I have never lived in a city as large as Ha Noi. Not only is it large, but it is growing quickly. In 2009 there were 9 million people in the metro area. Two years ago it had risen to 16 million. All these people in a small space make moving from one end of the city to another an adventure in itself.
When you ask tourists what they will remember most about Ha Noi, it is a safe bet that the traffic and congestion will be near the top of their list. Clogged streets filled with motorbikes, cars, and buses are bursting at the seams. Not only are they full, but they are also chaotic. Things like lane lines, stop lights, and other traffic signs are suggestions at best. These factors make transport a challenge, but it is one we are up for!
The city knows there is a problem, and they are working to transform transportation in the city over the next 15 years. Recently they vowed to ban scooters downtown by 2030, though last year they suggested a similar ban on a shorter timeline. Who knows if that will come to fruition.
Around Town by Scooter
Hanoi has an estimated 5 million scooters. The bikes bob and weave between the rest of the traffic and easily zip through the alleys that make up many neighborhood streets. There is no more authentic way to see Ha Noi than on the back of a scooter.
David and I both expected that getting a scooter would be one of our first tasks in Ha Noi. Heck, I even named my blog with a reference to the ubiquitous Vietnamese transportation devices. Once we got here, we began to reevaluate for a number of reasons.
David has decided that car-based transport is his preference to make the 30 to 45 minute drive to school. He is traveling in a cab with a group of other teachers on a set schedule each day. Cabs and Grabs (see below) are so inexpensive that we aren’t sure it makes sense for me to rely on bikes during the day.
So, for the moment the decision to have a scooter is remains under review. I still think we will get a bike at some point, but for the moment we get around town in other ways.
Around Town On Foot
In the Old Quarter of Ha Noi tourists struggle to slide between cars and scooters to visit the sites. But, outside of the tourist areas of the city, people simply do not walk anywhere. Since David and I don’t have a scooter at the moment, we don’t have much choice. We aren’t going to get a cab to go to out to eat in our neighborhood, so we walk the sidewalks alone.
Well…not quite alone…
Sidewalks are mostly used as parking lots for scooters. Wider sidewalks along major streets become extra lanes in rush hour traffic as cars push scooters off the road. Those scooters simple weave in and out of the parked ones. A few times we have gotten stuck in this traffic while trying to get to dinner or the grocery store.
Around Town by Car
In my post 10 Great Things about Ha Noi, I discussed Grab, a local competitor to Uber and traditional cabs. I simply open up the app, input where I am going, and a car appears to take me there. Technology is amazing. Grabs and cabs are also economical. Case in point: I am writing this post from a coffee shop across town from our home. The cab to get here took nearly 30 minutes and cost me about $2.10.
Cars are relatively new to Ha Noi. They provide a safer, more comfortable alternative to scooters, but they are also much less space efficient. City streets built for scooters are now clogged with cars and SUVs. Sidewalks that traditionally were parking lots for scooters now also hold vehicles. The rate of car ownership is expected to continue to rise quickly as Viet Nam’s economy grows. This is leading to the city’s urgency to boost its public transit options.
Around Town by Bus
Ha Noi has dozens of bus lines. Five of these lines travel along Hoang Quoc Viet, the major artery two blocks from our home. Last Saturday we decided to take the bus for the first time and explore the most cost-effective ride in town. Running at least every 15 minutes, these buses are flooded with people during weekday rush hour. On a weekend, we were able to get a seat and enjoy the air-con.
Ha Noi buses have a driver and an attendant who collects the fare after you board. For the bus we road it was 7,000 Dong – or $0.30. A few lines charge a bit more and could cost as much as $0.40 per ride. Now that we understand how they work, buses are often nearly as fast as a cab and a great option during non-peak travel times. I look forward to exploring more of Ha Noi by bus soon.
Coming Soon: Around Town by Metro
At the moment the only public transport in Ha Noi is the bus system. This is about to change. In just a few months the first of eight lines of a city-metro should open. With mostly above-ground stations, the metro is supposed to slowly ease street-level traffic. Fares for rides are expected to undercut the cost of the buses, another push to get as many people as possible in the air and underground instead of on the streets. Ha Noi is in a race against time to catch up with its economic and population growth and keep the city from drowning in its traffic and choking from the pollution created by all the bikes and cars.
Over the next 15 years more than 300km of metro rails are supposed to connect all of Ha Noi. Sadly, the first line of the metro is not located in our part of town – so we won’t get much use out of it. The metro construction is a clear indication of the economic growth that is quickly transforming urban life in Ha Noi, but can it come fast enough to keep the city from total gridlock? We will see.