Without an integrated public transport system, the traffic chaos in Hanoi is going nowhere
Traffic moves near Hoan Kiem Lake ahead of the 43rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Ministerial Meeting in Hanoi in July
Honking repeatedly as if that act by itself would dissolve the traffic jam on Tay Son Street, a bus driver grunts, "Motorbikes should be completely banned."
At an impassable crossroads on La Thanh Street, a motorcyclist frets, "four-wheelers should not be allowed here."
The displays of frustration, anger and desperation are a fact of daily life in the capital. Barring brief, momentary glimpses into occasions like those in the next ten days, when vehicles have been banned on many city streets, the roads, the traffic problems can descend into a horror show.
With an annual economic growth of around 10 percent and an annual population growth in Hanoi of approximately 200,000, there has been no easing of the pressure on the traffic system. This growth requires the construction of 40 kilometers of new roads per year, according to the head of the Japan International Cooperation Agency's (JICA) research group Iwata Shizuo.
In reality, only five to 10 kilometers of new roads are built every year.
Given this enormous gap, it is not surprising that traffic snarls have increased in frequency and length, and that this has drawn out some colorful comments from visitors.
"[Driving] in Hanoi deserves a spot in the Wikipedia List of Extreme Sports," wrote Malaysian journalist Brenda Benedict in The Star. "It is only for the daring."
British tourist Gregory Heavens said: "I'd heard the stories about the traffic in Hanoi before and thought that it was all a bit of an exaggeration. I was wrong. Wrong in a big way. To cross the road requires a firm hold on ones nerves and a degree of confidence in the awareness and competence of the locals."
From the paintings of Bui Xuan Phai that captured the ineffable beauty of Hanoi's streets to the legions of poets, writers and photographers who have paid rich tributes to the city, the aesthetics of the capital have exerted a unique influence throughout its long history.
But Hanoi today is a shadow of its former self, and nowhere is this more evident than on its streets.
As recently as the late 1980s, bicycles or public transportation served the majority of residents in the city. In 2009, Hanoi had nearly 3.7 million registered motorcycles and 302,000 registered cars. The estimated increase of motorcycles and cars is 10 and 14 percent per year respectively, according to the Hanoi Transport Management and Operation Center (TRAMOC).
In an article published on Saigon Tiep Thi newspaper recently, Dr. Nguyen Huu Thien of the Ministry of Sciences and Technology, blamed motorcycles for all the traffic problems facing Hanoi. He went so far as to suggest a ban on the two wheelers. His opinions attracted a lot criticism.
Dr. Clément Musil of the Cooperation Center for Urban Development has found that 80 percent of motorists use only 62 percent of road space, while cars account for only four percent of passengers transported but occupy nearly 20 percent of road space. "That the heavy traffic of Hanoi is still flowing is thanks to the very efficient road use of this mode of transport," he said.
Local authorities have not been idle. They have tried several ruses, but failed to make much headway. When they stopped registering motorbikes in Hanoi, the number of vehicles registered in the neighboring provinces soared. Then there were policies to slow down the profusion of cars through higher taxes on imported vehicles, and the doubling of fines on traffic law violations. The experimental blocking of the crossroads in 2009, forcing drivers to take convoluted detours invited public anger. Since June 1, the Hanoi Department of Transport removed the barriers at the intersections. They are now considering putting them back in.
"The city is on the brink of traffic collapse," Dr. Musil said, stressing that the need of the hour was to build an integrated public transport system.
In fact, until late 1991, the tramway and trolley buses were icons of Hanoi untill the wave of private motorcycles took over. For a decade, public transportation was not a priority for the authorities.
In 2001, TRAMOC launched a new public transportation service: the bus network. Within eight years, the number of passengers increased from 12 million to 400 million. However, until now, buses have been used mainly by students and low-income people. The chaos on the buses in Hanoi had German journalist David de Frogier Ponlevoy call them "madness on four wheels."
In an article on Der Spiegel Online, he wrote, "Tourists have no reason to take buses in Hanoi. Anyone who wants to experience a true adventure get in one! Bah. And that will be unforgettable."
In 1998, the Prime Minister approved a construction master plan for Hanoi, including the construction of a comprehensive urban transport network, based on urban railway tracks.
In December 2006, the news site VietnamNet reported that the construction of urban railway No. 3 route to Nhon - Hanoi Railway Station was underway. However, it was not until September 25 that this pilot project actually kicked off, marking the city's celebration of its 1,000th year anniversary. The railway is to come into operation in 2015. Seven routes are set to follow in its tracks.
Doubts have arisen over the plans and their implementation.
Just near the site where high-ranking officials organized the groundbreaking ceremony of the first urban railway system, Highway No. 32, nicknamed "the distressing street," is more challenging than an obstacle course. Planned for completion in 2003 to welcome the 22nd Southeast Asian Games, and later the 1,000th year anniversary, it continues to host traffic jams and mishaps in equal measure.
Dr. Do Tu Lan, Deputy Director of the Urban Development Agency under the Ministry of Construction, had a different take on the delays. He told Thanh Nien Weekly that "a good thing is it was started. Once it is started, sooner or later it will be done. If it is still a plan or an idea, it may never materialize ever. "