All my Vietnamese friends complain how much worse the traffic has gotten in the last few years & are surprised when I say I think it has gotten better. I’m willing to grant that Hanoi traffic is chaotic, but when I first came to Hanoi there were perhaps half-a-dozen traffic lights in the whole metropolis. Now there are lights at virtually every major intersection. It’s true that they sometimes have burned out bulbs, but they’re there and drivers take at least some notice of them. I’d say compliance runs about 80%. That is, when the light goes read, about 80% of the oncoming traffic stops, with the other 20% racing through as the traffic from the other direction begins to move. Pedestrians must take nothing for granted. Most of the traffic is still motorbikes, though there are many more cars than when I first began coming to Hanoi & the general rule is that the bigger the vehicle the less likely it is to stop for a light. Oh, and all the drivers are talking on a cell phone. Still, the lights give pedestrians an opening they did not have in the past. For one thing, once the front row of traffic stops (which can take some time in its ragged compliance) the traffic behind is blocked, leaving the way (mostly) clear. For the most part, people don’t go fast, but move mostly with the flow of traffic. I’ve been here almost three weeks, walking the city every day, and I’ve seen only one accident.
When peope I meet — both Vietnamese and Westerners — hear that I have returned to Vietnam after eight years away, they invariably ask what has changed. Much has stayed the same. The essential character of Hanoi is the same, as does the ambience. Folks still spend a great deal of time out on the street because houses and apartments are small and the weather is hot; there are still boradcasts of irritating music and occasional propaganda broadcast over loudspeakes by the state, there are still many poor women who come in from the country every morning carrying two baskets on shoulder poles to sell vegitables, flowers, and other produce; there is still a fair amount of business activity specifically geared to expats and tourists. The traffic is worse, not so much in total volume, but because of the addition of many more cars to the million motorbikes; but it is somewhat better behaved because of the addition of a pretty effective system of traffic lights. It’s still chaotic, but perhaps a little more predictable. Another change is the almost total absence of touts and postcard boys in the center of town; there are still lots of guys lounging on Hondas who will offer to give you a ride — it’s called xe om, meaning hang on — but they are much less aggressive than they were before, asking once and then letting it go. At heart, though, Hanoi remains a cultured, friendly city in a developing country. That’s what I liked about it before and that’s what I still like about it.
Arrived yesterday after a very long trip but without incident. Was met as arranged with a driver from the hotel, which made the last leg of the trip as seamless as all the rest. I’d been absurdly afraid that Vietnam would be somehow less challenging — smoothed out by modernization — but I need not have worried. Same crazy traffic, same utter disregard for Western notions of zoning, same water buffalo being led across lanes of traffic from the airport by little boys.
Item: I did notice a couple of changes — everyone who rides a motorbike now wears a helmet (though some are pretty minimalist in design) and, in town, the street hawkers seemed much less aggressive than before. Maybe I was just too dazed to notice.
Item: I find that when I have the vocabulary I can generally make myself understood in Vietnamese, but the biggest difference is that I can hear spoken Vietnamese better than before. I chalk this up to drill with the computer, however sporadic, over the last few months. It’s my intention to make this trip an exercise in intensive language study.
Item: The long Cathay Pacific flight was very pleasant — more room in coach than is usual, I think, with attentive service. The amenities may not have been quite so nice, but any slight economizing that’s taken place since the last time I flew the airline didn’t detract from what was a very comfortable flight. It didn’t hurt that the airplane was only half full and that I had my entire row to myself. I slept a fair amount and read quite a bit, finishing another of the Patric O’Brien sea novels I’ve become re-addicted to recently. I tried to watch Sweeney Todd on the video screen, but I couldn’t get into it — I liked the music, but the pacing was tedious, perhaps to make space for the music. The whole Tim Burton night-of-the-living-dead / teased hair and black eye-shadow way of imagining the nineteenth century just did not seem convincing to me, not that I require historical fidelity. Add a comic book conception of good and evil and you don’t have a very convincing package.
Item: Just had my first Skype experience, a call from Carole, with video! When I first came to Vietnam more than a decade ago there was no such technology — only very expensive land-line calls. The quality of this call with Carole was remarkable, especially when you realize that it was free. I don’t have a video camera, so she couldn’t se mee, but I could see her — and Candy sitting on her lap. Over her shoulder I could look out the window at the Northern New Yoek spring. Amazing.