• 05 . 03 . 11
  • In which we swap the serene and peaceful town of Luang Prabang for the Kafkaesque traffic nightmare of Hanoi, and learn the mating call of the common Vespa.

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From Laos To Chaos

Luang Prabang Airport takes the record for the smallest airport I’ve ever visited, and also for some of the most inattentive security staff. Our stuff got X-rayed, but I’m pretty sure the girl who was supposed to be doing the screening wasn’t too involved, unless she was scanning the remains of her lunch for fissile material. Then again, there’s no need to bomb Laos Airlines – a few years ago you only had to cough near them and they’d fall out of the sky all on their own. Thankfully, they’ve tightened things up a lot since then and though basic, the service on-board was friendly and professional, even if the safety talk was “2 exits at the front, 2 at the back, tighten your seatbelt and have a nice flight”. I’m not paraphrasing there, by the way.

I only felt a bit tense through the landing and that was mainly because we had been in blue skies for the entire journey until we started our descent through the clouds. 10 minutes of sharp descent later and we’re still in what by now must be fog until, wait, there’s something outside the window… wait, is that the runway?! And in the next instant we were on the ground, with a lurch and a jolt, landing on one wheel, then two and finally all three, like a spinning coin coming to rest.

You could hardly blame the captain though. As we got off the plane, the freezing fog was no more than five metres from the ground. Visibility was so bad we could barely see the transport bus in front of us. Hanoi Airport was virtually deserted, and with the cold temperature, limited visibility and occasional static over loud-speakers, it was a little like arriving at Silent Hill.

If the ride to Bangkok from the airport was remarkable for its lack of indicating and excess of speed, then the ride to Hanoi was exactly the opposite. While not exactly slow, it wasn’t breakneck speed, but it soon became clear why.

If you’ve ever seen the Red Arrows do formation near miss demonstrations, you’ll have a rough appreciation for what driving through an intersection in Hanoi is like. I can see why there aren’t many traffic lights here, because they’re almost universally ignored. Not just blasting through on an orange either. I’m talking straight through definite reds at regular speed, playing chicken with the orthogonal traffic. At least without traffic lights you don’t have to pretend you’re paying attention.

The Vietnamese method of driving seems to be: Take the space available to you as quickly as you can or else some other bugger will. If you need to use a lane reserved for oncoming traffic, you may, as long as you flash your lights full beam, maintain a high speed, get back in lane when you feel like it and toot your horn a lot. Tooting is imperative. Toot to say move over, toot to say you’re overtaking on the left and/or right, toot at an intersection to say you’re arriving (but not actually slowing down) and toot to express frustration with the myriad motorbikes who are cutting in front of you from both directions. I swear there are more motorbikes here than people, like sheep in New Zealand.

In an environment like this where being heard is clearly an evolutionary advantage, it’s no wonder that there’s a large variety of horns to be heard, and clarions of every timbre and tone, volume and tune were there if you listened carefully. Birdwatchers would probably get a kick out of it.

With the flashing of lights, the non-stop intersecting lines of traffic and constant cacophony of horns blaring, it’s a lot like a horrifying vehicular ballet, with Satan as the choreographer and Kafka directing. Someone with synesthesia would go insane watching it.

We actually saw a hit and run on the way into town. A lady had been knocked off her moped, but was fine. It wasn’t a hit and run in the classical sense that the car had driven off, but clearly this kind of impact wasn’t worth stopping for, because as soon as she was back in the saddle, she rode off and the car continued on its way too. As far as I can tell, neither party actually got around to checking on the other, so maybe this just happens all the time and is too mundane to even have an argument about.

So, Hanoi. One hour and a million miles away from Laos. We have two days here – one for cultural stuff (assuming we pluck up the courage to start crossing roads) and one for Emily Benjamin’s birthday, before we head out to Halong Bay. The forecast? Freezing fog. Let’s hope there are no aircraft in the area.