VIETNAM AND THE WAR IN THE STREETS
by Tooker Gomberg and Angela Bischoff

The American military, during the war in Vietnam, inaugurated a new form of war. It became known as "ecocide": the military attempted to destroy the ecosystem by pouring massive quantities of herbicides from the sky in order to force peasants to abandon the countryside.

Three decades later the battle against nature continues unabated. Now the war is in the cities: cities which survived decades of war are now suffering under a pallor of exhaust. The streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are being strangled, slowly, by aggressive, honking motorized vehicles. One might call it "urbacide".

You can tell a lot about a city from its streets. Streets may even be the best indicator of the health of a city. The capital, Hanoi, a city of one million people, still retains much of its charm, especially in the Old Quarter. Low-rise buildings, rarely taller than three stories, are jammed together along narrow, winding streets.

Early in the morning, the streets are so calm you can hear birds singing from cages hanging in the trees. By 8 a.m., under the shady trees of the Old Quarter, the streets are full to capacity as activity bursts forth. Motorcycles are everywhere, weaving, accelerating, and swerving within a hair's breadth.

Through this anarchic traffic jumble, cone-hatted women amble carrying bouncing baskets of bananas and pineapples, bread, or ready-to-eat sticky rice, and more. Everything glides by in woven bamboo baskets elegantly balanced on a bamboo pole. It gives a whole new meaning to the concept of shopping: instead of going somewhere for the goods, the "basket of goods" comes to you.

Make-shift restaurants, complete with a few stackable stools and a coal-fired stove, line the sidewalks. Kids play soccer, weaving around the pedestrians. Like cruise missiles, pedlars hone in on tourists, trying to sell postcards or army-green pith helmets.

Another type of peddler pushes a ride in a cyclo - the ubiquitous, three-wheeled, pedal-powered taxi. This unique Vietnamese vehicle is custom-made in small shops around the country. It is a popular mode of transportation for tourists and locals alike. And when required, a cyclo can as easily be used for transporting large, bulky, and heavy freight.

But there is a common attitude that cyclos "get in the way" and hinder traffic. So the government is cracking down on them, and has begun banning them from certain streets during certain hours. We wondered by what logic motorcycles were allowed on any street however narrow, and at any time day or night, while cyclos were banned?

Not everyone is happy with the rapid motorization. Ms. Nguyen Linh, of the Vietnam Women's Union, told us: "Many people feel regret with the current situation that the Vietnamese are forgetting the bicycle...Many people miss the romantic past, it was quieter and less polluted. And of course, bicycles are good for the environment."

The official term for bicycles, pedestrians, and people carrying baskets is "rudimentary forms of transport". And everybody seems to want a motorbike. One of the more popular brands is the Honda Dream. But with everybody driving their Dream, the city is turning into a nightmare.

A Honda Dream costs over $2,000 US, and with annual salaries of less than $400 on average, somehow people can still afford them. Motorcycle use is exploding. From 1995 - 1997, the number of motorcycles in Vietnam increased by 35% from 3,500,000 - 4,800,000. Very few people travel by bus.

It is hard to imagine what Hanoi was like just five years ago when there were virtually no annoying motorcycles. Or ten years ago when streetcars still plied the leafy boulevards.

In the countryside, the bicycle is still commonly used. Once we rode in a special lane reserved for bicycles and water buffalo (no joke). They may have horns, but at least they don't honk obnoxiously.

A ride along the main national highway was most notable for its constant honking. Though most vehicles along the rural route were pedal powered, the slow, peaceful mood was constantly upset by maniacal motorcycle or bus drivers barreling along, honking everybody out of their way.

Cities around the world are cooking the atmosphere and choking on motor vehicle exhaust. Many are beginning to realize that less motorization usually means more livability. Can Hanoi recapture, and show the world, how serene and sustainable a foot-powered city can be? Or must each city itself learn the lessons of mass motordom? The tragedy, it seems, is that you just can't know what you've got 'til it's gone.