Hanoi: Motorbikes, Specialization and Streetlife

Hanoi: Motorbikes, Specialization and Streetlife
By Darren Proulx

If it seems odd that I am blogging about Hanoi, allow me to elaborate…I am currently undergoing a five month trip that includes South-East Asia, Europe and South America.  From time to time I will be writing posts on my observations.

The streetlife in Hanoi’s old quarter oozes from every square inch of its alleys, balconies and sidewalks. People live their lives on the streets with their businesses, socializing, meals, and resting. Part of this is because it appears people have no choice, they have to be on the street in order to make a living.  The street is a free asset which people can utilize to elevate their standard of living, and they do! You see all sorts of informal businesses setting up shop on its streets, while many others roam the streets with shoe shining, fruits and vegetables, various foods, peach blossom branches, brooms, balloons, hoping for that serendipitous sale.

In other instances people are on the streets because it is the place to be. The street is where the action is with the best food, drinks, music and people watching.

What works about the Hanoi street life and what doesn’t?

The Old Quarter certainly fills many of the criteria listed by the great urban theorists such as Jan Gehl. The Old Quarter was developed incrementally and organically as seen from the spaghetti mess of streets leading in every odd direction.  The Old Quarter is also a human scale. The buildings are only 3 to 5 storeys tall and the streets are only a few meters wide.  The buildings also have attractive architectural details. The ground level consists of commercial and retail uses with residential behind and above.

What is really interesting is that the buildings are very skinny, maybe 5 meters.  This is not only an efficient use of land, but a smaller building footprint means that people with less capital are able to purchase or lease space for their business. This also means you can fit more businesses in the same amount of space. The high density of businesses may result in “spontaneous shopping” where people make spur of the moment purchases at a  business because they were in the vicinity for other businesses.

In fact there was a high level of specialization present (where a business only sells one line of product) which is only possible with a high level of foot traffic or with smaller business footprints in an area that has other businesses selling other products.

The Motorbikes…

If you know anything about Vietnam, it is that the Vietnamese love their motorbikes. The vehicular traffic is by far the worst part about the Old Quarter.  Not only will you often have hundreds of motorbikes zipping through, but you will have North American sized vehicles, taxis and mini buses trying to bully their way through.  Despite this, the streets are still bursting at the seams with people walking, cycling and sitting on street patios. Vietnam also still has a strong cycling culture, and it is sad to see that South-East Asia is still trying to adopt auto-centric changes when the rest of the world is starting to reverse the tide. From my observations I am reminded of Penalosa the ex-mayor of Bogota, who said he couldn’t make everyone rich but he could give them dignity and happiness.

I would have to differ from Penalosa on one point. Providing a safe and dignified way to walk and cycle for work and play gives people a platform of low cost mobility to escape poverty. Using Bogota as an example, Hanoi could definitely benefit from traffic calming. Bollards should be installed on the sidewalks to keep the motorbikes off and allow free passage for pedestrians. Space should also be designated for the street businesses. The large vehicles should be banned, and access should be preserved for the motorbikes and bicycles.  Traffic calming should also  be employed to slow down the motorbikes. With these changes you would be able to free up space for businesses and create a more comfortable experience for more visitors and patrons, while still maintaining access for slow moving motorbikes and cycling.


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