By on April 6, 2009

In his first piece for TTAC, our former celeb contributor Brock Yates noted that “until the underlying economics of private transportation changes . . . economies will be saddled with the private automobile, whether they like it or not.” Here in Hanoi, that truism holds up . . . only you’d need to replace “private automobile” with “Honda Wave.” Though four-wheeled transportation is clearly picking up pace here (more to come on the quirk and diversity of said transport to come), the Vietnamese could no more imagine Hanoi without a crush of sub-200cc scoots than an American could imagine commuting on a camel. What’s a developing (or overdeveloped, for that matter) economy to do?

The inevitable explanation for Vietnam’s scooter obsession always comes down to economics, and there’s no denying that the modern descendants of “the greatest motorcycle in the world” are cheap. $800 is the entry point for a new 100cc Wave. But on the other hand, it’s downright impossible to imagine the chaos that would ensue if even a third of Hanoi’s traffic had four wheels. In fact, though traffic in China (where the transition from two wheels to four is well underway in urban areas) seems less daunting in comparison, every auto outing I’ve taken in China has included at least 45 minutes in gridlock. On one memorable occasion, we were stuck in traffic for no fewer than four hours. Here in Hanoi, the turbulence and cacophony is worse, but traffic never grinds to the same frustrating halt. I don’t for a second believe that Americans are about to start transporting their families, four at a time on a two-wheeled, 100cc hair dryer. And yet, if you surf over to CNN, there are recent stories on both the decline in the number of cars on America’s roads and the rise of electric motorcycles.

Me? My dislike of paying for gas, sitting in traffic, the cash-for-clunkers proposal and new cars in general have me thinking about my own transportation situation. And I’m thinking I’d like something old, cheap, bulletproof and somewhat classic for the freeway and an electric bike for around town. Say a Dodge Dart and a Zero X. Or is the scooter exhaust going to my head?

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13 Comments on “Traffic: Deal With It. Hanoi Style...”

  • avatar

    would you not agree that perhaps the Tato Nano would be the best step for these countries?

    It’s a good 1/3 of the size of an avg. car and gives you a good 80% of the capacity of said avg. Western car.

    The West is want to sneer at the Nano… god knows I love to do it in my 4,000lb 4 door 280kW turbocharged six cylinder sedan but everyone must understand that the large sized car is an end game and that eventually we’ll all have to downsize, if not to a Nano to a car that is a good half the size of what we are used to.

  • avatar

    are those streets very small? or is it the camera angle, or just too many Motorcycles?

  • avatar

    Being a former resident of Ho Chi Minh City, the problem for Hanoi and HCMC isn’t just economics, but infrastructure. There just isn’t enough road or parking to fit 6 million residents. It’s just so much faster to travel in and park your scooter. Public transit is poorly developed, and cars are boxed in by other vehicles.

    Despite the chaos of the video, the one rule everyone on the road follows for self preservation is to never go faster than 40km/h. Everything else, like running red lights or driving on the sidewalk, is negotiable.

    Not that most could afford a car anyway, considering the average monthly income in Vietnam is what most Americans would pay for their cell phone bill. The income disparity is enormous there, and the favorite vehicle of the rich seems to be SUV’s like the QX56, LX470 or GL450. Maybe to protect themselves from Honda Waves.

  • avatar

    I don’t see chaos as much as I see consideration for others and the desire to arrive in one piece. Compared to Washington, DC metro area traffic, Hanoi looks positively serene.

  • avatar

    Parts of Greece are like this, including downtown Athens. Where the weather permits, 50 cc semiautomatic bikes (like the old Yamaha Townmates and Honda GLXs) are the way to go. Quick, easy to maneuver and park, and cheap. Why not?

  • avatar

    I have to agree with nudave on this one. It was the first thought that entered my mind. Compared to US drivers, it is certainly chaos, but people are calm. As a DC native, living in europe, I am amazed when ever I come back to see people get ticked off and flustered when people come within three feet of their personal space in their cars (tanks).

    Go with the flow

  • avatar
    Rod Panhard

    Being a resident of New Jersey, the problem for isn’t just economics, but infrastructure. There just isn’t enough roads or parking to fit 8.7 million entitled residents. It’s just so much faster to travel in and park your scooter. Public transit is peculiarly operated without profit, and cars are boxed in by other vehicles.

    Everything else, like running red lights or driving on the sidewalk, is negotiable, especially in our crowded cities like Newark, Hoboken, Jersey City, etc. New York City is the same, and worse.

    Not that most could afford a car in our crowded cities, anyway, considering the average monthly parking costs in NYC is $300 per month, it’s what most Americans would pay for a car payment alone. Then there is insurance. The income disparity is enormous there, and the favorite vehicle of the rich seems to be SUV’s.

    (sorry, Waftable, I couldn’t resist. I think the same situations apply in most of our crowded cities.)

  • avatar

    Rod Panhard
    (sorry, Waftable, I couldn’t resist. I think the same situations apply in most of our crowded cities.)

    True, but while you may be exaggerating for effect, I’m understating for effect. You’ll find the comparison absurd.

  • avatar

    Wow… when did Vietnam manage to get their citizens to wear helmets?

    Actually, that video looked pretty calm and orderly compared to some SE Asian and south Asian cities I’ve been to.

    But this is Hanoi, which has always considered it self to be more civilized that HCMC. Is Vietnam like Italy, where the further south you go, the more anarchist it becomes?

    When I was driving in Italy, I noticed in Milan and the north all the moped drivers wore helmets and stopped at stop lights.

    Central Italy, like Rome, they wore helmets but ran stop lights.

    Southern Italy, they don’t wear helmets or respect traffic signals.

    I haven’t driven in Sicily yet.. but my mind boggles if my observed driver behavior trend continues.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    This year is a watershed: the first time in history that more than 50% of the world’s population live in cities.

    The prognosis for 2100 is 80% of the world living in cities.

    Ed has it right, and Hanoi has it right: that’s OK, as long as everything slows down.

    Traffic, as “Traffic” author Tom Vanderbilt noted, is like rice and not like water. It flows better when it moves at a slower velocity. You limit traffic to 30 or 40 km/h and it moves, and hardly anybody is killed. You speed it up and people need to buy cars to protect themselves, and subsequently, everything bogs down.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    I actually use a scooter during the course of the year. A 2001 Yamaha Riva XC125 that I got during the pre-Katrina days for $1000. I don’t use it that much. It has fewer than 2000 miles. But if you combine that with my wife’s hybrid, we’re pretty well insulated from the ebbs and flows of oil.

    Scooters do work best in America when you have the following things.

    1) 1 Lane of traffic
    2) Polite drivers
    3) Speed limits 50 mph and below

    Surprisingly I can go most anywhere I want in a scooter… so long as the place doesn’t involve highway driving I’m fine.

    I even have a removable plastic storage case that I can use to get a week’s worth of groceries for a family of four. It’s literally a plastic storage bin with a cover to it held up by two well positioned bungee cords. Given that my vehicle gets about 85 mpg. My shopping commute averages to about fifteen cents round trip in gas costs (two cents a mile).

    An older compact with three other passengers would offer better bang for the buck. But my neighbors aren’t at that stage of desperation yet so I guess I’m driving the scooter.

  • avatar

    As some others have noted, riding a moto in Vietnam is actually fairly orderly and mellow, despite the swarms of traffic. I had my own moto for three weeks in Saigon, and never really felt uncomfortable, nor was being a pedestrian ever really scary. There’s definitely a sense of order and calm to it.

    But then again, that’s already a dozen or more years ago, so it may be a little more hectic now.

    Phnom Penh was a different story. That was definitely “throwing chance to the wind” territory. The frequent automatic rifle shooting sprees, arms dealers practice sessions, drunk unpaid soldiers with guns holding up foreigners, and seemingly random grenade parties made it all the worse.

  • avatar

    @Rod Panhard

    Rod, aren’t you being a little disengenuos? I was stationed at Ft. Monmouth back in the early 90’s & I quickly learned that everybody in Joisey is trying to live within a mile and a half of the Atlantic ocean. You could damn well fit everybody in the state in Ocean & Monmouth counties, if people would actually move inland. Not to mention, that is some beautiful country. I could never understand why the interior (south of Red Bank) was so sparsely populated.

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