It’s a head-on collision in the making. Two fast-moving motorbikes, a mountainous road slick with rain.
The riders see each other at the last second. They slam on the brakes, fishtail, come to a stop inches from each other. They smile, shrug, get back on their bikes and putter off.
If this happened back in Phoenix, there would be a lot more drama. Some yelling and gesturing at a bare minimum, with a possibility of punches thrown.
If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about Vietnam, though, is that the people are fairly relaxed toward each other – even behind the wheel or handlebar.
I saw it on the first day as Sarah and I perched on a curb, waiting for a break in traffic to cross a street in Ho Chi Minh City. There, traffic seems like chaos. It’s intimidating and stressful. I had no idea what to do. I noticed a local woman start to cross, and I followed her. We walked a straight, slow, steady line. The motorbike avalanche flowed around us. Nobody honked, nobody got mad. I looked over my shoulder, and Sarah was still on the curb.
The local woman noticed. She went back across, took Sarah by the hand and towed her across the intersection. Without saying a word, she taught Sarah -- "This is how we do it in Vietnam."
It makes the Vietnamese sound very friendly, doesn’t it? And they are, but not in the way we associate with Aussies and Kiwis. They’re not really outgoing and jocular. It took me a few days to feel plugged into their mannerisms; once I did, I saw courtesy and humor in many of my encounters.
The streets strike me as microcosm of the culture. I sense that people connect with each other, and give each other the room they need to exist. When one motorbike rider cuts in front of another, nobody gets upset. Everyone just goes around each other, making room for the occasional alpha predator like a bus or semi-truck.
What’s the root of this? Buddhism? Living in close quarters? A period of peace after a long history of conflict?
And what’s the source of the uptight hostility I sense back home? Phoenix is a sprawling place, as are many Asian cities like Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. But density accompanies their sprawl, where Phoenix-area people are spread out. It’s possible to walk for a mile in Scottsdale, where I live, and not see another person on foot. Since I’m just a few weeks removed from my trip to Vietnam, my area feels vacant -- especially with the out-of-business car dealerships that blot the southern part of the city.
You won’t see the hostility in every encounter here. People here are relatively polite one-on-one. But controlling a vehicle turns us into impatient, self-centered misanthropes just a minor traffic inconvenience away from fury. That includes me.
My conclusion – our cars and our homes are bubbles. We grow to hate being outside them, and we resent any reminder that there are other human beings out there. We starve for human contact without realizing it. We grow isolated.
I see this as a very regional and varied phenomenon. I consider the Pacific Northwest the friendliest part of the United States. People walk quite a bit more, and the drivers are civilized. It’s not unusual for a local to strike up a conversation with someone.
So is more people walking the answer? No. People walk all over in Washington, D.C. -- and I consider it one of the least-friendly places I’ve ever visited. Consider that I’ve spent well more than six months total in the area, and I consider my view valid.
I have no solution, nor a solid idea of what makes one population so much quicker to anger than another. All I can take away is a bit of awareness -- and a reminder to ask myself “What would a Vietnamese motorbike rider do?”.