolling start begin moving before the train has even finished crossing, the barrier arms still firmly horizontal, and the workers manning the crossing are forced to hurriedly pull the arms upright, in order to avoid causing the kinds of pile-ups it is their job to prevent.
Several moments and one sharply veered right turn later and I am flying through a long-term roadside car park, dodging the clogged intersection up ahead. That same traffic I sidestepped now runs interference as I come out onto the surreally deserted road downstream. Further along, a car’s horn cascades caution as I sneak in front of and melt back into the stream of vehicles heading towards my destination. Ahead, a scooter whose owner seems to be testing the limits of its polystyrene-carrying capabilities attempts to maneuver around a staunchly positioned Audi. Just as he seems in the clear, a wayward piece of foam catches a wing-mirror and breaks off, exploding into a sea of white balls as it is consumed by trailing wheels. No-one else seems to notice.
There’s a point, if you decide to submit to risky practicality and take the handles of a bike in Hanoi, where you simply let go. For the first couple of weeks you’d be forgiven for basically having a heart attack every few corners, it’s so insane and terrifying. You may also feel like another typically arrogant expat by deciding to drive unlicensed (bureaucracy makes this choice all but inevitable) and therefore uninsured on what are surely some of the most dangerous streets on the planet. But somewhere around your 43rd near-miss or almost-accident, a kind of serenity descends upon you, as you realize that thinking too much about what you’re doing will only make it worse.
It’s equally challenging simply to cross Hanoi’s streets on foot. If you stop and attempt to calculate the merits and rationality of walking directly into the never-ending stream of oncoming traffic, you’re far more likely to freak out and get run over. Instead, it’s best to just step out, confident but watchful, and gradually make your way through the maelstrom of steel, smog, and rubber.
Managing to do so without causing a fuss and/or accident means you’ve achieved a pass mark in the first of Hanoi’s mettle-proving tests, of which there are a seemingly endless number. These small victories become badges of honor for expats, with others awarded for more complex tasks like successfully managing to order a pomelo (bứởi) rather than a penis (buồi) at the market, or redirecting the taxi driver because you realize that he’s going the long way on purpose.
Ostensibly, these marks of experience show hard-to-please locals that you aren’t a total tourist, that yes, you actually live here, that you aren’t a total Tây. But really they are for ourselves, for each other, shorthand for Look! Here I am, authentic, integrated expat. Hanoians ignore these displays not because they are rude, or distrusting of foreigners — far from it. You’ll likely never experience such genuine expressions of joy at the mere fact of your existence as when you walk past a group of Vietnamese schoolchildren and receive their choruses of gleeful HellohowareyouI’mfinethankyous. Scooter shop owners will afford you huge amounts of trust, allowing you to test-ride a bike in the chaos of the Old Quarter, without first requiring a deposit. Tired bia hoi waitresses will keep their stalls open later than usual to allow you to order an extra beer or two after work. The reason that Hanoians don’t acknowledge these desperately thrusted exhibitions of legitimacy is because they are busy trying to feed their families for a week on what foreigners earn peddling slapdash English to their children in an afternoon.
Further along and we move as one, a swarm of cognizant entities in tandem. Up ahead, a truck pulls out and we are forced to stop, the abrupt ceasing of movement taking on an energy of its own as it ripples backward through the group. A chorus of splayed left feet erupt on one side, each one tucked neatly in front of the next bike’s front wheel. The truck completes its turn and momentum is again sucked forward as we rush to fill the gap. While we inch up a hilly, pot-holed on-ramp, I make the foolish decision to try and scratch an itch under my helmet, almost tipping as I briefly flirt with imbalance. I am noisily reprimanded for my efforts. The herd does not appreciate missteps.
As much as it is an examination of your driving skills, in the end the traffic becomes a test of your character, your patience, and your self-control. A test that can be as rewarding as it can be stress-inducing. It encourages you to be compassionate, in spite of the conditions, and think of your fellow driver before pondering how many seconds crossing the center line would shave off your commute; to practice empathy, and consider that maybe, just maybe, the guy who abruptly cut you off three intersections earlier may have been on his way to something even more important or urgent than you. Perhaps his daughter is sick and needs medicine, or he has been called up to work an extra shift at his second job, which he has taken on to pay for his son’s extra university tuition. In short, it challenges you, every day, to relax, take a deep breath, and try and be a better person. Perhaps it is exasperation at the preponderance of such moral contemplation — and therefore distracted driving — witnessed in other commuters that is the source of all the damned honking.
In a country with so much invested in the debate over the individual vs. society, the roads provide a daily battleground for such a conversation to be played out. Like some strange confluence of communism and Darwinism, the ethics of the street embrace both a community-driven imperative and the survival of the fittest. Staying safe and intact while still commanding respect from fellow drivers requires a certain poise: knowing when to jostle, when to cede territory, when to stubbornly wedge a front wheel into an ephemeral gap in the traffic’s fabric. Newcomers may cry foul at the lack of adherence to traditional road rules, but spend a moment and you come to understand a sort of communal self-governance that generally takes care of those who don’t behave too selfishly.
Conversely, there’s an attitude, especially amongst Vietnam’s Facebook-banned generation, that the road is theirs, a place for mating rituals, prowess-proving, vendetta-settling, and newfound wealth-flashing. For perhaps nowhere else is the distinction between generations and class more clear: workers and parents drive fifth-generation Honda Waves while new money executives drive the latest generation of absurdly impractical Rolls-Royces, and teenaged children straddle fluorescent speed bullets with matching helmets, their uniforms completed by imitation Gucci polos and D & G shades. As easy as it is to poke fun at any group of nouveau riche as they explore more consumerist modes of self-expression, in Vietnam the process seems to signify something deeper. After spending large parts of the twentieth century being used by foreign interests to represent the reach of their power, the country’s youth are now using whatever Western symbols their government allows to try and show their worth. The inversion seems appropriate, a kind of historical redress via cultural appropriation, even if it does sometimes produce garish results.
Kick onto any decently straight piece of road and you are likely to become an unwilling participant in the acme of this ideology’s expression: the great slalom race that is masculine identity-formation amongst Hanoi’s youth. On the last street before my school, a brief moment of calm is rudely interrupted by the oscillating sound of two riders’ veering roars. Despite the danger they cause everyone else, it’s hard not to admire their swerving prowess as they take the most lateral route possible down the street, their chassis almost horizontal as they dodge wheel, bumper, and pothole. Heightening the spectacle is the sense of doomed fatalism woven into their performance, as if the riders are aware of the recklessness of their disregard for physics, but powerless to act differently. Down the road, as if on cue, I glimpse the same rubber-duck yellow bike that strafed me earlier being dragged off the road, spitting fragments of plastic in its wake. Getting closer I see the driver sitting on the ground, staring angrily, almost accusatorially, at the asphalt. His shirt and jeans are torn, and the exposed scarlet of his flesh is a reminder that for all the posturing and aura of invincibility, a body still bleeds when it slides along the asphalt. Looking around, I notice I am the only one who has slowed, the herd uninterested in the downfall of the outlier, and I feel a brief moment of guilt as I too drift past, remembering that I am late.