I spent 3 weeks in Vietnam earlier this year. Most of the time I spent in either Ho
Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in the south of the country or Ha Noi in the north.
Like Thailand, there is a north south divide that is fairly stark. The dialects are so
different that people from the north have a hard time understanding people from
the south. The southern people, perhaps because of the warmer sunnier climate
wear more colorful clothes while the northerners wear blacks and greys. Pho, the
national dish that is eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner, is simple in the north and
more complicated in the south. The people from the south were heavily influenced
by the Americans during the war while people from the north were not and have
retained much of their traditional way of life. Both cities are energetic and alive.
People seem to be hard working, driven, and excited to make an impact on the
world. Young people creating opportunities for themselves and others is in the air.
You can almost feel the excitement and creative juices flowing. But this is not what I
wanted to talk about.
I want to talk about something that seems to be deeply rooted in the psyche of
Vietnamese people and I believe it is instructive. It certainly has been for me. The
idea is momentum. Let’s start on the street. They drive here like nowhere else I
have ever been in the world. It is very disconcerting at first and crossing the street
can be a harrowing ordeal, again, at first. When they pull out into the road and go
right (they drive on the same side of the street as we do in the states), they don’t
look left. They just turn right onto the street from an alley or another street. They
totally trust that no matter who is coming the other way, that that person will see
them and they will avoid them without stress or conflict. When they are driving
their motorbike (more of a scooter as there are almost no motorcycles as we know
them in the west there), they don’t look in back to see what is behind them and they
only use their peripheral vision to see what is next to them. This way, everyone is
looking straight ahead and avoiding what is in front of them. They don’t hesitate
and they don’t have this little communication with other drivers – should I go,
should I let you go? – that little dance that we are always playing here in the states
trying to see what the other person is going to do. In Vietnam, you know what the
other person is going to do because you are totally aware of their momentum. And
by observing their momentum, you can work around them quite easily and scoot
around them within inches. Because you know they aren’t going to suddenly stop or
be afraid. They will just calmly continue moving forward. The only problems come
if someone hesitates, is uncertain or afraid. And when you see westerners who are
not used to this way of being and moving cross the street, it’s a scary situation
because instead of just walking across the street into the middle of traffic and
knowing that the motorbikes will see you and account for your momentum, they
hesitate. And when you are clearing someone by an inch or two, even the slightest
hesitation can cause an accident.
This connects to my previous blog post where I identify my teachers Pichests dislike
of hesitation and uncertainty and how that is so deeply a part of western mind. It
really shows itself in Vietnam where that sort of lack of clarity doesn’t seem to exist
very much. Everyone is just moving forward and taking care of that which is right in
front of them, ducking and dodging and working together in this beautiful dance.
Everyone is paying attention too. Of all the taxi’s that I was in while in Vietnam not
one of them had the radio on. Not one of them talked on the phone. Not one of them
texted on their smartphone, though many had them. Very few of the motorscooter
riders had earbuds in. Basically, in order to do what they do, everyone had to be
present. Everyone had to pay attention because the moment you are distracted you
will hit someone. There is amazing mindfulness on the roads in Vietnam.
Finally, there was really no anger, no road rage at all, at least not from what I saw. I
see much more in Thailand. Here, despite the fact that they are not a “polite” culture
like Thailand (the word please isn’t really used and when you say thank you it’s
often not acknowledged), they work in such proximity to each other they are
constantly having to make allowances for the other, at least in the cities that I was
in. So the culture allows for stop lights to be truly optional, and if you decide to go
through a red light and you cross the oncoming traffic, you just go slow and steady
and like water around a rock, the oncoming traffic will duck around you at the last
second and you will get to the otherside unscathed and without anyone batting an
eye. If the traffic is too bad, you jump on the sidewalk and ride down the sidewalk.
There might be lines of motorcycles riding up and down the sidewalks, popping
back on the road wherever they need to. And because everyone is working so
closely together, if you got angry every time a person jumped in front of you or
caused you to brake, you would spend your life angry. They seem to be very
tolerant and very forgiving. They seem to just take care of their own thing and
figure that everyone else will do that a well. The idea of momentum, of looking
forward and not getting hung up on the obstacles in our path, is a good reminder for
me to when I get stuck and become too concerned with what other people are
thinking, expecting and doing. Just to move forward and assume that everyone else
is doing the same.