When I asked a fellow tourist from Dublin what she thought of Hanoi, she exclaimed, “I crossed the street!” We laughed because it is an accomplishment.
At first glance, or second and third, traffic in Hanoi, like in many other parts of the world for that matter, does seem chaotic. Vehicles seem to move to their own logic, nearly missing each other, going in whatever direction they please, turning when they want.
But watch for a while, get in there and cross the street, and you realize it isn’t chaos at all.
Here in the West we have rules; lots and lots of rules. We protect ourselves from myriad eventualities with safety mechanisms and edicts. That is why it is possible to drive on our streets and listen to music, talk on the phone, eat a meal or do personal grooming, while in a comfortable, climate controlled vessel. We have predictable rhythms, lights and lines (a Canadian invention, of course), which force us all onto the narrow path.
We call this civilization, and it is in some ways. Everything is regulated—speed, direction, space. Thousands of us travel daily on the same roads without incident. A vehicle that suddenly cuts you off, or takes up too much space, can ruin a day because it has broken the rules of engagement.
Stay within the lines (did I mention it’s a Canadian invention?) and all will be well.
Thousands of people sharing the same road without any relationship with each other. No eye contact; each in their own hermetically sealed bubble, obeying the rules, staying in their space. It is lonely in a way; that’s why, perhaps, we need the distraction of the radio or some other entertainment, while sitting in a mechanical box on wheels. People are not people; they’re obstacles, disembodied, lacking spirit or being. They are things.
But not in Hanoi. Step onto the road and you are inside a living, breathing organism. It is not for the faint hearted; real life never is, only fantasy.
What at first seems like chaos is actually an intricate dance of complicated relationships. There is eye contact. There is acknowledgement. There might not be rules of speed and space but there are considerations of community. You don’t want to be hit, or to cause an accident, and no one else does as well. You step boldly onto the road and move with a steady pace, keeping an eye for others, as they keep an eye for you, watching your pace, adjusting their own.
People accommodate their vehicles for each other. In Hanoi the majority drive scooters, though there are cars and trucks as well. There are no sudden turns, no rushing, no arrogance. The organism can’t afford selfishness, can’t afford the cold-hearted self-regard of machines shoving their own interest.
It reminded me of what I’ve always considered to be Bob Dylan’s wisest lyric: “To live outside the law you must be honest.” It took some practice, from small side streets to the major intersections, to learn how to be inside an organism. But once inside, matching rhythm for rhythm, it throbbed with the pulse of creation.
Photo by Tyler Ingram vis Flickr (Creative Commons)