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Rules of engagement

Sometimes it's all about the "collective", and sometimes it's about the “individual within the collective”.

Shortly after I arrived in Hanoi to begin my 2018-2019 Fulbright Scholar Grant experience, I recall being caught in my first traffic jam (tắc đường). Interestingly, what I remember most about that experience was how calm the driver remained within a sea of chaos.  

Fast-forward…after 608 days of collective experience observing traffic in Hanoi (and across Vietnam) I have yet to witness what I would interpret to be, or classify as, a “loss of patience” or a “case of road rage”.  What I have witnessed on the crowded streets of Hanoi's ~5 million “drivers”, however, is a mesmerizing collective  set of unspoken, unwritten rules. 

Rule #1 - Always play nice

Just like sharks and remora fish, cars and motor bikes have a symbiotic relationship. Given nearly everyone who drives a car also drives a motorbike at some point during the day/week, when a car stops for any reason (e.g., traffic jam, an intersection with a traffic cop), a car driver will always leave enough room between themselves and any other car/truck/3 or 4 wheel vehicle for motorbikes. This gives motorbike drivers the chance to spread out a little, thereby creating an open pocket which a car can then fill, which vacates that car's previous space, which will be filled by a car behind them. It's this accordion effect allows traffic to creep forward and break up a traffic jam or set up for rule #2.

Rule #2 - No “L-turns” allowed at intersections.

Cars and trucks will travel the shortest distance between two points, which means traveling at a diagonal through the intersection. With an L-turn you have to stop and wait for a break in oncoming traffic before you can complete your turn. By driving diagonally across an intersection, you are always moving forward and always in the process of making your turn to the adjacent street. This way, those behind you who want to continue on straight through intersection can just travel on without waiting for you to turn. Also, this allows motorbikes who are turning with that car the chance to get downstream from the car and use it as a shield against the oncoming opposing traffic. Furthermore driving diagonally allows oncoming traffic in the opposing lane to enter the intersection and continue moving forward - by driving behind the car that's turning and in front of the next turning car in line (who has left space for this to happen).

Rule #3 - Allow people to cut you off.

Whether it's a car or a motorbike, letting people cut in front of you creates a joining zipper effect that allows everyone to keep moving forward and nobody has to stop in the middle of the road. You just have to slow down enough to let the car or bike in front of you.

Rule #4 - When making a right-hand turn onto a street, all cars must leave one meter of empty space between the passenger door and the curb

This allows motorbikes on the passenger side of your car the chance to turn down the same street.

Rule #5 - No quick movements allowed.

Like the gears in a watch, all street components (cars, motorbikes, cyclos (bicycle driven rickshaw), bicycles, hand carts, pedestrians) must work together, which means all intended movements must be telegraphed in advance (slowly moving over in a lane, using a blinker, waving an arm) and predictable (smooth and even movements). 



JULY, p. 9

AUGUST, p. 9


OCTOBER,  p.g 2,  p. 3, p. 4

NOVEMBER p.2, p.3, p.4, p.5, p.6, p.7

DECEMBER p.2, p.3, p.4, p.5 p.6, p.7, p.8