HCMC Dining Guide

Friday, July 6, 2012

Crossing the line?

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?


  1. It's interesting, because I think that if a cop did what he did, they would actually be obeyed. The problem is that they have no interest in stopping the rule-breaking, simply profiting from it. If people knew that the first cop was simply a warning and then perhaps 100m down the road there would be a second cop ready to stop and fine people who disobeyed, things would change much quicker than the current system of pulling over one person (preferably on an expensive bike) every 2 minutes while hundreds of others continue to flout the rules.

    1. Well, as I mentioned there are so many people breaking the law that it is impossible for the cops to pull over every person doing something wrong. I like your idea in theory, but the second cop would have to pull over several hundred motorbikes per day.

      I find that society writ large here treats the police force with roughly the same amount of respect as they give to a pile of poo. Cops don't only only pull over expensive bikes, and I can't count the number of times I've seen someone who just broke the law swerve and speed away from a police officer who is trying to wave them over to the sidewalk. I maintain that will be up to the public to fix this.

  2. Gonna play devil's advocate....

    "Imagine if a Vietnamese person visiting an American city tried to force drivers to do what he was telling them to do."

    I think you're comparing apples and oranges here. In the USA, driving culture is for the most part congruent with the law. A foreigner trying to force Americans to drive differently would mean forcing them to break the law. In the Heydlauff case, he's a foreigner in Vietnam forcing locals to Follow the law, and I think this difference gives his actions more validity.

    "I agree with the commentators who said locals need to deal with this issue, not foreigners."

    Yeah you can easily take this position, but when times passes and nothing changes, and one day a motorbike going the wrong way on a one-way street crashes into you and your child on your motorbike, wouldn't you take matters into your own hands?

    On the bright side, I often did see locals playing traffic vigilante on the corner of Pasteur and Tran Quóc Toan in Saigon, waving batons and making motorbikes head in the right direction. More people like this could definitely make a change.

    1. Point taken on both issues, I guess what I was trying to get at is whether it's acceptable for foreigners to act as enforcement in their adopted country, or whether it should be left solely to natives.

      I don't really have any issue with Heydlauff telling people to turn around, but I can't support grabbing bikes...although I've fantasized about doing worse to certain drivers. I suppose if they put your child in danger the reaction is pretty understandable, though it makes you wonder why local drivers aren't more concerned about their own children - letting them ride on a wicker booster seat between you and the handlebars with a mosquito net over their face isn't conducive to seeing them live past the age of, say, 3.

  3. Wow, thanks for bringing attention this. Despite living in Hanoi, I think I've been stuck under a rock for the last week. I agree with you that Heydlauff was a bit foolhardy and could have experience some pretty nasty consequences. Unfortunately, as foreigners, I think the best we can do is follow the laws and model behavior we want to promote. On your very last point, my experience has been the opposite.

    Running red lights and other dangerous behavior is scarily prevalent. Not just speeding past red lights (esp at night), but people manage to tangle themselves in broad daylight at high speeds when it's not their turn. As a pedestrian, it has been really dangerous at times. I need to develop my sonar skills :)

    1. Maybe I couched my terms to cautiously, but I didn't intend to make it sound like traffic violations aren't prevalent - they are ridiculously common, and I'm still amazed I haven't been involved in a serious accident. (Touches wood.) I also totally agree that being a pedestrian can be dangerous, oftentimes I get the feeling that drivers are befuddled by the fact that people would, like, walk somewhere. It's always funny when someone almost runs you over on the sidewalk and they act like you're at fault. One could probably write a book on these issues.

  4. I have to say, I actually prefer the Vietnamese system to the American one. I clock in just a few miles per week here in Saigon compared to the 85 miles I had to commute each day in the States. My wife and I traded in $30,000 worth of automobiles back home for $300 dollars worth of motorbike here. As far as the police go, they're out for money in both nations, but here the fine might be 5-10 dollars. Back home I was out over $50 for having a seat belt tucked under my left arm (seriously). As far as wrecks go, neither place is particularly safe, but consider the density of HCMC. With nearly 6 million bikes in such a small place, you will witness a few accidents. Of the ones I've seen, only one was serious. Back in Dallas, there was a week when every one of my commutes home from work involved exiting the highway due to a fatality.

    The one thing I do not understand here is what happens after a wreck. It seems the party most likely responsible immediately picks up and drives off like nothing happened. No one checks to see if the other is okay. So strange.

    1. Thanks for the comment, but I have to completely disagree. (Except for the commute distance - it is better here.) All it takes is one look at statistics to see that it's far more dangerous here - the death toll from accidents is immense. Roughly 15,000 people die from accidents every year in Vietnam (and that's probably a conservative number). In the U.S. it's more like 30,000, but we have nearly 250 million more people, and I would guess a higher percentage of drivers too.

      Sure it may seem like accidents in Saigon aren't that serious, but that's because you can't work up much speed thanks to small roads and dense congestion. In the U.S. you can go at least 30 or 40 mph on nearly every road, so when you have an accident it will be more severe. If you look at the roads in Vietnam where you can go fast - Highway 1, for example, accidents are often catastrophic.

      Two months ago a bus drove off a bridge in the Central Highlands and 34 people died. Trucks and buses smash into each other all the time on highways here, and the death tolls are always eye-popping, since bus drivers are allowed to pack as many people as possible into their vehicles. As a result you basically get oversized cans of sardines hurtling at each other at 60 mph. In terms of safety I'd take America's roads any day of the week. NYC has more than 6 million people, and I'd bet my bank account that there are fewer serious traffic casualties than here.

    2. Wow, I didn't realise that road deaths in America were so high. In the UK, there were just under 2000 roads deaths last year (the equivalent of about 10,000 in the US), so for me, the difference between that and Vietnam is insane. The difference between the USA and Vietnam is nowhere near as great as I expected, when you consider that most Vietnamese people are typically driving a far more dangerous vehicle, often without basic safety precautions (admittedly far shorter distances). I don't really know what the standard of driving is like in the US though.

    3. Interesting...I didn't know the UK's number was so low. The only reason I can think of is that, outside of a few cities, there isn't much effective public transport in the U.S., so basically everyone drives and there are far more vehicles on the road. I've always felt pretty safe driving in the States - in 7 years of driving there before moving to Vietnam I was only involved in two accidents, and they were both minor.