Just back Hanoi

Among the writing competition of Telegraph about traveling, the winner of a week is Catherine Smith for her account of a nerve-racking encounter with the traffic of Hanoi in Vietnam.

Just back HanoiThe Green Cross Code Man never told me about this. Terrified, I step off the kerb and start to move slowly but deliberately to the other side. Mopeds, cars and bikes weave around me, as do schoolgirls, old men with sticks, shuffling women with bamboo panniers filled with fish and fruit.

They come at me all at once from every angle. Car bumpers pass centimetres to the right of me, a motorbike laden with two adults and a toddler is millimetres to the left; and always the throb and heat of steel and rubber on the tarmac.

I follow instructions: breathe, don’t stop, don’t change direction whatever you do, don’t step backwards, don’t panic. Just trust the traffic to avoid you. The leap of faith required to abandon the mantra of stop, look and listen, and put myself in the path of what looks like 70 mopeds is enormous. Slowly, however, I near the other side – then reach it unscathed, amazed and euphoric. Immediately I want to do it again.

There is a permanent haze of smog and noise as Hanoi emerges from the paddy fields. About seven million people spill each day from tall, windowless, improbably narrow buildings just one room wide. All life shares the streets here, including chickens, dogs and some rather large rats, which appear at dusk around the lake.

The market in the old quarter offers alternative live options for dinner: huge frogs safely caged, massive eels and fidgety terrapins, as well as all kinds of fruit and vegetables, largely unrecognisable to my eyes, which have been sanitised by the shelves of Sainsbury’s. (Later I decide to opt for vegetarian rice.)

Down in the old town it is dark and dusty – not much daylight breaks through but the sparks fly in Welding Street, and on Shoe Street the pavements are blocked with hundreds of pairs, forcing me on to the road. Still divided into the traditional merchant areas, the city has a street for everything: locksmiths, tailors, confectioners, as well as modern artisans and an art gallery where you can buy hand-painted copies of Seventies propaganda posters.

Up on the roof of Hanoi’s Sky Bar, safely installed with a cold beer, I sit back and watch the perpetual motion of a million mopeds many floors below and try to imagine transposing them into the orderly roads of England or Germany. I wonder what would happen to these people if they had to abide by the discipline of Berlin’s pedestrian crossings, where no one crosses unless the green light shows, even when there is nothing coming.

Despite the population density, there is a startling lack of aggression in Hanoi. My surprise is not at surviving the road crossing, but that out of all this random movement such serenity can emerge from so many people sharing their space.
Later, when I’m gleefully stepping out in front of a slow-moving taxi, my friend puts his hand on my shoulder. “It works here,” he says, “but please don’t try this at home.”

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