I had heard about the crazy traffic in Hanoi before coming here. But experiencing it first hand gives you a better appreciation for it.
What’s interesting is how orderly everything seems beneath the chaotic surface. Drivers here don’t follow “formal” standards like obeying traffic lights and stop signs, driving on the right side of the road, etc. But people are actually pretty cautious if a different way.
There is a lot of honking, which serves as a helpful warning that drivers are passing or just letting you know that they are there. Cars seem to honk the most because they take up the most room on the road and therefore need to alert people of their presence.
There also appears to be no road rage whatsoever, which is strange considering how everybody cuts each other off all the time. I guess since everyone does it nobody takes offense. As far as I can tell, honking is rarely intended as malicious or aggressive. Driving here is generally less anti-social than in the U.S. where everybody jealously guards “their” territory on the road and is quick to get upset about “those other idiot drivers”. Driving in the U.S. (or driving cars in general) can be a stressful and isolating experience.
In contrast, driving in Hanoi can actually be fun and exciting. It can also be stressful and tiring as well, but more in terms of having to be constantly on alert. Driving during rush hour and in crowded areas like the Old Quarter is also much more demanding physically and mentally with the amount of other bikes, motorbikes, cars, and pedestrians. Since I live in the “suburbs” of Tay Ho I don’t experience this heavy traffic very often.
A factor that makes driving in the city less dangerous is that the speeds are generally quite low. My motorbike, for example, tops out at 30 mph, but most of the time I am travelling at a much lower speed. Most people wear helmets here. I would estimate around 80% or so, although some helmets are so thin I doubt they would help much in a serious crash.
Overall, driving in Hanoi is a unique experience that makes you appreciate the city!