Driven to praise, driving me nuts: a US-Vietnam traffic comparison
Anyone who knows me or has read my work knows that I can be severely critical of my home country. My criticism is motivated by anger at injustice and hypocrisy.
It’s also because I care. There are so many avoidable problems, squandered opportunities, wasted potential and unrealized ideals.
Along with the bad and ugly, however, is the good. There is one cultural difference that always puts a smile on my face when I return to the U.S., rent a car and hit the road.
Whenever I pull up to a four-way stop in the U.S., everyone - with very few exceptions - regardless of who they are and what kind of vehicle they’re driving, big or small, new or used, expensive or not, follows the established etiquette. They wait patiently for each driver to take her/his turn. Whoever arrived first, goes first and so forth. It’s a lesson from driving lessons that most people internalize.
How orderly, quaint and civilized, I always think to myself. It warms the cockles of my heart like the feeling you have after performing an act of kindness. It feels genuinely good to be courteous to our fellow human beings. (Why U.S. Americans can’t apply this simple act of cooperation to other areas of their society is grist for another essay.)
On the other side of the coin, in Vietnam, a culture that has traditionally valued harmony, courtesy and cooperation are not in most drivers’ vocabulary. (This was the focus of a 2018 article When in Vietnam, drive as the Vietnamese do.) Driving here is much like the country itself, never boring, always an adventure. What to expect? The unexpected virtually every minute of every day you’re on the road.
Drive defensively and, when need be, offensively. Protect yourself, your vehicle, your passengers, and everyone else on the road, including those looking at their smartphones or at God knows what. Don’t worry about what’s behind you just what’s in front and on both sides of you. That’s Vietnamese driving etiquette in a nutshell.
In contrast to a four-way stop in the U.S., everyone in Vietnam would try to go at once and whoever got there first - without an accident - would take the prize. Survival of the biggest, fastest, most risk tolerant and most self-centered. It’s a dog-eat-dog mobile world and a shameful example of Darwinian competition at its worst.
This includes naughty drivers using the shoulder of the road as a third or fourth lane because, after all, their time is more valuable than anyone else’s.
Can a semi-trailer truck, a bus or a cement truck, lights flashing and horns honking, fit between your car in the right lane and the concrete barrier that begins where the shoulder ends? The price of finding out may very well be your life. Always better to err on the side of caution and yield, or else risk life and limb.
Or trying to pass in a one and half lane road for cars and motorbikes. In this case, I exhibit my best passive-aggressive behavior by driving in the middle of the road as a fellow driver who I’ll call "hell on wheels" tries to pass me on the right or left. Driving as a chess match. Passive-aggressive: 1; hell on wheels: 0. So far.
Another example is that of drivers who turn left from the far-right lane. Why? Because they want to and it’s often a way to pass other cars and "get ahead," as if life is a never-ending game of thrones.
Slow traffic to the right is not yet a concept, which is why I’ve become more skilled at flowing like fast-moving water around trucks and cars whose drivers have no qualms about slowing everyone else down.
What about the notion of lane courtesy, which in the U.S. was the result of its famed Interstate Highway System? It’s the practice of yielding to or moving over for faster moving traffic. Forget it. Courtesy is for losers and wusses in Vietnam.
In the U.S. and other countries, there is a sense of reciprocity, an unwritten social covenant of the highways that means I am courteous to my fellow drivers because I instinctively know that most will return the favor. In the U.S., I let other drivers merge with a friendly wave of the hand. Here, in the highway jungle of Vietnam, I invariably grab my space as quickly as possible.
Jekyll and Hyde on wheels
It’s as if jumping on a motorbike or into a car transforms most Vietnamese into aggressive individuals who are only about themselves. Off the highway, most people are normally super polite and civilized and would likely go out of their way to help if needed. Once they’re behind the wheel (or handlebars), all bets are off; the herd mentality takes over.
The level of aggression I have witnessed in the 17 years I’ve been driving here is off the charts. It not only makes driving more stressful than it should be, it also increases the chance of an accident. Sadly, I have witnessed many, including those that resulted in serious injury and death.
I will continue to perform the occasional act of kindness on the mean streets of Hanoi not because I think I can change the minds and hearts of millions of drivers, but because it’s the right thing to do and gives me a sense of control and peace. I will not allow the status quo to turn me into someone I am not.
The irony is that whenever I’m back in the U.S. I need to quickly readjust and become a good transportation citizen. I use my horn sparingly and become less aggressive. U.S. Americans become quickly offended at horn-honking unless it is absolutely necessary. They view it as a warning not a form of communication.
Getting from point A to point B, whether for business or pleasure, is not a zero-sum game. My heartfelt plea to Vietnamese drivers and foreigners who have gone local, knowing they can get away with things that would be unthinkable and often illegal in their home countries: Treat your fellow drivers, your fellow human beings, with respect. Embrace mutually beneficial cooperation over cutthroat competition. Courtesy and cooperation create win-win situations.
Other drivers are not your enemies nor are they obstacles standing between you and your final destination. Transportation is part of life and we’re all in this together.
*Mark A. Ashwill, Ph.D., is an education entrepreneur who has lived in Vietnam since 2005.