Sunday, May 6, 2012

“Do the Hanoi Shuffle!” a travel piece by Tom Cameron

They actually do swarm like bees. I would never have believed it, except that I’m seeing this happen right in front of me. For as far as I can see, wave after wave of these mechanical bees are buzzing between me and the other side of the street I want to cross.
“Oh my god, Nu, do these cyclos go all the way back to Saigon?”
Nu’s looking at me like I’m from Mars, not Toronto. “We’re in Hanoi.”
“Well, yes. Obviously, my humour’s lost on you.” Yet I sense that at this moment, all she’ll humour is a way across this street so we can eat. Yet there’s more to her comment than just longing for supper. I look carefully about me, concentrating on Nu this time, ignoring the drone of the two-wheeled traffic.
“At least in Toronto there’s eventually a break in traffic. These motorcycles go on forever!” I exclaim.
“I told you it was different here. Traffic in Hanoi is nothing like that in Toronto.”
Oh my. She’s as swept away by this swarming traffic phenomenon as I am. She wants me to help her.
Gulp. That makes a difference. I stare down the length of Dinh Tien Hoang, a major road bordering Hoan Kiem Lake here in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. I just can’t believe there’s no end to all this. Mo-peds, scooters, motorized bikes, anything with two wheels that gets you around, they all pass us by, helter-skelter like, non-stop with no openings. There’s white lines painted on the road, but the traffic lanes seem to make no difference to anyone, for everything is going everywhere, everyone somehow zig-zagging their way forward. There’s the white of shimmering headlamps to my left, and it’s as solid as the mass of flickering red tail lights to my right. This concrete road is getting swallowed by this white and red traffic dragon every bit as much as I am.
“That’s it!” I exclaim. “Red and white; no, wait. Red and green!”
“What?” Nu turns away from the curb, her concentration interrupted.
“Do you remember seeing any traffic lights?”
“When we were on that main road, the one lined with kilometres of ceramic murals, that road from the Hanoi airport had traffic lights.”
“And here in the Old Quarter? Do you remember seeing any?” I ask.
“Look! Way up there, a green light in the middle of the road,” Nu gestures ahead.
“Yes!” I point now too, certainty in my actions. “That’s it. Let’s go!”
It’s the start of our first night in the north of Vietnam, and dusk descends quickly and completely in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. This is not like Broadway in Manhattan, or Ste. Catherines in Montreal. There’s no forest of neon and LED beating back the darkness with the intensity of their illuminated slogans and trademarks. These city lights are subtle, more like Greenwich Village, or Lower Town, Quebec City. Here, small window signs flicker to fill in the dark spots where the street lights are buried by the leafy green tree canopy. Above all, one light remains bright to our eyes, its green-red-yellow cycle a comforting lighthouse for us.
At one point, for the briefest of instants, there seems to be a break, a minute let up in the intensity of movement along this street. I venture out, taking shuffling steps into the swarm, the bikes and the mopeds amazingly weaving their way clear around me. But where’s Nu? There, back on the curb, staring bug-eyed at me, speechless. I stop my steps, stock still for one second, maybe two, while our eyes join us together.
Now the horns beep, the klaxons honk. I am no longer moving. I am now the obstruction I feared I would be. The horns and hollers are proof of that. Yet I am a Montrealer; jay walking across Sherbrooke St is my birthright and my calling! Onward; wagon ho! Quickly I turn about and start my retreat, back to the curb, back to my port of Nu’s calling.
No more ad-lib heroics. Silently, we agree to keep to our first plan. So we keep on walking, hop-scotching in and out of the dark and light spots, the flip flop of our sandals just two of the hundreds slapping the pavement around us, for dusk brings out the local people to breathe in the cool air of this Hanoi night, everyone stepping around us as we make our way along the side of the lake. Now we’re down to meters, just scant bunches of people away from our destination, the intersection under this traffic light.
“No!” I stop dead in my tracks. “Isn’t there one place to find a safe way for us to cross all this traffic?”
“What’s with you?” She may sound cross, but once again, Nu is holding my arm. She can’t figure this out either.
“This is a funny intersection. It’s full of cock-eyed angles,” I tell her. I look up at the street signs. Dien Tien Hoan’s behind me, Le Thai To is ahead, and some other street is branching off to my right We’re at a three way corner, one large enough to sport a triangular traffic island in the middle, and finally, we’re bathed in light. For on the other side of the reassuring glare of neon intensity is not just our supper, but our hotel and home for the next two nights. So, somehow, some time, we will need to cross this rush of scooters and mo-peds, for we need to make our way back to food and lodgings.
I turn. The lake is still behind me. The tiny triangle of the traffic island is in front of me, but at this moment, my back is to the wall. My shoulders slump. I feel Nu’s fingers tighten around my arm. Her face is awash in the reflected white’s and red’s of the HSBC sign in front of us, yet her skin looks a bit paler than usual.
Was this how Moses’ Pharaoh felt? For the Sea of Traffic is not parting before me. No matter how I implore the red and green semaphore god before me, it’s not just working. There are so many cyclos scooting down each of these streets that the red and green of traffic conventions mean nothing at all. A red flickering into green simply gives its spiritual blessing upon this flood as it reaches out into every and all directions, each one of the three possible routes immediately inundated with pistons and mufflers, bike seats and wheels.
Nu looks swamped, stepping back from the curb, silently acknowledging the weight of traffic and how it is constantly bearing down upon us.
Yet others are making it across. Here are two school children, giggling together, totally oblivious to the menace of metal around them. And there is an elderly man. He grows larger as he comes closer to our side of the road, his face pointed straight ahead to where he wants to go, clearly focusing on the tranquility of the lake in front of him instead of the chaos of the road around him.
So there is a way to cross. The people of Hanoi are doing it. So why can’t I?
I focus on the people, how they shuffle, not walk. I look around me. In the deepening dark, it’s easier to see blocks of people and not individuals, their patterns and not their steps, mass transit by mass movements.
Now I hold Nu’s arm as she continues to hold mine. Her face is so trusting when she looks like that.
We step forward, carefully, two among the many. No horns, no klaxons. Again there is a swirl of motion around us, some bikes lumbering on by, others clearly crusin’. But all are avoiding us, for we too are in motion.
We join the masses, two souls trusting in the laws of physics, of particle flows and mass motion, of probabilities and distributions. We’re just a small hand dealt from this deck of cards labelled Hanoi, two pedestrians trusting the expert dealers around us to shuffle the deck without spitting loose two wild cards out onto the hard asphalt table of this roadway. The traffic island approaches, then instantly it falls behind us. Our feet progress, taking us further and further into the black as we consume the asphalt the way we want to be consuming our supper. Then there’s one last shuffle and skip, and we’re on the curb, no, the sidewalk, the sidewalk on the far side of our Red Sea. The neon glow of international banking is finally behind us, and only the peace and safety of our hotel lays before us.
Dinner this night is especially satisfying.
“Tonight, we learned a new dance step,” I toast to Nu.
Her glass is raised with mine, but her eyes remain questioning.
“We have learned to do the Hanoi Shuffle!”

Although project management can include a lot of business travel, Tom Cameron finds going somewhere on vacation to give him the most pleasure. Even more than his fascination over foreign sights and scenery, or the delightful nip on the tongue from tasting new cuisine, Tom enjoys meeting a wide variety of people during his vacation travels, talking to folks on holiday, and chatting with local people as they go about their daily life. All this becomes excellent material for Tom’s writing. In December, Tom gave a reading of "Do the Hanoi Shuffle!" at CJ's Cafe.

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