Driving and Queuing in Vietnam

One day, early in our stay, we went with our translator Huong to photograph one of the young artists we knew from Campus. As we rode along in our taxi, chatting, our driver went right through a red light.

“Did you see that?” I asked no one in particular. “He didn’t stop for that light!”

“That one is not important,” said Huong, matter-of-factly.

Not important? Can you imagine saying that to a policeman in the U.S. after you’re pulled over for running the red light? But, it was an interesting lesson in how the Vietnamese think. They know the rules, but they don’t all interpret them the same way, giving lots of latitude to everyday constants we Americans hold dear and believe in.

Traffic in Hanoi is, to put it mildly, an adventure. Tens of thousands of people on motorbikes, and more and more cars each year challenge even the most seasoned driver and the highway infrastructure. Just crossing the street on foot is a study in patience and awareness: go slowly and steadily, no jerky movement that they can’t predict. Like a school of fish, they will swim around you.

Traffic lights have come a long way since that first year. There are countdown lights now, and arrowed lights. Still, when crossing an intersection, it is never a sure thing that people will stop when the light turns red; usually there’s a few who take a chance and keep going, and on the other end there are the people who jump the green light. And if you’re crossing a one way street, do not assume someone isn’t coming down it the wrong way; in fact, they probably are.

Oddly enough, there is very little road rage in Hanoi. People are doing their best to just get to where they’re going, and if there is a mishap, the main concern is if someone has been hurt. There are young men who think they’re immortal and take dangerous chances, of course, but that exists in every country. Most people get the job done well, and don’t tempt fate. The honking you hear is usually not because of anger, it’s a) to let other drivers know you’re there if you’re on a motorbike, or b) to scoot you out of the way if your motorbike is blocking a bus or car from getting through.

We were on our motorbike on Chuong Duong (“chum zum”) Bridge, which crosses the Red River and was our conduit from our first apartment in Long Bien to downtown Hanoi, when traffic suddenly slowed to a crawl. We saw why in a few seconds: a big white blob was moving slowly and awkwardly in front of us. It turned out to be a motorbike that was completely obscured by the styrofoam that was loaded onto it. It was probably about six feet by six feet, the driver buried and hidden from view. No one could get around it. We have seen mind-blowing loads like this of steel, plants, animals, bricks, tile; anything that needs transporting gets loaded onto a motorbike, no matter what the physical impossibilities. So consequently, it’s possible in one day to see many drivers pulled over, gathering up what has fallen off. Of course, families of four or five also squeeze onto one motorbike; Vietnamese are tiny people, overall, and can make this happen. Given the danger however, the government has put restrictions in place, but it’s so common that we have seen very few offenders pulled over.

When we first came to Hanoi, people only wore helmets on motorbikes if they chose to. While there was a law in place, the government didn’t put any guts behind it, so people did what they wanted. While we were there in 2006 we heard a new law had been passed, and that people must have helmets after midnight on a certain date. The date came and went and nothing changed.

A couple of years later, they tried again. Truth be told, people were dying of head wounds, or becoming disfigured or disabled in traffic accidents because they weren’t wearing helmets. Bottom line, it was an expensive and embarrassing problem. So, the government devised a massive and gruesome campaign throughout the country that finally got people’s attention. Graphic photos of head injuries and maimed young people turned up everywhere on large posters in a huge marketing campaign. Television ads showed a woman with half her scalp gone with the caption, “How do you like your hair now?” The government made it clear once and for all that there would be consequences if you didn’t have your helmet: your bike would be confiscated and you would have to work to get it back again.

Larry was in Vietnam on the eve of the enforcement date. He said it was absolutely remarkable: a few people had helmets before midnight, everyone had them at 12:01 a.m. The campaign had worked, finally, and people were safer. There is now a campaign to require helmets for children as well. On our travels around Hanoi, we do see helmetless drivers pulled over, on their mobile phones to get a friend to come get them; their motorbike has been impounded for four days, after which they must pay a fine. And of course, there are plenty of people, young and old, who buck the system, thinking their idea is a better one. Very Vietnamese.




I was in one of the supermarkets, inside a new mall in Long Bien, picking up a few groceries. Vietnamese are getting used to shopping this way. In the past, you went one place for your fruit and vegetables, another for bakery, yet another for staples like oil, etc. (This is also a way of catching up on the latest news and gossip, so an entrenched way of life for many Asians.) Going one place for everything is new and strange, and when first we went, the store was empty. But gradually, more and more Vietnamese have joined me in this air-conditioned convenience, even though the food is pricier, and in many cases, not as fresh. The malls have also become hangouts for young people after school, and weekends for families, as many family activities are planned there.

After I gathered my fruits and vegetables, I went to stand in line to have them weighed. Another woman decided she needed to be first, and cut in front of me in line. Then, as I was checking out at the register, the same thing happened; I’m about to put my groceries on the belt when another woman stepped in front of me and put her things there. This is so Vietnamese; it reminds me of when I was first physically moved by the woman at the airport. In their minds, what they have to do is more urgent and important, so they totally go with that idea. It’s not to insult you, it’s practical; they need it more than you do, because after all, who are you? For such a communal country, they often play the individual card.

This got me thinking about why Vietnamese have this peculiar (to me, an American) characteristic of getting around the system or using their own personal interpretation of the rules. And then, why do United States citizens have so much respect for our rules and laws? After all, we’re a polyglot population, one would think we would be bucking the system all the time and everyone would have their own way of doing things that reflects where they came from. Of course, many of us do and are that way, but not nearly to the extent Vietnamese are; to them, it’s a way of life.

Vietnamese friends have told us that they don’t trust their government, that there is corruption at every level, that they are consistently lied to, and a lot of money under the table goes to various officials to get things done. Sometimes, even for things like diplomas or hospital stays, some money has to change hands for everything to come out the way one might expect it to. One of our friends told us that he had to pay his employer to be hired for his job! So, even though there are laws in place, it’s sometimes uncertain whether anyone will follow them. In the village system of governing, the officials at the top can pretty much decide how they will make you toe the line, and it can be uncomfortable, even unpleasant, if you have an unsympathetic leader. Bottom line, you need to look out for yourself and your family.

Truth be told (and this is something I truly appreciate about the U.S. after living in Vietnam on and off for ten years), the U.S. court system is what sets our country apart from any other. It may in some ways be the only thing that sets us apart, but that is huge. We ordinary citizens can still take our government to court, and we can win. Against our government. Or big corporations. That is unheard of in any other country in the world. We, Joe or Jane Citizen, can, all by his or herself, effect change in our country. Vietnamese understand that, and admire us for that reason. Many other countries understand it too; it’s one of the reasons so many people want to come to our country: they feel they can get a fair shake. If we didn’t have this system, our country could fall into chaos; it’s what holds us together, and a significant number of us don’t realize it. And it’s probably why we stop at red lights: we get that there are laws, we get that there’s a reason for that, and we also get that they have to be obeyed. That’s because we’re not constantly trying to figure out a way to wriggle out of the randomly unfair and arbitrary system that surrounds us, as the Vietnamese do on a daily basis.

So, I wonder further: how did the Vietnamese kick our American butts out of their country in the mid-1970s?  They had much less in the way of economic resources, obviously. How did they pull together to create such an effective defense, when it’s typically everyone for himself, and trusting your neighbor isn’t a high priority?

When we bring this up with our friends, they smile and first of all forgive us, the infant country that doesn’t know any better. They explain that they have been around for tens of thousands of years, are probably one of the oldest groups of people on Earth, and have a history of invasions that go back further than their written story. They’re used to being invaded and threatened, and recently tossed out the Chinese when they tried to enter the Northern border. To say they are clever is a vast understatement and dangerous mistake if you are the invader and don’t recognize this. It is pretty much in their DNA; when an invader shows up, Vietnamese are ferocious people, and rightly so, united against the world.

We recently heard that the Chinese refer to Vietnam as the “tongue of the cow”, China being the cow. It’s a vulgar reference to the fact that the Chinese government (most Vietnamese don’t have a quarrel with the people, but the government is a different story) assumes that Vietnam rightfully belongs to China, as it did at one point in history. This infuriates the Vietnamese, and they are on constant alert against this kind of bullying, wondering aloud why China thinks it needs countries like Taiwan and Vietnam when it’s already immense.


Author: Pamela Foard

Teaching and playing professionally since the age of 19, Pamela Foard was appointed a teaching assistant position at her alma mater, Indiana University, while earning a Master’s Degree in Violin Performance. Once graduated, she further honed her teaching skills at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in Milwaukee, and opened her private violin and viola studio in 1978 in Brookfield, Wisconsin, which was active until her move to Los Angeles in 2014. While at IU, Pamela studied with Italian violinist Franco Gulli and Polish violinist Tadeusz Wronski. She has also studied with Gerald Horner of The Fine Arts Quartet, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; Dr. Gerald Fischbach, Edward Mumm, former Concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Piotr Janowski of the New Arts Trio in Milwaukee, and Vartan Menoogian of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A transplant from the East coast to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Pamela was barely out of her teens, when her talents as a freelance musician led rapidly to positions as assistant-concertmaster of the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra, the Wisconsin Philharmonic, and concertmaster of the Green Lake Festival Orchestra (Sir David Willcocks conducting), violinist with Skylight Opera Theater, and under Music Directors Kenneth Schermerhorn and Lukas Foss, the number one substitute violinist and violist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra from 1970 to 1986. Pamela founded an all string, unconducted orchestra, Sinfonia Concertante, in Milwaukee in 1979, and was the Artistic Director and Administrative Director for four years, where she also served on the board of directors. She was also the Managing Director for Milwaukee’s contemporary music ensemble, Present Music, from 1996-99. In 2006, she and her husband were invited to be artists-in-residence in Hanoi, Vietnam for a three month program, where they collaborated with Vietnamese artists. She commissioned a tuba concerto for her son Aubrey (currently a professional musician in the Charlotte Symphony and head of the low brass department at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music) in 2008 from Wisconsin composer Mark Petering. In a series of fundraisers for various levels of sponsorship of the concerto, she solicited from donors over $20,000. Pamela has published two books: "Wedding Music Essentials" and " In Concert: The Freelance Musician's Keys to Financial Success”. Presently, Pamela continues to freelance and resides in Marina del Rey, California with her husband, the fine art photographer Lawrence D’Attilio, and their cat Dasher.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: