I have been in Ha Noi for four days now, and it seems like two weeks. This is a densly populated, high-energy city. If there are a million people in Ha Noi, which I'm sure there are, there are 990000 motorbikes. Most of these are on the streets from 7am to 11pm, and the rest are parked on the sidewalks, which along with the vendors and food stalls forces the pedestrians into the street. The traffic is the most amazing I have ever seen; it puts China to shame. All vehicles are constantly jockeying for advantage, weaving in and out, honking constantly, maintaining only inches of separation, many of them talking on cell phones at the same time. At uncontrolled intersections, all vehicles proceed at full speed, slowing only if necessary, and somehow manage to weave a tapestry in which no contact is made. Use of the horn is highly nuanced, from 'Be careful, I'm right behind you' to 'Get the hell out of the way', 'Don't even think about it', and 'LOOKOUT!!!'. I have ridden a lot in taxis, since they are cheap, and metered, and I don't have to spend 5 minutes arguing with a cyclo driver to get a price only slightly higher than a taxi. I have probably seen thousands of highly-probable potential collisions, none of which have materialized. It is an incredible improvisational dance. There is no compunction about driving on the sidewalk, or going the wrong way on a street. There is no eye contact, and no emotional reaction at all to being horn-blasted, cut off, nearly killed, etc. It is just eyes straight ahead.
Now the exhausting part of this is surviving as a pedestrian. Eventually one must cross a street. Crossing even the smallest street is dicey; crossing what would be a six-lane boulevard (if the lanes weren't ignored) takes a real leap of faith. One must step boldly if slowly into the stream of vehicles and hope that everyone is paying attention, and that the traffic just flows around you, which so far it has. The important thing is to behave predictably. It is best not to look at the traffic, because if you see someone headed right at you and jump out of the way, you are likely toast. Half a dozen vehicles will have already figured your course and plotted a way around you - you don't want to screw this up! It all works, but it is pretty un-nerving.
There is incredible energy here, much of it from young people; everyone is on the hustle, everyone seems happy, there is no teenage angst. I think prices are cheap, but you have to bargain ferociously to get them, and they just wear you down.
Tomorrow evening I am taking the sleeper train to a small village in the mountains, and looking forward to a more relaxed environment.