Seymour Papert in Coma, Struck by Motorcycle in Hanoi

Seymour Papert, known for his work on children and technology, is close to death in Hanoi after being struck by a motorcycle while crossing the street.

I wrote in my old blog about the complexity of the traffic in Viet Nam, the vast numbers of motor scooters and the improvisational nature of the traffic interaction: the way pedestrians have to cross the street is to simply walk out into the traffic on a predictable trajectory and trust the motor scooters to go around you. Which they mostly do. Scooters routinely go the wrong-way on one-way streets, go down the wrong side of the road against heavy traffic in multi-lane streets, and use the sidewalks whenever they please. They are often aggressive and reckless. I often saw scooters race through crowded markets full of pedestrians and stalls.

Looking back I see that I tried to stay upbeat reporting from/about Hanoi. I hated Hanoi. It was much more aggressive, and more hostile, than Saigon: the traffic, the selling, the cheating, were all extremely aggressive — in general, and especially toward tourists.

Old town Hanoi, where most of the tourists spend their time, is narrow streets. The sidewalks are filled with things that people are selling, parked motor scooters, and in the evenings families sitting outside their small stores cooking and eating on the sidewalk, all this leaving pedestrians nowhere to walk but in the street with the wild motor scooter traffic.

Just walking around was intensely anxiety provoking. I would wait for a sort of break in the traffic before venturing to cross the street, but then the vendors and motorscooter “taxis” would take that as an opportunity to importune me. I would be trying to cross and a motor scooter would pull up and block my way: “Motorcycle, Madame?”

And it’s not that the system works and we simply don’t understand it. I was not at all surprised to learn that Hanoi has fewer motor scooters but a higher death rate than Saigon. I saw a fatal truck-motor scooter accident on the highway outside Saigon — it wasn’t clear to me whether the fatality I saw was a passenger from the truck, or the cyclist. Although there may have been more than one.

Below is actually a relatively quiet side-street (of which there are few) in Old Town Hanoi, but the sidewalk is typical; if anything, it’s less congested than on the major streets (which are no wider, just busier). I have no pictures of the crazy Hanoi traffic because I wasn’t in much of a picture-taking mood.

In Hanoi I saw a woman hit by someone on a motor scooter: a French woman crossing the street with her daughter, an Asian girl of about 5, somehow made contact with the body of someone on a scooter as she crossed a small street in the Old Town. (I was similarly hit in Hoi An: I stepped off the curb, and motor scooter coming up from behind me turned in front of me, and someone on the scooter made body contact with me.) In Hanoi I wondered if it was deliberate, and if it was because she was a Western woman with an Asian child. The tenor of Hanoi was such that that would not have surprised me.

On the plane from Hong Kong to Saigon I was sitting near an overseas Vietnamese who said that he didn’t think Viet Nam would be able to develop as a country until they reformed their driving habits. At the time I didn’t know what he meant.


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