CAN we make room for one more?
In Hanoi, our family recently experienced what must be a visitor’s first, lasting impression of Vietnam: this country seems to have more motorcycles than people.
Two young men who acted as our guides debunked the impression. According to Mike and then Wang, Hanoi has about 7.5-8 million residents and 5 million motorbikes.
Crossing the streets in Hanoi Old Quarter, the business and tourism hub of the Vietnam capital, I was disconcerted to see slight-framed ladies in short skirts and high heels steer their scooters with the granite-steady composure of road veterans.
Add older folks cycling at a timeless, unhurried pace and ambulant women wearing a non la (palm leaf conical hat) and balancing on a pole baskets filled with produce or food darting across the street or halting to haggle and sell.
The situation calls for pandemonium.
Strangely enough, I only witnessed one road accident during nearly a week’s stay in Hanoi. On the outskirts, in a nearly empty road, the parties stood around, viewing the motorcycle felled in front of a car with the equanimity of farmers waiting for a water buffalo to rise up from its mud bath.
Except probably for the newly arrived who nervously imagine their bum whisked off by a speed demon summoned by a foot stepping off the curb, a system of coexistence imposes order on Hanoi streets.
In timeless Asian tradition, owners park motorcycles on the sidewalks. Ladies (the Vietnamese must be the leanest, fittest Asians) singlehandedly arrange motorbikes so these lean in the same direction like artfully arranged salad greens.
The same ladies charge from 7,000 to 10,000 VND for 24-hour parking, said Mai, who parks for free in front of a stoop owned by a friend. The more expensive logos or better-looking bikes cost more.
Pocketing the parking fees are the stall owners, who include the sidewalks in their enterprise. For over 1,000 years, the Old Quarter streets are the bases of guilds.
Once known as “36 Old Streets,” the Old Quarter has expanded to cover an area as neatly organized as a department store, devoted to silk, silver, lacquerware, leather, coffee, noodles, seafood, and other merchandise hardly catering to tourists, such as tombstones and funeral wreaths.
Efficient albeit self-serving, entrepreneurs leave sidewalk space to draw in souvenir hunters or the hungry.
Squatting on a plastic stool while a grandmother grills pork and bread on the sidewalk, this tourist encounters across the street assault the gaze of Ho Chi Minh silkscreened on a mass-marketed T-shirt, reproachful and redolent of a time before the dream of socialism became dissipated in a cloud of coffee steam and motorbike fumes.
(firstname.lastname@example.org/ 0917 3226131)
*First published in SunStar Cebu’s April 16, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”