On the road in Hanoi

Everything to excess

It seems all but impossible to describe the Vietnamese capital without referring to the blaring chorus of car horns on its streets. Hearsay has it that the sound has become the city's most famous “sight,” a nonstop racket reigning supreme in the big-city pandemonium. There is no relief, no escape. Everyone honks incessantly, first and foremost of course the millions of motor scooters that clog up the streets of Hanoi. Cars and buses are forced to play second fiddle. Roadrunners of every ilk announce their presence with a staccato fanfare: Watch out! Here I come! And you had really better watch out: the vehicles drive in a parallel procession along several lanes, passing each other on the left and right, while vendors at the periphery push bicycles overloaded with flowers and fruit, seemingly oblivious to the deafening decibels.

Packed streets
Yet the most remarkable thing of all is the fact that traffic doesn’t grind to a complete halt. All the vehicles keep moving, albeit ponderously, despite their sheer numbers. In a single synchronized sweep, the mass of metal crawls on like an army of ants. Panta rhei, everything flows, nonstop, which is actually quite astonishing in a city that seems far too congested to permit steady progress. Mopeds are the alpha beasts of transport, having usurped bicycles in the mid-1990s. Almost every household in the capital owns at least one, and they are used in much the same way as their four-wheeled cousins in Europe – to transport anything and everything. The whole family fits on one. The children lean against the driver and sleep or stand watchfully behind the handlebars at the front. Interest in cars is, however, also growing. The number of private households owning cars increases by almost one percent with every percentage point of economic growth. But there's nowhere near enough space for them on the roads. By contrast, walking has almost no fan base in Hanoi, at least if the aim is to get from A to B and not enjoy the scenery along one of the city's lakes.

Packed sidewalks
Hanoi has obviously not grown organically with time but rather burgeoned haphazardly – in a process of development and urbanization that is still ongoing. Everything you see and hear comes in bulk: people, motor bikes, cars, noise; fruit in baskets, birds in cages, meat at the stalls that line the streets. Odors. Emissions. The kinds of growth that place a heavy burden on the city's infrastructure, a strain it cannot sustain. It starts with sidewalks that can scarcely serve their designated purpose. No one walks on them; here people are working, sitting around, buying and selling, and even riding their bikes. Not to mention parking their cars; the official lots are much too few and far between. The gaping potholes reveal that sidewalk maintenance is as rare as road repair.

Reducing the strain
Everything is jam-packed here, squeezed together sardine-style. The proportion of space allocated to traffic within Hanoi's city limits is between 7-9%, well down on the global average of 20-25%. Compounding the noise and space constraints, that means bad air and bad vibes. The Air Quality Index updated and posted daily by the American embassy shows that the air in Hanoi is among the poorest in Asia; on bad days the airborne pollutants are the worst on the entire planet. Lots of people don face-masks before leaving home and some even sport thin, full-length hooded coats to keep the particles at bay. But life on the streets remains dangerous and debilitating. Traffic accidents are the most common cause of death in Hanoi, with the fatality rate one of the highest in the world. A few years ago the government took action, making helmets mandatory for all moped drivers. On the other hand, the prescribed headgear is only a thin plastic shell rather than a solid safety helmet, although the Vietnamese version boasts a much cooler look.

Public transport, which could at least relieve some of the problems, has played a Cinderella role to date. Subsidies for local services were halted at the end of the 1980s. But municipal planning is nonetheless a must for tackling the traffic problems, and the Vietnamese government’s chosen panacea is decentralization. The city’s skyscrapers now ring the center with its historical quarters and narrow streets. Several universities have relocated to these outskirts, joined by mushrooming bedroom communities. A bus-based rapid transport network – with its own lanes, modern vehicles and high-tech control system – is now due to be built with funding from the World Bank and other development banks. Underground and overground rail links are now under construction, one financed by Japan and the other by China. By 2020 half of the city’s residents should be travelling by public transport, which would make a critical contribution to clearing the congestion. And it would also muffle the madness on Hanoi's streets. Now doesn't that sound good?

Miriam Holzapfel is a cultural scientist, author and editor for the Atlas.

New Brand Strategy at Gebrüder Weiss and Röhlig: From now on the two companies will market their air and sea freight services independently.

Since 1999 the air and sea divisions at Gebrüder Weiss and Röhlig have been operating in tandem under the brand name Weiss-Röhlig. This close association is now being progressively relaxed, with the result that the two logistics companies will again be working under their own brand names in the medium term. The service locations will all stay open, and do business under either "Gebrüder Weiss" or "Röhlig." The operational collaboration will remain unchanged, as will relations with partners and customers.

Like the subsidiary in Ho Chi Minh City, the location in Hanoi will also run under "Gebrüder Weiss." The top-storey office is located on busy Tay Son Street in Dong Da, one of the four downtown districts. Its manager Hung Pham enjoys living in the capital. He knows that most young people head south to Ho Chi Minh City which, having been built almost exclusively during the last century, has a more modern reputation. Hanoi, by contrast, is the oldest existing capital in southeast Asia. And that fills him with pride.

Hung Pham (far right) and his colleagues in Hanoi from left: Mr. Dung, Ms. Phuong, Ms. Hoa, Ms. Trang.
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