by Richard Henderson
In Paris you take the Metro, in London, the Underground, but in Ha Noi, where public transport infrastructure is in the early stages of development, the motorbike is the indispensable tool for city travel.
|Liability: Buses are the true dangers on Ha Noi's roads for many people. — VNA/VNS Photo Thanh Phan
The famously manic city streets of the capital may seem a treacherous gauntlet of road rage and near misses, but a few minutes braving life on a motorbike may change your opinion.
Extremely convenient, astonishingly inexpensive, and very quick, getting around the city on a motorbike has a long list of positive attributes, but safety is not one of them. Getting experience on the road and learning how to mitigate the risks of a motorbike accident are vital to becoming another of Ha Noi's millions of motorcyclists.
Whether you're new to the city or you've simply grown tired of making do on buses, bicycles and xe om motorbike taxies, taking the plunge and adopting the motorbike as your chief transport option doesn't have to be a difficult transition.
While there are traffic rules, life on Ha Noi's streets relies on several pragmatic laws, which although unwritten, are widely understood by the throngs of drivers of various vehicles.
In my opinion, the most striking facet of Ha Noi traffic is its pace. It crawls. Speeds rarely exceed 50km per hour, and when they do, they are in places with more order than common city streets, such as highways.
While teenagers weaving through a pack of rush-hour traffic may appear a death-defying stunt, in actual fact the speed of the traffic would render any mishap fairly innocuous.
Conversely, my greatest fear on the road is of large vehicles. Trucks may be bigger, but buses are the true dangers, controlled by unyielding bravado in place of a trained driver, these massive blocks of steel float down roads large and small with little regard for motorcyclist, pedestrian, or in fact anything smaller than themselves.
The best way to start out on a motorbike is to try a friend's, or have a quick lesson from a rental business, such as those in the heart of the tourist district on Ta Hien Street in the Old Quarter.
Renting or owning your motorbike is an equation balanced by time and financial burden. If you're only planning on using the motorbike for a few months up until a year, then a long-term rental is the perfect no-fuss option, and it's also surprisingly cheap, breaking down to about one dollar per day.
Buying, however, exchanges the risk of being financial liable for the bike and its maintenance with saving rental costs and passing most upfront costs on if the bike is eventually sold again.
Whether you're dealing with gears on a semi-automatic or you're riding a fully automatic cruiser, the hardest part of adapting to Ha Noi's idiosyncratic traffic patterns is riding in tightly bunched packs of other motorbikes. Indeed, any accident you're most liable to endure will come from receiving – or giving – an unlikely nudge on your bike. Once again, the pace of traffic reduces the likelihood of such encounters becoming serious.
The ever-increasing number of cars on the road is also a concern, as a generation of road users who have progressed from motorcyclist to car owner control and manoeuvre their vehicle as if it were a motorbike, dangerously weaving luxury utility vehicles through narrow traffic-filled streets.
Driving cautiously is the rule of thumb on Ha Noi's streets, and learning to become part of the traffic's natural ebb and flow will allow you to spot and avoid likely dangers, and stay safe on the road. — VNS