Whenever I’m asked to name my favorite cities, I rattle off a list that contains a few usual suspects – New York, Copenhagen, Berlin – and at least one that often surprises people: Hanoi, Vietnam. If I’m asked to elaborate, I find it tricky. (There’s a particular hole in the wall, though, selling nothing but bun cha – grilled marinated pork belly over rice noodles – that would be worth the price of a return ticket all by itself.) It wasn’t anything in particular about Hanoi. It was simply a great city to wander around in.
I spent just a couple of weeks in Hanoi, visiting expat friends who were living there over the Christmas holidays in 1999. I had no particular designs on the city, no list of sights to see or things to do. Mostly I just meandered. There’s a glorious little urban lake to circumnavigate right in the center of the city, with an open-air café hanging out over one edge of it that serves a perfect glass of iced Vietnamese coffee, thick with sweetened condensed milk. There are fascinating markets, great little side streets – even the avenue lined block after block with motorcycle repair shops made for a fascinating stroll.
I found myself thinking about my time in Hanoi as I read a recent post over at Planetizen – “Getting Closer: On the Need for New Urban Manners,” by the brilliant and long-serving Toronto-based urban planner Ken Greenberg (author of the essential urbanist read "Walking Home").
Greenberg begins by noting a handful of converging demographic trends across North America, in particular the preference among young people for smaller homes in dense, walkable downtown neighborhoods (or their equivalents in suburbia). This shift, he explains, is a key but largely unacknowledged contributor to growing tensions in many cities between cyclists and drivers, between pedestrians and cyclists, between noisy partiers at outdoor cafes and sleep-deprived residents, between dog walkers and children in parks.
Today’s cities, says Greenberg, are now inhabited by a generation of urbanites with little collective knowledge of how to live in cities. Older drivers on the roads got used to fewer pedetrians and cyclists during the suburban flight of the preceding generations; the people on the sidewalks and astride the bikes and lounging at the cafes likely as not grew up in spread-out suburban enclaves where it was all but physically impossible to be in someone’s way. Hence the call for “new urban manners” – a new set of rules and principles for getting along.
Here’s Greenberg explaining why this is no minor matter:
All things being equal, the real measures of successful urbanity may be in the demonstrations of mutual respect while living at close quarters, the degree to which we are comfortable with each other, the room we make for children and seniors, the tolerance and even embrace of our differences, and the accumulation of small acts of kindness.
At its best, in other words, this process of working together to create and adhere to new principles of urban coexistence can define the success or failure of a city. Cities routinely invest billions in stadiums and convention centers and casinos or host marquee events like the Olympics and the World Cup in pursuit of renewed vigor and international renown, whereas the real test of their mettle might be whether they get the penny-ante day-to-day stuff right.
Which brings me back to Hanoi. You know what was the most amazing thing about Hanoi? Crossing the street. Almost any fairly wide one would do. It remains, to this day, one of the most awe-inspiring, exhilirating things I’ve ever done anywhere. And it’s a miraculous exercise in the kind of deep-grained collective civility Ken Greenberg is talking about.
Let me explain: Traffic in Hanoi in 1999 looked, to an outside observer, like a buzzing hive of pure chaos. A wide roadway – one that might be a six-lane boulevard in another city – would have 12 or 20 “lanes” of traffic roaring down it, if you could actually call anything within that relentless swarming mass of bikes and motorcycles and the occasional car a “lane.” There were few traffic signals, no paint on the roads at all, nothing even faintly resembling a crosswalk. It looked like an extreme sport to drive in and guaranteed suicide to walk across. And yet of course you simply couldn’t get by for weeks on end in a city without crossing the street.
My expat host equipped me with a single rule and a mantra. The rule was: Keep moving forward. The mantra was: You are a stone in the river.
It worked like this: To cross a street in Hanoi, you simply started out into it. You walked in a straight line at a slow, deliberate, consistent speed. You did not stop, and if you valued your life, you did not turn around. No sudden moves. One step and then another. Stone in the river.
The first time I stepped out into a busy intersection, I felt like I was jumping off a cliff. I took a step and then another, looking straight ahead and reciting stone in the river stone in the river stone in the river in my head. Miraculously, the relentless traffic simply eased its way to either side of me. Scooters and motorbikes swerved by within what felt like bare inches. The roar of engines was rock-concert loud. And yet the invisible, impenetrable bubble of pedestrian safety moved with me, step by step by step. By halfway across, I felt like Moses parting the Red Sea.
It became a thing I almost looked forward to, this adrenaline high of parting the Hanoi traffic. And it functioned on two simple rules. For pedestrians, there was the keep moving forward rule. For drivers, as I learned on the back of motorbike taxis throughout the visit, the rule was that everything in front of you – and only what is in front of you – is your responsibility. You didn’t look back or to the side. You never took your attention away from the road ahead. If you were overtaking another vehicle, it was your responsibility to swerve around. If someone was turning into your space up ahead, it was your job to slow down or stop to make way. And if there were pedestrians crossing, you slowed and swerved wide around them.
If either group – pedestrians or motorists – had not known the rules or failed to adhere to them, the system would have collapsed catastrophically. As it was, though, I felt safer crossing the street in Hanoi than I have in a great many cities with roads dense with traffic signs and road paint, designed to accommodate elaborate engineered traffic patterns. The missing piece of infrastructure – a citizenry awake to the necessity of working together to get along – makes all the difference.
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