Monday, August 10, 2009

Zen and the Art of Hanoi Driving

Driving in Hanoi could test the patience of a Hindu saint. It isn't so much the anarchy - the absence of rational order is actually one of the things I LIKE about motoring through Hanoi's bike-choked streets. Nothing suits the human psyche more than chaos, in my opinion; too much conformity deadens the spirit. For me, the cacophany of the developing world is preferable to the saccharine sterility of suburban America - any day of the week.

Thinking about it abstractly, I see Hanoi traffic as a force of nature, as beyond human judgment as the monsoon. But this attitude disappears quickly once I'm in the midst of the swarm, experiencing the thousand micro-moments that loosen my cool. The driver who rides my ass while leaning on his horn, the kid who shoots in front of me without looking, the Mercedez who plows through motorbikes like a Swedish icebreaker cutting into Antarctica - it's an aggressive game these drivers play, and being a native New Yorker, my instinct is to fight back. By the time I get off my bike, I'm often angry and jittery and not at all pleased with myself for having been so easily baited.

Hanoi driving forces one to make a choice: develop the serenity to accept what one cannot change, or sally forth into battle. I have Western friends who do their best to "educate" the entire city. One person I know insists on chasing people who have affronted him and "holding them accountable" (I've never witnessed him doing this in person, but it sounds ominous). Another person I know eschews the squirty little horn on his bike in favor of a loud vocal "BEEP!" when people cut too close - and let me tell you, a wide-eyed white guy yelling at the top of his lungs in Hanoi traffic gets people to pay attention! I respect these one-man vigilantes and applaud their quixotic efforts, but for me, the only option is surrender.

A few weeks ago, after a particularly frustrating afternoon being cut off, run into, and honked at, I decided to employ driving as a Buddhist practice. I resolved to ride my bike through Hanoi's busiest streets for as long as it took for me to attain indifference. Every time my personal space was invaded, I observed the sensations that arose in my body: my shortness of breath, my tightened ribcage. I observed these things without judgment, and without trying to change them; they were real experiences, after all, and provided useful information about my state of mind. It took me nearly an hour, but the practice brought me back to earth. I was able to drive through the madness without partaking in it. I regained my cool.

Having attained this state, I wish I could say I've managed to sustain it, but like so many lessons we learn in life, the ability to apply what we know comes and goes. On some days I embrace the anarchy, on other days I fight it. But I've learned to see my reactions to Hanoi traffic as a useful barometer of my psychological condition. I usually know within moments of hitting the road if I am in emotionally fine-fettle, or driving with a chip on my shoulder. I've learned through experience that the decision to fight usually makes me miserable. This knowledge compels me to seek an inner solution, to make my peace with circumstance as best I can.

In a way, driving in Hanoi serves as a microcosm of the whole expatriate existence. Expatriate living forces you to take a good look at yourself, to clarify values, and to distinguish between wants and needs. Discomforts, frustrations and annoyances are a necessary part of the experience, providing one with the opportunity for transcendence. In this sense, Hanoi driving is a gift.


  1. If I have time, I'll translate some of your entries into Vietnamese. But I hope not :D

    "The driver who drives my ass..." :D
    It's so fun, Hal, thanks.

    I'm Khanh :D

  2. Hal: Have you adopted a Vietnamese name yet? I have experienced the range of emotions that you described in this post concerning driving in Vietnam. It is not just a Ha Noi condition. I have not always held back the temptation to confront the traffic offenders. I have vowed to do better and just let the situation pass only to fail again and again. It is my goal to never drive with a "chip on my shoulder" mentality. I really try hard not to be the "Ugly American" as described in the book by the same title published in 1958 by Eugene Burdick. That book should be required reading for all Americans traveling to another country. Keep up the good work on your blog. Many look forward to your insight. Doug Greene

  3. Muy gracias senor - thank you for your erudite summation of my own Hanoi driving experience. Perceptive foreigners will learn more about this country's culture in 30 minutes of driving than three hours of reading. Love the country, love the people, Brian - English teacher from New Zealand.