Every morning in my quiet neigbourhood, in an alley with no through traffic and low population density, where birds can be heard singing; I am awoken by a horn. Even here, the curse of Hanoi’s streets cannot be escaped. My neigbour, a 60ish woman who visits the market at 6.15 each morning, blasts her tinny, off- tone horn continuously as she exits our alley. At 6.35, shopping done, she returns for an encore performance…just to make sure I’m awake. There is no traffic. There are no pedestrians.
Like many Hanoians, I don’t think she realizes she’s doing it.
Whatever the form of transport, drivers in Hanoi use their horns just as other people bite their fingernails. It is a bad habit, hard to break. Motorcyclists drive with their thumbs permanently poised over the horn, pressing it constantly to alert other road users of their presence. “I’m behind you” or “I’m going to overtake you” or “The traffic light is red but it will be green in three seconds!” are all valid reasons for using one’s horn. If a young man is riding extremely fast and dangerously, weaving in and out of the traffic, he will have his thumb permanently on the horn. In these circumstances, the horn means “I am young, stupid and invincible so get the hell out of my way.” Such a young man usually has an air horn so if he doesn’t run you off the road, the sudden piercing noise will jolt you off your motorbike.
Car drivers, a growing minority taking up an increasing majority of the roads in the capital, are seemingly licensed to beep. In fact, the first rule of driving instruction in Hanoi is not stay on one’s side of the road but instead ‘Use one’s horn as much as possible… Blast the horn because your vehicle is bigger than a motorbike…blast the horn because if the motorbike gets close, it will scratch your car.’ Taxi drivers and small delivery van drivers are championship horn users. Their horns are usually ‘musical’ but worse than a bad pop-song stuck in your head. I have been known to swear particularly well and gesture threateningly when this ‘music’ is played too close to my ears!
Bigger vehicles, like trucks and buses, have the loudest horns of all. When a Hanoi bus is bearing down on you in the traffic with its horn blaring, it’s best to move aside. Their horns mean “If you don’t move, you’re going to be road kill!”
For a simple boy from the countryside who learned to ride a motorbike on the sedate streets of Nha Trang, I still can’t bring myself to use the horn. However, when I saw a group of young teenagers with horns on their bicycles recently, I have vowed to add to the noise pollution.