This past week a story out of Hanoi has exploded across the internet. On Monday an expat named George Heydlauff, who has lived in the capital for 5 years, went to an intersection where moto drivers often go the wrong direction down a major one-way street and forced people to stop their bikes and turn around. Twice he even grabbed the rear handle protruding from the seat of a motorbike, bringing the confused passengers to an abrupt halt. Here's Tuoi Tre's first article on the incident (including cell phone videos from bystanders): http://tuoitrenews.vn/cmlink/tuoitrenews/society/foreigner-decides-to-enforce-traffic-rules-video-1.78559.
Subsequent articles have attracted tons of comments from readers, and while many of the initial reactions contained interesting and insightful thoughts, they have since devolved into people calling each other retards, pussies, and dumbasses - all in caps-lock - as has happened with every online argument in the history of the internet. What Heydlauff did clearly struck a nerve, unsurprising considering how bold and out of the ordinary his actions were. Weirdly, expats and foreigners have been nearly unanimous in their hearty condemnation of the incident, while locals have supported what Heydlauff did, at least in part.In the end I have to disagree with what he did, although I've certainly dreamed of doing similar things to drivers here, but that's not what this post is about.
Foreigners in any country have to toe a fine line between what is acceptable for them to do, and what isn't. Every country has its own unique values and views on social behavior, and visitors to that country need to be constantly mindful of that. This is particularly true here in Vietnam, a country that is far more conservative than the countries most expats (particularly those from the west) come from. I've seen first-hand what can happen when that line gets crossed, and it ain't pretty. People could have easily reacted violently to Heydlauff; fortunately for him they didn't. Imagine if a Vietnamese person visiting an American city tried to force drivers to do what he was telling them to do.
This incident brings up issues surrounding what is seen as acceptable on the roads here. The divide between locals and foreigners on this issue is stark: we westerners are used to orderly streets and a driving population that, by and large, follows the rules. The rules of the road here, on the other hand, are treated much more ambivalently. You could say that the majority of drivers follow most of the rules most of the time, but I still see at least one traffic infraction every minute as I drive around. From gleefully running red lights to going the wrong way to pulling incredibly dangerous U-turns, the streets are a mess of chaos. Even things that aren't necessarily encoded in law - road awareness, respect for other drivers - are treated differently, and the result can be exceedingly frustrating. Many locals seem to just accept it though.
Some of the foreigners who commented on the Heydlauff story said that he should have ignored the problem because, in their words, people here don't know how to drive. It is fine for us to complain about problems here, but such an argument comes off as condescending, and that isn't something foreigners can do. (Though I'm probably about to be all condescending, you be the judge.) Western countries have had large-scale private transportation for decades, and these societies have absorbed years of PSA's, driver's ed and safety drives, resulting in populations that are well-versed on what should make a good driver, and what should be done on the roads. Vietnam only had bicycles for the masses until the last 15-odd years, so there simply hasn't been time to establish what foreigners would consider a standard of driving behavior.
Some of the reactions to the Hanoi story also reveal issues with how this nation perceives the authority of police. Many people commented that Heydlauff should have left traffic regulation to traffic cops, but the CSGT (as they are called) aren't respected here at all. The sheer volume of traffic violations means they can't hope to enforce anything resembling order, and when they stand on a corner away from their motorcycles to wave people over with their batons, many rule breakers simply keep driving, since the cop would have to run back to his bike, start it up, and tear through traffic just to try to stop one person. There seems to be little hesitation in simply ignoring police. If a police officer had done what Heydlauff did there would have been significant blowback from locals against him.
I've also noticed that Vietnamese people are very selective about which rules they choose to follow. Sometimes they are terrified of the police, other times they act like anarchists. I've had taxi drivers tell me they can't stop at a certain spot in the road without getting in trouble, only to blow through a red light at 60 mph two minutes later. How does that make sense? I agree that foreigners certainly cannot begin acting as police, but the police don't seem to be having a very big impact.
I kind of lost track of what my initial point here was supposed to be since I've had a lot of thoughts regarding the issue of traffic and following the law. I agree with the commentators who said locals need to deal with this issue, not foreigners. Many Vietnamese people who wrote in on the story said they are disgusted by people running red lights, etc., but I see little evidence of this on the streets. If you see someone doing something wrong, why not tell them to stop? Social pressure can bring change to those who regularly flout the law, though actual law enforcement probably won't. Vietnamese society puts heavy emphasis on the 'community' - if members of the community stood up to bad drivers, things would change, and probably quite quickly. So, how about it, community?