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Carl Wernicke: Going With The Flow In Vietnam

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We recently traveled to Vietnam, and to say life is different there is an understatement. Even as you run into McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC along the way, as American culture continues its regrettable conquest of the world.

Not to mention the ubiquity of American elevator music in hotels. I mean, what’s up with that? You can say they are catering to Americans, but Vietnam draws tourists from across Southeast Asia, China and Australia. One night our guide took us deep into Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, to a nightclub he said served great coconut ice cream … and there was a pianist and a violinist playing American rock standards.

On the surface Vietnam feels very modern, with high-rises, good restaurants and crowded streets. The economy is growing faster than ours, although as a much less mature economy it has more room to grow. I lost count of all the high-rises going up. Yet construction workers handle steel and concrete in sandals, not steel-toed boots.

But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Vietnam to me is how its traffic flows. OK, call me weird, but I found it fascinating. That is, after I got over being terrified. And I wasn’t even driving; we were taken around the city in vans, giving me time to observe the maelstrom swirling around us.

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On our trip in from the airport I was convinced we would see multiple fatalities; I expected disaster at every intersection. There are ten motorbikes for every car, and try as I might I could not discern any organized traffic pattern other than the occasional stoplight. The Vietnam News reported that the city was implementing traffic cameras that read license plates and issue automatic citations, and people run up thousands of dollars in fines before they can be notified. To steal a line from Apocalypse Now, that’s like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.

At one point we were on a two-lane street slightly narrower than a typical Pensacola two-lane. But there were four and sometimes five streams of traffic, with cars in the middle and motorbikes jamming every other foot of asphalt, some going against the traffic flow. Horn blowing is symphonic, and bikes routinely bypass intersections on the sidewalk. That is, where the sidewalk isn’t blocked by parked bikes.

But after awhile, I realized I was watching an intricate ballet. Seemingly uncoordinated or regulated by any recognized system of traffic, everyone seems to know their part. Bikes give way to cars that yield to trucks and buses. Every vehicle aims toward a particular point as traffic merges, but no one looks at anyone else, and they all magically give or take the needed space, and the traffic flows. We seldom spent time stopped in traffic as it just kept moving.

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What really cemented my understanding was crossing the street on foot. With traffic passing unceasingly, by normal standards there is no opening. But our nephew, teaching English in Ho Chi Minh City and the reason for our visit, instructed us to  simply walk slowly , and let the traffic flow around us. We did, and it did. We of course kept an eye on the vehicles, but I watched Vietnamese, old and young, simply step off the sidewalk, never glancing right or left, and they made it every time.

So did we.

Prior to the trip, I found a copy of The Sympathizer, a great novel about the Vietnam War – or, as they call it, the American War – in one of those free libraries in East Hill. In it, the protagonist, in returning to Vietnam, said one thing he missed about America was its structured traffic system, which people actually obey.

As fascinating as I found the traffic in Vietnam, I get it.

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Carl Wernicke is a native of Pensacola. He graduated from the University of Florida in 1975 with a degree in journalism. After 33 years as a reporter and editor, he retired from the Pensacola News Journal in April 2012; he spent the last 15 years at the PNJ as editor of the editorial page. He joined the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in 2012 as Senior Writer and Communications Manager, and retired from IHMC in 2015.His hobbies include reading, traveling, gardening, hiking, enjoying nature around his home in Downtown Pensacola, as well as watching baseball and college football, especially the Florida Gators and New York Yankees. His wife, Patti, retired as a senior vice president at Gulf Winds Federal Credit Union and is a Master Gardener. Carl is a regular contributor to WUWF. His commentaries focus on life in and around the Pensacola area and range in subject matter from birding to downtown redevelopment and from preserving our natural heritage to life in local neighborhoods.