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Hanoi from the Handlebars

April 27, 2012 (Friday) – Our busy day started with an unexpected treat – motorcycle rides for Zabine and me. We knew that Baha’i friends were coming by to pick us up, and I suppose we expected a van or car or something. But the most normal mode of transport in Hanoi seems to be the motorcycle, so it was our time to be initiated.

Motorcycle Prep1 Major streets in Hanoi are narrower than those in Ho Chi Minh City. There are good lane markings when there’s no construction going on – but there is a lot of construction.

Nevertheless, motorcycle travel in Hanoi is safe and stress-free. Until you get out of the driveway. Connecting alleys are okay, except for the requisite right-angle turns at high speed. Then you enter a major thoroughfare, and the rules change. Including, apparently, the rules of physics: Standard equations that govern momentum, drag, gravity, and quantum thermodynamics no longer apply.

Motorcycle Prep2 Hanoi has six million people and three million motorcycles, most of which are on the street simultaneously. (Okay, not literally – but a high percentage.) There also are large numbers of large buses, smaller buses, SUVs, cars (regular and compact), bicycles, pedestrians, and other moving objects.

At any given moment, each of those moving objects appears to be on a high-speed collision course with at least five other moving objects. Often a lot more. Time and again I wanted to yell, “You’re heading straight toward an oncoming bus!” Or we’d be zooming toward the back of a car ahead of us, going in the same direction, when an SUV would zoom past that car through an opening that appeared half its size. Milliseconds before the SUV would pass, my driver would slip between the two vehicles and tool nonchalantly along.

How I wish I had photos taken from the back of that motorcycle. Or better yet, a video. But waving around a camera phone during the actual ride wasn’t an act that leapt to mind as rational. I held on tightly. It was fun, sometimes in the way an extreme carnival ride is fun. Our drivers were highly skilled and completely accustomed to the traffic environment, so the reality is that we were – statistically speaking – quite safe. I’d say we were at least as safe as one is driving a car during Knoxville rush-hour traffic. Probably a lot safer.

And yes: I’m looking forward to doing it again!

Motorcycles01 Motorcycles02

2 comments to Hanoi from the Handlebars

  • Charlie Hoffman

    Your first ride on a motorcycle reminded me of when I visited Ivory Coast during the conflict in Liberia. I too experienced my first motorcycle ride on especially a pot holed road being carried to have some American money exchanged into the local currency. I too hung on for dear life (smile). I’m glad you have a safe driver. I will keep you in my prayers for your safe return home.

    • Gary L. Matthews

      Charlie, that’s an amazing coincidence. One of the reasons for my own ride was — like yours — to exchange currency. Not the only reason, but still, how likely is that? Thanks for the prayers and well-wishing.

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