Expat Life: Traveling to Hanoi and Some Thoughts on Driving in SE Asia

We did not ride in a cyclo, but they were everywhere in Hanoi.

If you are asking yourself, "Wait! Didn't MsCaroline just get back from spending a weekend in Kyoto?" you are correct.  In fact, it was just over 2 weeks after the AsiaVus got back from Japan that they turned around and boarded a plane for Vietnam.

Why? Because MsCaroline and her family love the thrill of travel and exploring new cultures? Well, yes, partly.  But the truth is, coordinating their 3 vastly disparate schedules (including 2 international schools on completely different holiday plans) requires nothing short of a mathematical algorithm.  So if all of them are free for a long weekend - they go somewhere, even if the last trip was just 2 weeks ago and the older people in the family are still not fully recovered.

So it came to pass that the AsiaVus found themselves seated on an aircraft in the midst of a party of loud and obnoxious hearty and ebullient middle-aged Korean gentlemen who appeared to be heading to Vietnam for either a stag party or a trip with their hiking club (from what MsC has seen on the mountains around Seoul, both seem to involve roughly the same amount of drinking.)  It was with great foreboding (and a certain amount of grudging respect) that MsCaroline watched the man in front of her put away enough whiskey - neat, mind you - to fell an ox. To the everlasting relief of MsC and her fellow travelers, though, he and the rest of his party managed to avoid puking or starting fights some of the more typically dramatic outcomes of such a high level of consumption, and drank themselves into a state of - if not complete insensibility - at least relative silence, by the 4th hour of the 5-hour flight.

The point here is that the AsiaVus were already somewhat short-tempered and crabby when they entered the arrival hall of Noi Bai airport and discovered what can best be described as 'a scrum' directly in front of the 'Visa On Arrival' booth, where it turned out that a massive Brazilian tour group had just arrived moments earlier and all of them were trying to fill out their VOA forms (Note:  MsC would like to point out that she had had the sheer dumb luck forethought to find the forms online and fill them out in advance, which put them well ahead of the Brazilians, none of whom seemed to have brought a pen with them to Hanoi, and were clearly becoming desperate.)

MrL -whose formative years in Manila had outfitted him superbly for this precise moment - plunged into the sea of humanity and elbowed worked his way purposefully toward the counter, where a torrent of people thronged around a dimly lit sign that stated, "Visa On Arrival."  Of course, it turned out that the end he'd  gone to was the wrong end of the kiosk (no signs, of course), so he fought his way back through the crowd and went to the right end of the counter, where he submitted the paperwork, necessitating a return to the other end of the counter, where the madding crowds still milled about in terrifying density, presumably still searching for pens.  Picking up the visas involved squeezing one's way through a glut of tourists moaning and pawing around the glass booth, which reminded MsCaroline a bit too vividly of the zombies in The Walking Dead.

Visas and luggage having been sorted, the AsiaVus headed out to find their driver, who was (thankfully) waiting exactly where he said he would be.  The 45-minute drive from the airport into the Old Quarter of Hanoi then proceeded as most such trips proceed in Southeast Asia:  the driver expertly weaving his way through a variety of vehicles (cyclos, motorbikes, scooters, bicycles, trucks, other cars) while keeping his hand permanently affixed to the horn at all times.

Keep your wits about you at all times.

 Now, MsCaroline realizes that there are major differences between many Western and Asian countries, and, for the most part, she continues to be amazed and impressed by the way people, cars, bikes, and animals all manage to share such limited space in a relatively peaceful way and with comparatively few casualties.  A huge player in this scenario is that fact that driving is, for the most part, much more of a fluid and interactive pastime than it is in the US, where we all just follow the rules as written and people get alarmed and incensed when anyone does even the slightest thing out of the ordinary.

Compare this to just about anywhere in Asia, where space is limited and a wide variety of people and vehicles must share fewer, often smaller, roads. Some of these circumstances are unique to Southeast Asia, while some of them apply across the region, even in modern, highly-technological Seoul, where you are unlikely to cross paths with livestock while driving, but still have every possibility of the car in front of you stopping abruptly in traffic and putting its flashers on for no apparent reason.    In every case, drivers must do their best to adapt to these circumstances, and in no way is this more obvious than in the difference in the way that Western and Eastern drivers use their horns. Should you be unfamiliar with these differences, MsCaroline has comprised a handy chart which travelers may wish to carry along on their next journey to the region:

In North America the honking of a horn can mean:
In Southeast Asia, the honking of a horn can mean: 
The light has changed.  Go.

The light has changed.  Go.
Hey! You very nearly caused an accident, you !@#$%^&*(!!!!!
The light has not changed.  Go.
I am waiting to pick you up in your driveway and am too lazy to get out of my car.
Move out of my way, I am going.  I do not care what color the light is.

Here I come, watch out.

I am about to pass you.

I am passing you.

I am passing you and you may or may not see me.

I have just passed you.

Move out of the way, goat/dog/cat/cow/horse/child/chicken, I am about to pass you.

I am passing you and you are drifting into my lane, because lane markers are more of a suggestion than a rule in this part of the world, so driving between the lines is not necessarily an expectation.

Just so you know, I am driving next to you.

(While waving)You should go around me, since I have stopped my vehicle in the middle of the street to do something and it is inconvenient for me to move at the moment.

I am driving quickly toward you on the sidewalk and you are in my way

I am parked on the sidewalk and trying to drive into traffic and you are in my way

I am about to drive onto the sidewalk and you are in my way.

You have the right-of-way in a pedestrian crosswalk, but I am driving anyway, so you might want to be aware that I am driving toward you and move more swiftly.

(Note:  Clearly, these are not the only possible meanings a horn can have, but these are the primary occurrences that MsC has noted in her recent travels.  It should also be noted that, 99% of the time, the honking in SE Asia is pleasant and good-humored, unlike in N. America, where it tends to be accompanied by a certain level of rage and impatience, and - if windows are down - can get quite shouty.)  
You name it - you saw one on the streets or on the sidewalks.
Everyone has to share the space.

An hour later, the AsiaVus were walking into their hotel rooms, no worse for the wear, and looking forward to exploring Hanoi in the morning.


I remember crossing the road in Hanoi being absolutely terrifying - you just have to go for it and hope no-one hits you. This was in 2003 but I bet it's still like that? Unless they have discovered pedestrian crossings?

Did you pass the dog restaurants on the way from the airport? I remember our taxi driver pointing them out (and we had several trips to and from Hanoi airport, thanks to British Airways who lost our luggage).
Trish said…
Ah I do love reading the Asia Vu holiday reports! Keep 'em coming.

Honk honk!!

This means I like what I'm reading :-)
Nance said…
In Cleveland recently, a woman passed a stopped school bus full of children while it was waiting for a rider. Apparently she could not wait, so she drove onto the sidewalk to pass it. She did this several times, so the busdriver filmed it. The judge found out her hands were tied when she went to sentence the offender; the crime was not deemed serious enough, she said. So she offered an unusual, Scarlet Letter-type sentence of her own.The offender had to stand on the street and wear a sign, the wording was the judge's. Here is a link.
MsCaroline said…
NVG - it's still exactly the same! We were told the trick is to move slowly and steadily - no quick movements - so the scooters can assess where you're going and drive around you. No, our driver didn't mention the dog restaurants, although I'm sure we passed them. They serve dog in Korea, too. Maybe he figured since we were from Seoul, we wouldn't find it interesting? ; )
MsCaroline said…
Trish - awww, thank you! I should add that to the chart...; )
MsCaroline said…
Nance - Very creative, although I doubt 2 days of wearing it will have much lasting effect, sadly. There's no rules about stopping for school buses here in Seoul, and I'm not sure people would obey them anyway. Kids here don't get off buses and cross the street the way they do in the suburbs, anyway. They walk to the nearest crosswalk and wait for a crossing signal or are picked up by adults who navigate them home. It's probably smarter anyway - half the time people here don't even stop for red lights - can't imagine them stopping for school buses!
Stacy Rushton said…
This has to be one of my favorites of your posts, Carolyne! I've been on that same plane with the identical group. Or their long lost twins. You're not sure whether to pray the flight attendant serves them more drinks faster (unto comatose-ness) or cuts them off.

Your chart is spot on! I could add a few uses of the car horn but you nailed it. On our first trip to Vietnam, Simon used up almost the whole camera memory taking videos of the motorcyclists because it was like being surrounded by thousands of buzzing two-stroke engines and he just couldn't get over it. Pretty incredible.
MsCaroline said…
Stacy - yes, it seems that everyone I've spoken to who has been to Vietnam has gotten pretty much the same impression. I almost didn't bother to write about it, because I wasn't sure I could accurately begin to convey how crazy the streets are. On the other hand, I suppose it's only fair to tell it like it is for the benefit of those who haven't gone yet, right?
In that same vein, the drunk fellow travelers aren't that unusual either, although this is actually the first group of drunk Korean men I've run into on a plane. I regularly run into them everywhere else though (buses, subway, sidewalk, market, restaurants, you name it)so I suppose it was just a matter of time...
BavarianSojourn said…
That chart is absolutely hilarious, and so very very true! I don't know how I missed this post, hope you had fun, Vietnam is one of my favourite places! :)
Stacy Rushton said…
In many ways the drunken businessmen are better than the plague of Brazilian high school students returning from a trip to Disney World with life-sized stuffed Mickeys and Minnies that take up full seats, requiring their owners to stand around in the aisle, chatting and laughing and exchanging raucous jokes for the entirety of an almost nine hour flight. Not one of them was old enough to drink so I had their share, just to make it through the flight. Both times.

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