In most areas of Hanoi, the old quarter, the historical quarter, the French quarter, everything happens on the street.
In spite of a never-ending stream of Vespa’s, bicycles, taxis and occasional cars the “street” is far more than a way to get from place to place or a way to determine directions. In Hanoi the street is storied as well with communities of craftsman, vendors, artists, food stalls, and old and young gathering to sip tea, or eat pho.
The craftsman across from our hotel is a case in point. He lifts the metal garage-like door to his shop early in the morning, lays out his tools and sitting blanket, and settles down in front on the sidewalk. He constructs, carves, sands, and paints his elaborate photo frames while someone else, likely his wife or sister handle customers.
Frequently a television is seen in the back of the shop along with sitting chairs and a table and a floor mattress as well for naps. In the evening the family sits around the table having dinner, but the shop remains open.
Next-door three elderly women – chatting and chewing betel leaf.
Two doors down a woman sits behind a few full-bellied metal pots filled with noodles. With a table large enough for four people and a cluster of plastic, foot high blue stools (for which Hanoi is famous), she is open for business.
An older food vendor selling fruit from the two baskets suspended over her shoulders takes up the next space.
A similar scene repeats itself up and down the sidewalks.
Scooters take up leftover sidewalk space. No parking lots necessary in this city. With sidewalks virtually full pedestrians are forced to plod along street-curbs ambling around vendors (and into the stream of traffic) when necessary. With non-stop traffic, stop signs or lights almost non-existent, how to walk along and cross streets is the first skill any visitor to Hanoi must acquire.
Directions for crossing streets in Hanoi:
Find a brief opening between the moving vehicles, one just wide enough to allow you to move into and against the oncoming traffic. As you move into the flow set your pace, keep walking and above all, do not stop. Maintain the pace, never hurry and do not pay attention to the non-stop horn blowing coming your way. Horns are not honked to tell you to get out of the way; they are simply a way for the driver to let you know he is there. Maintain eye contact with drivers and you may lift your hand up if necessary as a traffic cop would to get someone to stop. No one will stop however as everyone weaves in, out and around. It never gets too dicey because most drivers are driving at 10-15 miles per hours. It’s a beautiful dance but it takes a mountain of courage to get on the dance floor the first time.