Poor JFK. Such a chaotic jumble of seedy terminals, bad food, gum-bedraggled carpets, flight delays, and perplexed arrivals who, so suddenly, are cast out an exit door and into a taxi line when all they wanted was a rest room or a cup of coffee.
Oh, it’s one thing to admit that boarding in Norman Foster’s amazing newish Hong Kong Airport is a finer experience than deplaning at JFK. But to learn yesterday that arriving at Hanoi’s brand new airport—clean, efficient, sparkling, graced with a Popeye’s Louisiana Chicken (where a precisely fried snack can be had for a mere 98,000 dong)—outdoes New York’s premier airport is flat-out embarrassing.
So I won’t talk about that anymore.
Tourists everywhere know that the traffic in their current location is the worst in the world. The expression we all use is “It’s just like driving in Italy.” The Hanoi variation is significant, and it is played in a brazen major key. Major intersections, of course, are equipped with traffic lights; each signal includes a count-down timer so pedestrians know how much time they have to scamper across the zebra crossing. And drivers know how much time they have to run down a slow walker (perhaps one with a new knee delivered as recently as 15 June, 2015). But that logistical nightmare is simplicity’s self compared to how traffic propels itself. There are six million people in Hanoi, 3.8 million scooters, and 640,000 cars (many of them new, large, powerful, and fast). From general appearance, all 3.8 millions scooters are on the road—on the road you are trying to cross—and, simultaneously, illegally parked on the sidewalk where you cannot secure refuge because of the crowd of machines.
The red light, we’re told, is well accepted by the general populace as a “good suggestion.” Drivers of automobiles, hoping to make a left hand turn, will pull as far into the intersection as possible before the light turns red. Then they can scoot through just ahead of the crush of traffic coming from their left and right. Sometimes, however, they are trapped because the scooters and bicycles (did I mention there are millions of bicycles, some of them so burdened by a vendor’s supply of brushes, knives, toothbrushes, hand towels, razors, plastic cups, face masks that they must be hand-pushed rather than ridden?)—the scooters and bicycles, I say, do not bother to stop. Their tactics are two: first, you simply plunge straight ahead figuring that oncoming drivers will weave around you or that you will be able to weave around them. Second, as you approach the intersection, closely eyeing the count-down timer, you begin to swing into your left hand turn 20 yards, 50 yards, 100 yards before the intersection. This means, of course, that oncoming traffic grinds to a halt in the middle of the intersection, blocking—you’ll recall—the poor sod who was patiently waiting to make a left turn, the turn that might take place before nightfall.
(The six a.m. wake-up call just arrived. Three seconds later the loudspeakers on several nearby corners blasted into patriotic song followed by the morning’s news read in a calmly intrusive declarative voice. I think that means it’s time for breakfast. I’ll leave street scene pictures for you below.)