By Josh Feng
It felt like I was back on the trails.
Adrenaline was pumping through my veins, and those handy running-induced endorphins were giving me a “runners’ high.” I was on top of the world.
Except this time, I wasn’t in the forests of Eastern Wisconsin, but on the streets of Hanoi. I wasn’t dodging branches and exposed roots, but motorbikes and street-side stands. And when I reached my turn-around point, I wasn’t overlooking Lake Michigan, but Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum instead.
For some, running closes the rest of the world around them. It forms a bubble filled with only their own breathing and movements. For me, it intensifies a hyper-awareness of my surroundings. Even during Hanoi’s morning rush hour, I noticed parents driving their children to school on motorbikes crammed with two, three, even four people on top. Other parents were riding bikes with infants calmly perched in front of them. And practically everyone strapped air-pollution masks onto the front of their faces.
My morning excursion was a novelty, perhaps a one-time experience. But for those living in Hanoi, this is their life. Going about daily activities means constantly dodging vehicles, people, animals, stands, and whatever else finds its way on the streets. It means driving through intersections void of stop signs or traffic lights and on streets where traffic laws seem optional rather than enforced.
Perhaps the hectic traffic will be decongested after the construction of Hanoi’s first metro in 2016. Maybe more and more traffic lights will be installed in the near future. Until then, this is the norm.
I’m not sure if people even think change is necessary. Are they just used to it?
As I rode a bus through the Vietnamese countryside, a tour guide offered some advice on crossing streets in Hanoi: “Just close your eyes and cross.” It seems like it’s the best you can do sometimes.
After feeling my lungs burn after the run, I finally understood why crowds of Hanoi commuters donned air-pollution masks on the streets. It was the first time I really noticed it. As the burgeoning car and motorbike population crowds the streets of Hanoi, the city’s air quality becomes more and more deplorable.
I was heaving at the end of my run, out of breath after only a couple miles of jogging. While I was struggling to catch my breath, I realized what I was inhaling was far different from what was back home in Wisconsin. The fresh air at Dairyland, tainted only with the occasional stench of cow manure from the farms, was what fueled most of my runs. But in Vietnam’s capital, I was breathing in air mixed with thick vehicle exhaust and chemicals. I was in Hanoi.