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Honk or You’re Dead – Hanoi Scooter Mayhem

Why bother with a helmet? It’s not like any of the traffic in Hanoi is actually moving…

The traffic in Hanoi is supposed to be legendary. Reputation precedes it, spread by those who claim to know. When I tell them that I plan on driving a motorbike through the city, they bestow me with a look of knowing. ‘Sure you will. Good luck.’

An hour after landing in Hanoi I reach my first intersection. One hundred motorbikes have converged from every direction and they’re all trying to turn. The very middle of the crossroad is a jigsaw puzzle of bikes, bicycles, pedestrians and cars. They’re all banging their horns and they’re all shouting. No one wants to give way. A wizened old bus bullies its way into the fray and a motorbike goes right under the front of it, chewed up like cud. The rider reappears a minute later, dragging his injured bike behind him. He actually seems more embarrassed then hurt and no one seems to care. Our driver pushes until it is impossible to go any further and then settles for a long and steady tirade from his steering wheel. Somewhere, buried under the inevitability of the situation, a policeman’s blowing his whistle. It seems like he’s genuinely encouraging people to be considerate. There’s nothing else he can do and no one is listening to him. He thumps the back of our taxi with a baton. Our driver doesn’t blink.

Already I’m reorganising ambitions: Half an hour ago, cruising through the streets astride an old Minsk, seemed possible and imminent. Now I’m wondering if I’ll even be able to cross the road let alone decipher the rhythm and sway of the traffic. I’m gunna need to mull it over a beer.

So I buy a pushbike. It’s nothing on the Romanticism I’d been chasing but, fuck it, I’m looking to stay alive for the time being. The bike’s sleek, shiny and threatens to split in half every time I go near it. The braking system can be likened to the Australian bush telegraph system whereby if I send a message this Thursday, it may arrive next Tuesday. In this light, I’m going to need to learn how to anticipate potential accidents four five blocks in advance. Still, I’ve got a better deal then the recycling ladies who hoof around on pre-unification style bikes featuring cross bar’s and seats fashioned from planks of wood. These things handle like water buffalo and lack brakes.

Pushing out from the curb is exactly like jumping into a raging river. I’m in it for five seconds, then I’m spat right back out. The drivers here aren’t willing to take their time on the roads. Getting from home to the shop is done as quickly as possible and consideration for your fellow driver isn’t important. A man can be out cold next to his crashed motorbike and still be accompanied by the horns of thirty bikes and a bus trying to get past. I know this because I saw it earlier. The man in question was hauled to his feet and dragged to the curb by a couple of bystanders. By the time he’d regained consciousness, the stream was back in full swing.

I dive back in. The world doesn’t change, although I see a couple of Vietnamese laughing at me from the side. Once in, I concentrate on not colliding with the man in front of me, and trying to stop the car behind me from hitting my ass. I’m quickly sandwiched. I need to turn off on the other side of the road but this means cutting through the bikes, cars and an approaching bus and then doing the same for everyone on the other side. I can’t do it. I’ve been told that I need to drive aggressively and cut people off but its kind of hard on a pushbike. A nudge will wipe me out. Last night, an Australian expat couple told me that the worst accidents they have seen here involve bicycles being hit by anything larger then themselves. Also, there’s an issue with horns: possibly in an effort to ‘get ahead,’ vehicle owners put in for an upgrade as soon as possible. Motorbikes sound like cars, cars sound like trucks and truck sound like 747’s taking off. Despite thousands of pushbikes patrolling the roads, no one has thought to ever give the bicycle a horn. The best I can do is shout ‘BEEP BEEP as I pass. This is as stupid as it sounds. I’m small, insignificant and mute. I last 30 minutes on the road, enough to get me home, lathered in sweat and filthy.

Hanoians drive without helmets. Fashion dictates they wear caps, scarves and Viet Cong pith hats. When it comes to helmet law, there is little pressure from the government. Motorbike riders, believe that ‘what will happen, will happen…’ They also think that they don’t travel fast enough to need them. But I know. There’s an accident on every corner.

I see a bad one right outside the hospital. Two motorcycles have collided. They’re in the process of dragging the riders through the doors. No shit, there’s a sign, next to them, with very graphic pictures showing various motorcycle injuries. The information is lost on these two. They’re unconscious.

I stick out like a silver monkey, gadding about on my bike with a helmet on. In fact, it’s pretty easy spotting the foreign riders in this country, because they’re the only ones helmeted up.

The next morning I’m back in the stream, wobbling amongst the early morning riders. Riding in this city is exactly like playing a computer game. I brake to avoid a dog on the road. I accelerate. I swerve into the middle to avoid a motorcycle racing in from an ally. He doesn’t look. He doesn’t even slow down. Then I’m stuck behind a slow moving car and I have to move towards the side of the road. A bus strays onto my side. I swear it seems to be chasing me. The bus gone, I’m free to pursue speed for twenty seconds before I have to lock my bike up or run into the motorbike driving on the wrong side of the road near the footpath. The driver glares at me and belts his horn. Does he realize?


It’s a city full of ignorant drivers. As long as the bikes keep coming, it will only get worse. And If I’m gonna ride, I’m going to have to roll with the punches.

One last sight while we’re on our way to dinner. A single bike is lying on the road, tyres spinning. Its rider is on his back, head smashed in. His blood has started to drip towards the gutter. Old woman stare at him, while the men shout frantically. I’m not sure what happened but I know it could have happened to anyone, including me.

I bite my lip and keep riding.

Joss Berrett

Joss Berrett is a lazy writer and traveller who is still scared of flying.